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Now available: Recognising Non-Formal and Informal Learning: Outcomes, Policies and Practices




People are constantly learning everywhere and at all times.  Not a single day goes by that does not lead to additional skills, knowledge and/or competences for all individuals. For people outside the initial education and training system, adults in particular, it is very likely that this learning, taking place at home, at the workplace or elsewhere, is a lot more important, relevant and significant than the kind of learning that occurs in formal settings.


However, learning that occurs outside the formal learning system is not well understood, made visible or, probably as a consequence, appropriately valued. Until this OECD activity on the recognition of non-formal and informal learning involving 23 countries on 5 continents, it has also been under-researched (see also ongoing EU work). Most research has focused on learning outcomes from formal education and training, instead of embracing all types of learning outcomes; allowing visibility and portability of such outcomes in the lifelong learning system, in the labour market or in the community.


In 1996, the OECD education ministers agreed to develop strategies for “lifelong learning for all”. The approach has been endorsed by ministers of labour, ministers of social affairs and the OECD Council at ministerial level. The concept of “from cradle to grave” includes formal, non-formal, and informal learning. It is an approach whose importance may now be clearer than ever and non-formal and informal learning outcomes are viewed as having significant value. Policy-makers in many OECD countries, and beyond, are therefore trying to develop strategies to use all the skills, knowledge and competences – wherever they come from – individuals may have at a time when countries are striving to reap the benefits of economic growth, global competitiveness and population development.

  • Formal learning is always organised and structured, and has learning objectives. From the learner’s standpoint, it is always intentional: i.e. the learner’s explicit objective is to gain knowledge, skills and/or competences. Typical examples are learning that takes place within the initial education and training system or workplace training arranged by the employer. One can also speak about formal education and/or training or, more accurately speaking, education and/or training in a formal setting. This definition is rather consensual.
  • Informal learning is never organised, has no set objective in terms of learning outcomes and is never intentional from the learner’s standpoint. Often it is referred to as learning by experience or just as experience. The idea is that the simple fact of existing constantly exposes the individual to learning situations, at work, at home or during leisure time for instance. This definition, with a few exceptions (see Werquin, 2007) also meets with a fair degree of consensus.
  • Mid-way between the first two, non-formal learning is the concept on which there is the least consensus, which is not to say that there is consensus on the other two, simply that the wide variety of approaches in this case makes consensus even more difficult. Nevertheless, for the majority of authors, it seems clear that non-formal learning is rather organised and can have learning objectives. The advantage of the intermediate concept lies in the fact that such learning may occur at the initiative of the individual but also happens as a by-product of more organised activities, whether or not the activities themselves have learning objectives. In some countries, the entire sector of adult learning falls under non-formal learning; in others, most adult learning is formal. Non-formal learning therefore gives some flexibility between formal and informal learning, which must be strictly defined to be operational, by being mutually exclusive, and avoid overlap.


Because non-formal and informal learning is happening everywhere all the time, this OECD activity could not address all the issues related to non-formal and informal learning in general. In consultation with the participating countries, it was agreed to focus solely on the processes that make visible this learning that has not been formal. Therefore, this OECD activity focuses on the process of formal recognition of non-formal and informal learning. Whether through the awarding of a full certification, a partial certification, a right of access to the higher education system or to any programme in the formal lifelong learning system or any recognised document (portfolio of competences, competence passport…): this activity makes the case that individuals engaging in a recognition process for their non-formal and informal learning outcomes must be awarded a document that has social value and is widely recognised so that they can benefit from it, now or later in life, when returning to the formal lifelong learning system or to the labour market.


The assumption behind the work reported here is that all learning has value and most of it deserves to be made visible and recognised. It is a clear possible option, and a plausible alternative to formal education and training, to have non-formal and informal learning assessed. The real question is under which condition(s) the learning that has not been recognised can be codified, and lead to the awarding of a document. There are issues of cost and motivation of individuals that are somewhat difficult to address.


Nevertheless, many countries are putting recognition of non-formal and informal learning at the top of their policy agenda and the time has come for a thorough evaluation of what it entails. This is what this OECD activity attempts to do, in collaboration with the 23 countries, using the existing literature, the scarce data in the field and fact-finding study  implicit in the  thematic review visits carried out in 16 countries.


The recognition of non-formal and informal learning is an important means for making the ‘lifelong learning for all’ agenda a reality for all and, subsequently, for reshaping learning to better match the needs of the 21st century knowledge economies and open societies.












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