Non-formal education

You may probably wonder why the subject of our interest and also a key instrument by which we want to contribute to improving the situation of young people at risk of social exclusion has become a non-formal education. In our opinion, its flexibility, ongoing development, openness to new methods and tools is the best response to today's educational challenges. Economic, technological and civilizational progress requires continuous adaptation to changes taking place in all areas of life. Following these transformations, functioning in a world without ready ways of action, solutions, authorities requires continuous acquisition of new skills. Until recently, knowledge and skills gained at school have been sufficient to find a job and maintain it for the most of lifetime. Recent surveys of labour market indicates that nowadays formal education is not keeping up with the described above changes and do not prepare young people to fulfill labor market requirements. For employers more important than the diploma are actual skills of young employees. Moreover the increasing number of „Early School Leavers” is observed across Europe. In our opinion, non-formal education can be an alternative for those who, for various reasons, have left the formal education system, and also for those who, despite participating in it did not gain the skills relevant to the labor market requirements.

We intend to draw from non - formal education strengths and create innovative tools for social integration. We want to bring its value to those who intend to not only educate but above all inspire young people.

Non-formal education - for some well known and widespread idea, for other concept that is not clear and even confusing. The former are practitioners, educators, trainers, youth workers whose work for years have been based on the principle of "reflective learning through practice with practice and for practice”. Non-formal education methods are well known and widespread in non governmental organisations. NGOs activity is based on voluntarism and spontaneity. Furthermore their actions are not constrained by rigid curricula, outdated law regulations or institutional barriers. Implementation of experimental techniques and searching for new unconventional solutions it is easier and even natural in this sector. In contrast, in public institutions the "horizon" of potential innovation is significantly narrowed. As a result, many of the representatives of the staff working with young people based only on standard methods included in the official - school curricula.

We are not aiming at questioning the educational successes of any of above mentioned groups. We do not intend to act as critics of any methods used in their everyday work with young people. "Integration through Inspirations" aimed to be only an attempt to adapt non - formal education methods to the new ground. We would like to promote tools that allow young people to explore their talents, passions as well as skills essential in an adult life, methods that are based on a voluntary and aware participation of their recipients.

Which group do you belong to

Polish version of ERASMUS+ (source) define non - formal learning as:

"Learning that takes place through the planned actions (in terms of objectives and the time dedicated to learning), in which some form of support is present, but that is not part of the formal education or training system."

Wider definition of the analyzed term used in ERASMUS+ (source) and its forerunner the "Youth in Action Program" presented among others in the Program Guide (2013) (source) allows to the identification of its followings basis:

    Non-formal education means:
  • LEARNING THROUGH PRACTICE AND EXPERIENCE in accordance with the principle: "Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand":
  • based on different from the traditional one teacher - student relation. The first one plays the role of facilitator/mentor/trainer/coach, who instead of passing "truth", knowledge included in textbooks - supports voluntary participation in the educational process of the student who becomes his partner
  • that allows to run courses/classes/trainings/activities not only professionals but also youth leaders
  • based on the voluntary participation of learners
  • carried out in a planned and organised way
  • takes place: outside the school/university or other formally organized training course; in the spare time; under variety of contexts and variable social environment
  • relaying on involvement, creativity and self-expression of the participants
  • enabling and aiming at outcomes in the form of self-development, self-fulfillment of the recipients
  • based on the student's responsibility for their learning process
  • corresponding with and address the needs of participants
  • understood as a multistage process
  • based on the multidimensional nature of learning outcomes, results not only in intellectual development but also emotional, social, physical and spiritual
  • using interactive methods of learning

The key to define an essence of non-formal learning properly and consequently use its assets in everyday practice effectively is making a distinction between three types of education. Such a distinction was made among the others in:

"A GLOSSARY OF KEY TERMS RELATED TO THE NATIONAL QUALIFICATIONS SYSTEM" Dr. Stanisław Sławiński (editor); Educational Research Institute, Warsaw 2014 (

Formal education - Learning through participation in education and training programmes leading to the attainment of a registered qualification.

