Filling in the Gaps – Finding a Framework for Informal Learning

Visitors taking a closer look at Granada Science Park's exhibitions

Finding an agreement over what defines a non-formal or informal learning setting is challenging. For SySTEM 2020 and for future research within this domain of research, clarity on these terms needs to be grasped. Science Gallery Dublin (SGB) however, has provided a starting point with the release of a systematic literature review on these terms attempting to find some consensus, filling in the gaps where possible.

By combing through multiple definitions, SGD proposed moving forward with The National Centre for Vocational Education Research of Australia definitions. These definitions were not only viewed as fitting best with SySTEM 2020’s approach but viewed as also striving towards criteria of inclusivity for topics, ages, activities and levels of ability. The definitions are as follows:

Formal Learning - Learning that takes place through a structured program of instruction which is generally recognised by the attainment of a formal qualification or award.

Informal Learning - Learning resulting from daily activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not organised or structured (in terms of objectives, time or learning support). Informal learning in most cases is unintentional from the learner's perspective. It typically does not lead to certification.

Non-formal - Any organised and sustained educational activity that does not correspond exactly to the definition of formal education. Non-formal education may, therefore, take place both within and outside educational institutions, and cater to persons of all ages.

However, although these definitions are wide in including a range of different contexts, the differences between informal and non-formal are still ambiguous. Therefore, SGD has proposed a conceptual framework using dimensions and three attributes – learning objectives, intention and qualification – to address this ambiguity in determining what initiatives should be classed as formal, informal or non-formal. For example, informal learning does not have learning objectives and may or may not be intentional. On the other hand, non-formal learning does have specific learning objectives and is an intentional act. Both, however, do not lead to qualifications (attached below is the official SGD systematic review for further brevity of this framework).

In essence, the collective use of dimensions and attributes will lead to some initiatives discovering that their approach is a blend of attributes that relate to “formal learning” and “informal learning”. However, this is not a problem, as every initiative will have its own individualistic way in encouraging science education outside of the classroom. The flexible nature of this framework emboldens inclusivity in context and the people involved.

As stated by SGD, this framework is not complete. Producing a framework to support educators in carrying out informal science education is an iterative process that needs fine tuning as the SySTEM 2020 progresses over the next few years. However, it has provided some direction in this area of research in defining the differences between informal and non-formal learning. It has also provided direction for SySTEM 2020. Without it, the destination point of SySTEM 2020 would be hard to reach.

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