MET:Nonformal Education

From UBC Wiki

Edited by: Bernadette Blakey (2015)

Nonformal Education (NFE) is any organized educational activity that takes place outside the formal educational system. Usually it is flexible, learner-centered, contextualized and uses a participatory approach. There is no specific target group for NFE; it could be kids, youth or adults. There is a debate on the exact definition of NFE and what activities it includes and what it excludes. NFE is differentiated from Formal Education and Informal Education.

The NFE activities preceded the term coining in the late 1960s; the term just gave a label for already existing activities. If you think about how people used to learn before the formal school system appeared, you will be thinking about a form of NFE whether it's literacy program in a village, wise elderly men transferring their knowledge to younger generations or a farmer teaching his aides how to plant crops.

The term NFE is mostly associated with the Development field and used in the Development Discourse more extensively than the academic Educational Discourse especially by international developmental organizations such as UNESCO, Council of Europe and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). When the term first appeared it mainly focused on educational efforts in the developing countries, though most of the discussions took place in North America and to a lesser extent in Western Europe. These discussions continued throughout the 70s and 80s then disappeared around 1986 to reappear again in the 90s. This time with a better understanding of what it could achieve and what it can't, though with no agreement on the definition.

Nonformal Education Peace Corps. (2004) P 5 Retrieved from


According to Rogers (2005: 78) Coombs and Ahmed were the first to define NFE as "any organized educational activity outside the established formal system - whether operating separately or as an important feature of some broader activity - that is intended to serve identified learning clienteles and learning objectives".

There are several definitions for NFE that sometimes overlap or contradict with each other. These differences stem from the area of focus each thought to emphasize in the definition. Kriauciunas (2009) attributes the challenge of defining NFE to lack of academic work and the huge variety of forms and ways of nonformal education practice. Rogers (2005) classified different definitions into the following categories:

  • A system: a collection of organizations and programs different from the formal education system
  • A process: with different teaching-learning relationships than those in formal education, a less hierarchical format
  • A concept, a subject worthy of study and writing about
  • A practice, a professional activity undertaken by people separate from formal education professionals
  • A set of educational activities distinguished from formal education by having different goals or purposes or even separated from formal schooling by being socially purposeful, usually seen as a part of the radical social transformation movement

NFE fields and forms

NFE programs span across a wide range of fields, as highlighted in Sheffield (1972) and Rogers (2005):

Pre-vocational training , on-the-job training, cultural and political development, community development, agricultural extension, vocational/technical training, motivation and consciousness raising, trades-training centers, management training, moral or political re-education, literacy programs, and alternative schools. According to Taylor, Neill and Banz (2008), museum education is also a very common form of nonformal education.

File:Mobile literacy.jpg
Mobile Phone Adult Literacy Program

As Rogers (2005) explains NFE takes may forms from:

  • The small-scale individual or small group educational activities to large scale national programs
  • Highly contextualized to standardized programs
  • Adult to children's education
  • Temporary learning programs introductory to formal schooling to a permanent alternative to formal schooling
  • Literacy and basic education to post-initial, vocational and advanced continuing professional development
  • State programs to those offered by commercial agencies
  • Separate educational activities to practical exercises inside schools.

NFE in different regions

NFE definition was also affected by the region/ culture in which NFE programs are implemented: Africa, Asia, or Latin America. So what would be described as NFE in one place would not necessarily be described as NFE in another place. Bacquelaine and Raymaekers (1991) explains the focus and trends of each region:

  • Latin America: vocational training for modern industry organised by nongovernmental bodies and adult and adolescent literacy programs, frequently with consciousness-raising efforts.
  • Africa: agricultural production and family education (health, nutrition, etc...)
  • Asia: community development and are supported by national authorities.
File:Girls Project.jpg
Non-formal education programmes for girls in Dhrangadhra, Gujarat

NFE criteria

In spite of the different definitions, NFE programs have a number of criteria that are shared across most definitions:

  • Learner centered as learners play an active role in their learning and program is customized to their circumstances
  • Flexible curriculum that can be changed. Degree of flexibility would differ from one program to the other
  • Human relationships are more informal depending more on reciprocal learning
  • Focus on practical skills and knowledge
  • Target disadvantaged groups as youth, women, poor, and marginalized groups
  • Creative use of educational resources
  • Community participation
  • Decentralized and more flexible organization and management

Nonformal Education video

History and historical context


The term "Nonformal Education" appeared in 1968 when Philip Coombs included a chapter entitled Non-Formal Education: to catch up, keep up and get ahead in his seminal book The World Educational Crisis: a systems approach. Since then discussions and debates around the term and NFE activities started and continued through the 1970s and early 1980s and ended in 1986 to be revived again in the 90s. Though this time on a world-wide scale, in both 'Western' and 'developing' societies. Throughout the world, the NFE practice was increasing and widening in scope, often with donor support. It was mainly influenced with Lifelong_Learning discourse which reintegrated the whole field of education. It often uses nonformal learning not nonformal education, though the area of discussion is exactly the same. (Rogers, 2005)

Historical context

To understand the different definitions, we need to understand the historical context at which the term NFE appeared:

A sample comparison between Formal and Nonformal Education (Rogers 2005: 99)
  • Anger from formal education failures to adapt to the rapidly changing socio-economic conditions and calls for reform in western societies. Reform was seen either by changing it or totally abolishing schools
  • Disappointment in development work taking place in developing societies; believing that these efforts are increasing the gap instead of decreasing it especially with its urban and formal economic sector bias
  • Developing societies' desire to have an education of their own not influenced by the West
  • Other forms of education started to appear like Malcolm Knowles theory of Andragogy, Carls Rogers' Student-centered learning and David Kolb experiential learning
  • Socialist countries campaigns to achieve specific goals at a nation-wide scale

As a result of this context, NFE was being constructed as the opposite of formal education, everything that formal education was not. Most of the writers never defined formal education or schooling, but they described it always in very negative terms

The discussion and debate continued till 1986 then started to decline rapidly. During that period four approaches toward NFE appeared in the literature as highlighted by Rogers (2005):

Approach Definition
Advocacy Views NFE as a complementary or addition on to formal education including all educational and training programs outside of the system
Ideological Views NFE as a totally opposing stream recovering from the negatives of formal education
Empiricist Views NFE as an equivalent with, formal education and therefore amenable to the same tests and critique
Pragmatic Views NFE and Formal Education as ends of a continuum with many positions in between. An educational program is not either formal or nonformal; rather, it has elements of both

Differences between Nonformal Education, Informal Education and Formal Education

NFE is clearly defined against Formal Education. However sometimes the terms NFE and Informal Education are used interchangeably but this is not accurate. Both the Educational and Development discourse differentiate between the three even though they don't agree on NFE definition. The following table highlights the differences between the 3 terms and gives an example of each.

Type Definition Example
Formal Education The hierarchically structured, chronologically graded system, from primary school through the university and including, in addition to general academic studies, a variety of specialized programs and institutions for full-time technical and professional training A typical public high school classroom
Informal Education The lifelong process where people acquire attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience and the educative influences and resources in the environment Infants and young children learn to speak. They learn by listening and imitating. Their trial and error efforts are augmented by parents, siblings, and friends who encourage correct sounds and spontaneously correct errors.
Nonformal Education Any organised educational activity outside the established formal system - whether operating separately or as an important feature of some broader activity - that is intended to serve identifiable learning clienteles and learning objectives A course offering soft skills for youth or an empowerment program for women

These definitions do not imply hard and fast categories as there are overlapping areas. Informal Learning could happen in the setting of formal and nonformal education.