In other words, it is an institutionalized system of education takes place in organised, structured framework. The system, includes pre-school, school, university education as well as vocational training courses. Participation in it, in contrast to participation in the forms of non-formal education is largely obligatory (at the initial stage) and leads to the attainment of certificates, diplomas, confirming official qualifications. Important in the context of our discussion differentiator of institutionalized education system is the existence of student - teacher hierarchy. The first acts as a passive recipient of knowledge passed by an expert.

Informal learning - the attainment of knowledge, skills and social competence through a wide range of activities occurring outside of organised forms of learning.

The term of informal learning can be successfully replaced by words "learning by doing". Throughout life by participating in various activities, social groups, growing in a particular culture and environment, gaining a variety of skills, we are shaping our own attitudes and values. Informal learning is not institutionalized, it is generally carried out incidentally.

Non - formal education - Institutionally organised learning beyond educational and training programmes which does not lead directly to the attainment of a registered qualification.

With the first specified type of education non-formal learning is linked by institutionalization. On the other hand participation in learning process does not lead to formal qualifications. From the formal education described type distinguishes voluntary and from informal intentionality - awareness of the purpose of learning. Finally, non-formal education is not based on a student - teacher hierarchy but rely on partnership, cooperation and joint participation of both partners in the educational process. Non-formal education can therefore be regarded as a "third way" that permeates, combines and complements two above-mentioned types of learning.

The differences between the three types of educati on


Formal education (intentional)

Non - formal education


Informal education











Mainly obligatory;

voluntary in further phases



Leader, teacher, trainer


Indirective, moderator, facilitator,


Teacher - student relation




Learning outcomes

Knowledge, information rarely practical skills

Competences, practical skills

Competences, practical skills, attitudes, value system…


Punished - classification

Acceptable; learning through mistakes, recognising weaknesses and willingness to work on them are appreciated

We learn through mistakes

Responsibility for results


Participant, group, educator


Group - age


Inter - generational

Inter - generational

Group - role

Has influence, but it is not crucial

Crucial, essential

If exists plays role

Group - interaction





Standardized methods, eg. lecture, lesson, training

Innovative methods, based on experience and participation, responding to the individual needs of the participants eg. Workshops, project method, events, experimental methods, couching, voluntary work


sources: „NFE, Book The Impact of Non Formal Education on young people and society”; Monika Novosadova, and others; AEGEE, Belgium;; own reflections

Before we start - return to the philosophy

The unquestionable asset of non - formal education is emphasising crucial role of methods used in the learning process as well as indication of their potential impact on and educational outcome. The way that we learn decide whether learning process will be successful or fruitless. Following repeatedly invoked in this site principle: "Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand” - non-formal education applied dynamic, interactive methods that involves participants. This approach allows to achieve additional benefits of the educational process. In addition to work on learning of a particular aspects, issues non - formal education is concentrate on development of so-called key competences as well as attitudes, values, character traits of learners. Strengths, and also key principles of presented approach are: flexibility, openness modifications, changes, innovations. We do not find completed and standardized catalogue of methods, techniques, tools used by educators, experts, of on-formal education. Their methods of work are constantly transformed, complemented and often created from scratch, so as to address the needs of individual and group participants of the educational process. This „specific unlimitence” of methods opens great number of possibilities for facilitators, coaches, moderators, etc. but at the same time it requires creative and unconventional approach. Eventually it builds a space for personal development and self-realization. To achieve success in educational work, the choice of methods and tools must be preceded by observation of our recipients, diagnosis of their needs, problems and joint formulation of objectives of the learning process.

