Without wings of learning, one remains a prisoner of the ground
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Non-formal learning refers to learning that is organised outside formal institutions, is intentional, is based on the motivation of the learners and does not lead to certification. This form of learning is familiar to us all, but it has been gaining momentum as of late. Tomi Kiilakoski of Tampere University, Finland, explains why.
”I am learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings,” sang American song writer Tom Petty. He may have had more existential things in mind, but I have long felt the song is about learning. Learning is a process which enables us to be confronted with unknown situations. Like flying, it enables us to reach new terrains.
Common sense tells us that learning happens in many situations. Many thinkers claim that we should get rid of a picture of learning as a controlled and institutionalised activity. This picture may be referred to as learning as acquisition or the learning process as transmission. This conception of learning misses the fact that we have learnt a lot outside formal education and will continue to learn as long as we exist.
The importance of non-formal learning has increased in European and national policies – for good reason, too. Several current megatrends mean that our world has become harder to predict. These include digitalisation and technology, which reshape our world at an increasing rate; the growing importance of social media as providers of both poetry and propaganda, of knowledge and utter rubbish; the changing requirements of labour markets and numerous new wicked problems such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the environmental crisis. What all of these different phenomena share is the fact that they make the world a bit more uncertain. To manage, we must turn to continuous learning. We still need formal learning, but we have to combine it with non-formal learning.
Acknowledging non-formal learning may take three different forms. Firstly, it can mean that the methodologies of formal learning change. Instead of being top-down and hierarchical, they transform to being learner-centred and dialogical. Examples of these are work-based learning, adventure education or gamification.
Recognising and validating the outcomes of non-formal learning is another form of acknowledgment, and has been a matter of debate and development. In this process, the official status of learning that has taken place outside formal institutions rises, and its value to society increases.
Thirdly, non-formal learning may grow in importance through increased professional co-operation. In my home country, Finland, this is exemplified by the rapidly increasing school-based youth work. The learning process in youth work tends to be open-ended: the emphasis is on the process itself compared to learning outcomes or pre-set goals, and the impact of peer relations is important. This combination of formal and non-formal learning is a way to make schools richer learning environments than before.
But why should one care about non-formal learning? Because if we do not acknowledge it, we will not succeed in respecting the knowledge and competences different individuals hold. If we fail to understand the impact of different learning environments, we waste resources as societies. If we privilege institutionalised learning, we create social barriers between different human beings.
In modern societies, we need to be able to constantly manage new situations. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is this. We need to learn, but we do not always have wings: we may lack motivation, resources, courage, pedagogical support, respect or recognition of what we already know. By recognising and understanding non-formal learning better, we may make sure that more people are able to fly.
Tomi Kiilakoski, PhD, is a leading Senior Researcher in the Finnish Youth Research Network and Adjunct Professor at Tampere University. His areas of expertise include youth work, youth participation, educational policy, and cultural philosophy. He actively engages in promoting participation in and development of youth work and educational policy.