To learn, there are other places than school. The concepts of the knowledge society and lifelong learning demonstrate that it is possible to learn at any time, in any place and at any age. In the age of new technologies and the permanent exchange of information, learning opportunities are constantly increasing.

In this sense we distinguish between formal education, that which takes place during the period of compulsory schooling, informal education and non-formal education. The latter is characterized by the fact that it takes place according to an established process, but without validation, and by promoting exchange, initiative and equality among participants.

Non-formal education therefore offers the opportunity to get to know oneself better and to deepen one’s knowledge, skills and abilities throughout one’s life.

How is non-formal education defined? What is its place in our societies? Why and how should its recognition be developed? How do associations invest this field of non-formal education?

What is non-formal education?

When “school is over”, do we have to stop learning? No, of course not! Everyone’s personal time offers multiple opportunities to learn, and to increase their knowledge and skills. This is where non-formal education can come in.

Where are the differences between formal, non-formal and informal education? These three expressions designate particular modalities of education which, although distinct, are nonetheless complementary in that they all serve the same purpose: to enable people to acquire and deepen knowledge and know-how.

At a time when the idea of lifelong education is becoming widely accepted, it is useful to understand what distinguishes each of these approaches to education and to become aware of their complementarity in order to grasp all the learning opportunities they are likely to offer us.


What is called non-formal education differs from so-called formal education and so-called informal education.

Formal education refers to what is usually and most spontaneously referred to as education. It is the training that is given to us in an official and recognized framework. Formal education is therefore the education taken care of by the school system and all the components that make it up from kindergarten to higher education.

If most of us spontaneously establish a correspondence between education and so-called formal education, it would be too restrictive to limit the scope of the former to this particular modality, as there are so many opportunities to learn outside the school setting.

Between formal education and informal education is non-formal education. It is provided in a time defined as a period of training, on a voluntary basis, without giving rise to evaluations and the issuing of titles certifying the proper acquisition of what has been taught.


However, non-formal education is not only defined in negative terms. It is not simply what neither formal nor informal education is, but is distinguished by a whole set of features that are unique to it. These characteristics that give non-formal education its specificity are first and foremost due to the method of training and teaching employed in it.

Non-formal education thus offers a clearly designated time for training and learning, without this leading to a final validation in the form of an examination designed to evaluate what has been learned. This absence of final evaluation corresponds to the state of mind in which it is provided.

Indeed, based solely on the freedom of those who participate, it seeks to promote the spirit of initiative in the participant, who is placed on an equal footing with the learner. Autonomy, a spirit of initiative, democracy, exchange, these are the key words of non-formal education, which proposes, in an open format, to learn things through devices that allow for the active participation of all.

The Manual for the Practice of Human Rights Education with Young People lists the following characteristics to distinguish non-formal education:

  • It is voluntary;
  • accessible to all;
  • it is an organized process with an educational purpose;
  • it is participatory and learner-centered;
  • it is aimed at the acquisition of life skills and active citizenship;
  • It is based on both individual and group learning, within a broadly collective approach;
  • it is comprehensive and structured;
  • it is based on action and experience, based on the needs of the participants.


This approach to education, in which the participant takes an active part and is directly involved in the learning process, is not without consequences in terms of the nature of what is transmitted. Irrespective of the content of the training, the knowledge and skills it is supposed to provide, the method specific to non-formal education allows for both learning autonomy and participation.

Based on a voluntary approach, it places the learner in a situation of better self-knowledge, teaches him to analyze himself, to take stock of his aptitudes and skills, while getting him used to taking initiatives within a group and measuring their impact. It is this participatory approach that makes non-formal education a great school of citizenship.

Non-formal education therefore allows for the transmission of knowledge as well as know-how and interpersonal skills. Based on exchange and free initiative, with the leitmotif of “learning by learning”, non-formal education is a learning of oneself and of others, with multiple assets, which can be followed throughout one’s life and valued at different levels.

It enables the acquisition of skills and innovative actions, and in this sense, it is likely to accompany each citizen in his or her civic and professional development.

Daniel Aguirre