What works? - A brief subjective overview of methods

  • The project method - assumes the responsibility of young people for the implementation of cultural, educational, civic etc. projects. Their catalogue is unlimited. The project idea should be an initiative of young people, which is derived from their needs, interests, passions. Project method is based on teamwork. Each member of the team is responsible for the chosen actions, which lead to achievement of the planned results. Full participation of young people begins at the planning stage - definition of its objectives and ends with its evaluation which is made by participants - implementers. Within the project actual skills and competences of young people are used and developed. In the same time described method aimed at improving and complementing competencies of youth that are necessary to achieve planned results.
  • Workshops - group training method, in which participants learn through cooperative problem solving, finding new solutions, performing practical tasks. Trainer takes a role of facilitator, who skillfully controls the course, remaining open to suggestions, proposals, ideas of its participants.
  • Educational and simulation games - ones of the most popular methods of non-formal education. Their core is getting the benefits from fun and competition. Participants compete with each other by following previously established rules of game. Active participation in the game is means positive stimulation, interaction, creative communication and cooperation between players as well as building common strategy. It combines with the development of broadly defined social skills. A more advanced form of didactic games are simulations. The storyline here is more extensive and is designed to simulate a particular social situations.
  • Discussions - various forms of discussion - other very common method that involves participants in the educational process. Instead of being passive recipients their become active discussants. The need to seek arguments and convince the other participants to them, shapes the skills of creativity in the field of thinking and solving problems. Discussions could take different forms, eg. Oxford debate, seminars, judgment on the problem, metaplans etc.

Dissemination of methods and tools of non-formal education would not be possible without the „Youth in Action Programme”, which last year was replaced by the ERASMUS+ - The funds available within the program allows to finance projects aimed at the youth, primarily based on the project method.

  • Youth initiatives - projects implemented upon the initiative of young people (mostly informal youth groups) aimed at members of the local community, drawing attention to social problems, promotion certain attitudes and values, involving the youth in making key decisions.
  • International Youth Exchanges - which widened the scope of the benefits of the educational process of the intercultural aspect of projects implemented by youth and for youth. Involvement of young people from two or more countries, in addition to skills and competences developed during the implementation of project activities results in shaping cultural awareness, tolerance and mutual understanding. This is possible thanks to the organization by the young people meetings, workshops, seminars, happenings dedicated to breaking down stereotypes, but most of all it is the added value of same chance of meeting cooperation, exchange of experiences with their peers.
  • Volunteering - one of the most effective methods of non-formal education is encouraging them to work for others. Volunteers choose their own area of activity/work that is direct consequence of their own interests, passions and skills. They decide whether they want to work with children, youth, elderly, or otherwise contribute to changes in the surrounding reality. Starting volunteer work is preceded by a preparatory phase, which involves the study of the rights and responsibilities of the volunteers, the specific nature of organizations and groups to whom the work will be addreesed. Through volunteering young people learn what being responsible really means. Furthermore they are gaining competencies skills and professional experience useful at the labor market, but above all become „real” participant of civil society. The "Youth in Action Programme" has opened up new opportunities for young volunteers. Implemented within its framework European Volunteering similarly to international youth exchanges, created the opportunities for experience of diversity and multiculturalism.

Sources: own experience; (Non) formal educational guide; P. Korczak, K. Stanos (ed.); Association for Education through the Internet in 2013;
„The learning outcomes in the Youth in Action program”; Ch. Szwałek (ed.); FRSE; Warsaw 201;
„For a Better tomorrow. Handbook of informal and non - formal learning” Semper Avanti Association, Wrocław 2013.

Take part - search for inspirations, inspire our community

Above mentioned characteristics of non - formal education promoted in our project - openness to changes innovations, responding to the real problems and needs of the recipients lead to constant expanding of catalogue of methods created by experts, youth educators, and young people themselves. List of the methods described above is not exhaustive. Their selection is a consequence of individual experience of the author of this article. This brief overview supposed to be only an invitation, inspiration for you. Hopefully it will encourage you to self-exploration, according to the principle"... involve me and I will understand". Soon we will complement the list of methods by good practices applied by the experts of our organization (We will publish in the „materials” bookmark). We also intend to successively publish articles on specific assumptions of new methods and tools and the potential opportunities to use them in work with young people at risk of social exclusion

More inspirations you will find in the literature or on the websites.

We also hope that we will convince you to inspire our community, publish own reflections drawn from the experience of non-formal education, so that we could complement our catalogue in the community materials.

Take part in training

Follow the work of colleagues from Spain and Germany

See more