Formal, Informal and Non-Formal Education

Breve scritto sulla differenza tra educazione formale, informale e non formale (articolo in inglese).

The definition of the word “education” has been a subject of debate since long time. In the past, many used this word with the meaning given to it by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, meaning “the action exerted on children by parents and teachers.” [1] Among the numerous definitions that exist today, we can start from the rather general one proposed by Richard Martin, according to which this word designates “the process of social integration and cultural transmission through which, in concrete historical, environmental and family situations, the human personality is structured,” [2] or, more particularly in the field of pedagogy, “the set of individual or collective initiatives that have the tendency to systematically direct this process towards set objectives, through historically determined methods.” [3]

To further investigate these two definitions, a distinction must be made between formal and informal education. This difference is necessary to the extent that we consider that education takes place at any time in human life, since “all the activities in which an individual participates are educative.” [4] According to Max Engelhart, informal education is distinguished by the fact that the activities carried out have a spontaneous character, and are not planned with an explicitly educational purpose. In this case, the educational aspect can be considered as a side effect of the activity carried out: it is the only type of education that existed at the origins among men, and that which had a primordial role during the majority of the history of the humanity [5]. On the other hand, formal education is characterized by carrying out activities that have the specific purpose of transmitting knowledge and skills that will have a future utility for those who acquire them [6]. This type of education has developed in different forms around the world and according to historical periods. In particular, formal education has become increasingly important with the institutionalization of schools, the development of public education and the emergence of educational sciences, such as pedagogy, which have as their aim to create theoretical models of education and then apply them concretely. Engelhart’s vision, although valid, perhaps links too much the distinction between formal and informal education with the existence of educational institutions. Among other things, it must be considered that it is often difficult to make a clear division between the formal and the informal sector within an exclusively familiar education, as one should be in measure to know the intention that moves the organization of the activities to insert each of them within one or the other category. In any case, formal education can exist even in the absence of schools or other official teaching institutions.

Since some pedagogues, such as Elliot Medrich [7], realized that education, in particular the education of children, does not take place only in schools, and that informal education is continuous, they have also raised the problem of how to make these two types of education coexist [8]. In fact, informal education can complete and integrate formal education, but these can also be in conflict with each other, according to the experiences that each individual lives during his or her existence [9], because what is taught, for example, in schools, does not always correspond with the informal teachings that come from everyday experience. This awareness led, especially during the 1960s, to the emergence of the concept of “non-formal” education. Developed during the 70s and 80s, non-formal education provoked a debate on its exact definition, as this formula is now used for numerous activities, very different and addressed to both adults and children [10]. We can consider this third type of education as a hybrid between the two previously mentioned: on the one hand, these are activities carried out with an explicitly educational purpose, as in the case of formal education; on the other hand, the methods used can be compared to daily activities which are a source of informal education (e.g. games).

Per approfondire, si consiglia la lettura del libro Educazione e socializzazione dei bambini in Vietnam.


[1] DURKHEIM, E. (1922), Éducation et Sociologie, Parigi: F. Alcan, cit. in VAN HAECHT, A. (2006), L’école à l’épreuve de la sociologie. La sociologie de l’éducation et ses évolutions, Bruxelles: De Boeck. “L’action exercée sur les enfants par les parents et les maîtres.”

[2] MARTIN, R. (2004), “Educazione”, in Le Garzantine – Filosofia, Milano: Garzanti. “Il processo di integrazione sociale e di trasmissione culturale attraverso il quale, in delle situazioni storiche, ambientali e familiari concrete, la personalità umana si struttura.

[3] Ibid. “L’insieme delle iniziative individuali o collettive che hanno la tendenza ad orientare questo processo in maniera sistematica verso obiettivi prefissati, attraverso dei metodi storicamente determinati.”

[4] ENGELHART, M. D. (1930), “Formal versus Informal Education”, The Phi Delta Kappan, 12(6): 174-178. “All the activities in which an individual participates are educative”, p. 174.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] MCKINLEY BRENNAN, P. (2008), The Vocation of the Child, Cambridge: Eerdmans.

[8] In the United States, for example, the problem was also raised by national institutions such as the National Research Council in the “National Science Education Standards” in 1996.

[9] ESHACH, H. (2007), “Bridging In-school and Out-of-school Learning: Formal, Non-Formal, and Informal Education”, Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(2): 171-190.

[10] ROGERS, A. (2005), Non-Formal Eucation. Flexible schooling or participatory education?, New York: Kluwer Academic.


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About Giulio Chinappi

Giulio Chinappi è nato a Gaeta il 22 luglio 1989. Dopo aver conseguito la maturità classica, si è laureato presso la facoltà di Scienze Politiche dell’Università “La Sapienza” di Roma, nell’indirizzo di Scienze dello Sviluppo e della Cooperazione Internazionale, e successivamente in Scienze della Popolazione e dello Sviluppo presso l’Université Libre de Bruxelles. Ha poi conseguito il diploma di insegnante TEFL presso la University of Toronto. Ha svolto numerose attività con diverse ONG in Europa e nel Mondo, occupandosi soprattutto di minori. Ha pubblicato numerosi articoli su diverse testate del web. Nel 2018 ha pubblicato il suo primo libro, “Educazione e socializzazione dei bambini in Vietnam”, Paese nel quale risiede tuttora.


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