When formal education turns non-formal: How big is the hole in the wall?

Hole in the Wall Project in India

Hole in the Wall Project in India – photo by Philippe Tarbouriech


During a vision workshop held in Seville a couple of weeks ago, we had a chance to reflect upon the future of schools at the horizon 2030. Among the many topics that were addressed, two retained my attention: the degree of learner autonomy and the role of informal / non-formal education in the overall learning process. For the sake of reflection, we were asked to think creatively about the learner’s behaviour in a fully autonomous situation and in a totally informal/non-formal educative environment.

This exercise raised several questions:

First, what does autonomous learning mean? The learner in a situation of full autonomy has to decide the learning path he or she will follow. The individualisation of learning in this context means being able to decide what, where, when and how I will learn. In this open learning environment, we could see infinite learning paths creatively designed by the learner him or herself and no longer dictated by a core curriculum. The ‘teacher-bricoleur’ I referred to in my last post will give way to a ‘learner-bricoleur’ who assembles bits and pieces of knowledge, exploring the surrounding environment and beyond in order to identify learning opportunities, making contact with peers, choosing relevant mentors…

The ‘learner-bricoleur’ will approach the learning process in a playful way and apply creative skills that today are confined to virtual gaming. The ‘learner-bricoleur’ will use a toolbox very much like a simple paint programme that could work in real life to express, transform, colour or erase thoughts, ideas…

Serge Ravet will present an inspiring story in July to the London ePortfolio and Identity conference, based on the adventures of a young learner in 2040 and the consequences of the structuring of the information network and social space.

Let’s take the creative exercise one step further and explore the meaning of an informal / non-formal educative environment. Until now, our glossary was more or less established. Non-formal education was seen as an alternative form of education for adults and children that occurs outside of the traditional classroom environment. It could be seen as a new channel for those who have missed out on the opportunity of formal schooling or as a complementary one connecting young people with other learning experiences based on community services, play…

We must note that the difference between informal and non-formal education was never clearly drawn. Informal education was usually left for a learning situation that occurs randomly with families or peers, while non-formal education was still viewed as a structured process. Both cases were mostly seen as “second-best” solutions while the formal education system retained most of the attention and resources.

What occurred to me more clearly in Seville is that we were no longer sure of the distinctions to be made between formal, non-formal and informal education, as if the frontiers were progressively blurring and due to disappear.

Let’s think for a moment of the promises of an “open education”, i.e. freedom to choose what, when, where and how we learn. Now place in perspective the various strategic plans designed by national educative authorities all over Europe and beyond to organise an ‘open education system’. It seems as if we are trying to build a dyke to stop a tsunami that will turn our schools and universities upside-down anyway.

Open education could mark the triumph of “non-formal education”, i.e. a way to not only overcome the limits of formal schooling but to put the emphasis on community-based learning instead of a curriculum-based approach.

Learners in this new context – starting with children and young people – will be in command of their learning process and look for support in the community. This participatory scheme can only succeed if it is accompanied by a power shift, i.e. national authorities giving up their right to decide for learners what is good for them to learn and how they should learn it.

A community-based learning process will combine individual expectations, desires and skills with collective values of responsibility and solidarity. Learners will use multiple learning spaces in a participatory way, just like the MOOCs described so well by Tharindu Rekha Liyanagunawardena, Shirley Williams and Andrew Adams from the University of Reading in the latest issue of the eLearningpapers, dedicated to The Impact and Reach of MOOCs from a Developing Countries’ Perspective.

We will no longer be speaking, like Sugata Mitra, of opening a “hole in the wall” but of “tearing down the wall” that traditionally separates formal education from non-formal education, the school from the rest of the community.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Subscribe now

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers