Education falls broadly under three categories: informal, non-formal, and formal. While formal education refers to standardized, classroom style learning and informal education refers to the life and human skills all people learn throughout childhood and adulthood, non-formal education is a term which describes any education process that has learning objectives and goals but is not part of the formal learning process. Non-formal education (NFE) has been part of education discourse since the 1960s. As countries across the world work to make formal education available to more people, alternatives to formal education have also been developed as well. NFE is particularly desirable in developing countries, often because formal education has not consistently produced its intended results, and, in some instances, created problems for citizens and economies. NFE programs offer educational models that can help overcome some of the problems that formal education creates. It can be both an alternative and helpful complement to formal education programs.
Keywords Informal Economy; Informal Education; Formal Education; Non-Formal Education; Non-Government Organizations; Primary Education; Tertiary Education; Western Education Models
Non-formal education (NFE) is a broad category for any organized learning process with discernible learning objectives that falls outside of the standardized, formalized, and usually Westernized education systems of a region or area. This is not to confuse NFE with informal education, which is the natural learning process that occurs within the family and the culture as opposed to inside a classroom. Informal education, rather, focuses primarily on the practical lifestyle skills and cultural knowledge that children and adults receive by virtue of interacting within their culture (Smith, 1996). NFE is a more deliberate process aimed at not just instilling life skills, but also helping people become educated, literate, and globally aware.
Education for All
Rogers (2004) pointed to two key areas of change which were influential in bringing about the idea of NFE, which began to emerge during the 1960s. First, over the past several decades, there has been a worldwide focus on educating as many people as possible. Although, historically, formal education was limited to a select category of people (primarily boys from wealthy families), recently education has begun to be conceived not as a privilege for the elite, but rather as something which all people have the right to access. One of the biggest forces in changing the concept of education has been the United Nations, which, through the efforts of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is working to implement its Education for All (EFA) vision to bring access to a primary education to all people of the world by 2015. This worldwide interest in education has naturally turned nations' attention to increasing access to good quality education. In both instances, viable alternatives to formal education have often been sought to ensure both the quantity and quality of education.
The second change which brought about interest in NFE was a worldwide focus on how education could benefit developing countries in particular. Education provides ways not only for citizens to better their lives but for nations as a whole to achieve development goals and make important improvements. Both these changes in viewpoints helped birth the concept of NFE (Rogers, 2004).
Formal vs. Non-Formal Education
Other factors that helped turn researchers' attention to formal education alternatives were problems with the formal education system itself. The formal education models that were most liberally spread throughout the world were primarily Western-style. Western-style education models tend to enact the free, compulsory education of young people by removing them from their surrounding community and placing them within a government-monitored environment. Curriculum seeks to build citizens who can serve their nation and culture, and is therefore standardized and carefully monitored. Western education also emphasizes creative problem-solving and free thinking, and those who undergo Western-style education often have excellent creative thinking skills. These characteristics have helped make Western style models of education quite attractive and popular (Spring, 2004).
However, despite the benefits Western-style education models offer, many nations became concerned about the effect these models were having on different cultures and countries. Van Riezen (1996) described the attitude of the 1960s as one that believed Western culture needed to show the rest of the world how it was to arrange itself and its thinking patterns. Consequently, Western-style models of education were pushed as being the best way to improve nations and reduce economic problems. However, Western models of education did not automatically cause economic success, and many countries argued that the focus on Western-education style only gave the West too much power and dominion. Western aid groups working in developing countries often served to drive wedges between cultures and people groups, and the focus on formal education often overlooked the needs of cultures and people groups that the education system was supposed to serve (Rogers, 2004, p. 38).
One of the problems inherent to formal models of education is that the mass education of citizens as emphasized by the EFA agenda forces school systems to cope with a number of students who have different learning styles, needs, and abilities and disabilities. Schools in impoverished, rural areas often have scant educational resources, particularly teachers. A school system may struggle just to provide quality formal education to those students who are reasonably well-prepared, motivated, and free from hindrances; it may be unable to adequately instruct students who are poorly prepared, suffer from learning or physical disabilities, or face setbacks to their education such as needing to work to support their families.
Even for students who do succeed in a formal educational environment, the benefits they receive from this schooling are sometimes questionable. Although many governments have looked to education as a means to bolster sagging economies, many researchers have argued that merely increasing the level of citizens' education will not automatically result in economic improvements. The job prospects for educated people in many countries, particularly African, continue to be low. Many parents are finding themselves in the position of having to pay higher educational costs for their children in exchange for increasingly lower chances that their children will find higher-level employment. Sadly, in some areas of the world, this is working to foster the sense that education is pointless.
A final troubling point with formal education is that it is typically aimed at children and youth. However, EFA and the global concern with education are focused on seeing all people, children and adults, receive at least a primary education. UNESCO (2003) stated that in 2000, 20% of all people over the age of 15 were illiterate and predicted that there will be 800 million illiterate adults by 2015. Additionally La Belle (1986) pointed out that life expectancy, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, has increased, and, therefore, many regions are faced with the problem of adults who are not able to support themselves throughout their increasingly longer lives (p. 20).
While formal education does extend to tertiary levels, it must be emphasized that adult education is often separate from formal education. Most adult learners have responsibilities such as working and parenting that often prevent them from seeking formalized education. Other methods of education are needed that suit adult learners' needs. In short, there is a crucial need worldwide for adult education, but the nature of formal education does not normally extend to adults. As nations around the world seek to fulfill EFA, the plight of millions of uneducated adults must be attended to as well as that of the young.
In light of the problems with formal education, NFE is often upheld as an alternative or supplement to formal education. NFE is usually more flexible and innovative in its approach to education, and therefore able to better serve the needs of disadvantaged students. It allows individuals to take more control and ownership of their education (UNESCO, 2006), and often is better able to help individuals connect learning with life and previous knowledge. Since NFE has its roots largely in humanitarian activities (La Belle, 2000), it is a powerful force towards effecting significant improvement in areas of the world.
NFE has been an important topic in education discourse for the past several decades. At it gains momentum, it is likely to continue to be a strong force in helping people improve their lives through education.
Hoppers (2000) divided NFE into three categories: supplementary (programs to augment formal education), compensatory (programs to help young people who have problem accessing or performing well in formal education), and alternative (separate learning systems that exist as an alternative to formal schooling). NFE can be a helpful way for students to maximize their success rates in formal education, for example by helping students make up for a less than ideal preparatory background or assisting students with learning disabilities. Additionally, NFE can take the place of formalized schooling and give students an alternative learning environment that is more tailored to their specific needs. Since NFE programs are typically supported by non-government organizations or private...
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