Nonformal Education and other terms

Nonformal Education is sometimes used in the context of other terms. Among these is nonformal learning, which is usually defined as learning that takes place in a nonformal education setting. Kriauciunas (2009)explains that Nonformal Education is used to refer to the context(who is offering it?), while Nonformal Learning refers to the process (what is happening?). However Rogers (2005) states that the term NFE was used when the debate began in the late 1960s but when the discussion came back in the 1990s mostly the term nonformal learning or lifelong learning is used.

Other terms that appeared also in the 60s to refer more or less to alternatives to Formal Education were: indigenous education, out-of-school education, shadow school system, educational alternatives, recurrent education, extension education, community education, popular education (particularly Latin America).

Nonformal Education design

Given the great variety in NFE context, form , participants, fiels, educators need to adjust their design based on these elements. A literacy course for out of school children would be different from a vocational training for youth and different from crops enhancement workshops for farmers. However there are some guiding principles that would help educators to design a successful NFE experience.

File:Experiential learning1.png
Experiential Learning Model
  • Democratic and nondirective styles (Etllng, 1993)
  • Focus on participants needs
  • Curriculum changed based on participants feedback
  • Questioning especially open-ended ones

Two of the main models adopted heavily in NFE programs are the experiential learning Model(Carlson & Maxa, 1998) and Knowles Adult Learning principles:

  1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
  2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
  3. Adults are goal oriented
  4. Adults are relevancy oriented
  5. Adults are practical
  6. Adult learners like to be respected

NFE and learning theories

NFE tends to draw heavily on both Constructivism and Socio-cultural approaches.

Constructivists view learners as active participants in the construction of their own knowledge. Knowledge is not a static entity that can be passed from one person to the others. Learners learn through their personal interactions. The teacher’s role is to design the appropriate learning environment and material that foster the construction of individual's learning.

Socio-cultural approach (founded by Vygotsky) values the social dimension of learning and the influence on learning of wider social, cultural and historical contexts. Learning is the result of interactions between people, tools, language, signs and symbols in a particular setting or context. Learning occurs both individually and collectively (whether that’s in a small group, class, team, organisation or online community) so that the collective knowledge is greater than and different from the sum of the knowledge of individuals.

Nonformal Education Criticism

  • Lack of a specific definition
  • Lack a clear conceptual framework
  • Major differences between what NFE claims to do and what it actually does
  • NFE programs have been implemented for more than 40 years with no major change on the ground; for example in terms of illiteracy or alleviating poverty
  • Limited academic contribution in the literature; rather most literature is written by development practitioners

NFE and Information & Communication Technology (ICT)

Major developments in ICT is increasing the potential of NFE for example through its ability to:

ASHA Project - India
  • Train and qualify practitioners online which will save costs and help practitioners reach remote usually isolated areas
  • Facilitate the process of networking among organizations
  • Conquer physical and spatial constraints, providing unprecedented educational opportunities to people of all socioeconomic levels around the globe

Examples of successful ICT NFE programs

Future of Nonformal Education

The Formal Education is changing in ways that are blurring the differences between Formal and Nonformal Education such as adopting constructivism and socio-cultural approaches, becoming more learner-centered, using participatory innovative approaches. Also with the technological advances that are affecting both Formal and Nonformal Education, there is a growing need to a new paradigm unifying the two fields for better development of both.

Rogers (2005) attempts to offer a new paradigm for classifying the educational practices according to the level of contextualization where the education context and practice depends on the level of learner’s participation. He offers to place any of the educational practice in a continuum. He places nonformal education practices under either:

  1. Flexible Schooling: where logistical issues such as timing, location are decided by the learning group, while the curriculum and teaching-learning materials, the length of the learning program, the form and timing of the evaluation process are all matters reserved to the providing agency;
  2. Participatory Education: where the issues of the control of the education goals, content, methodology and evaluation – are in control by the learning group and the educator or providing agency is “to accompany” the process with critical interventions.

See also


External links

UNESCO Document

Nonformal Education Organization

Cambodia's Nonformal Education Department