Calling shades of gray “black and white”

by Jay Cross on January 2, 2011

Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning.

Fifteen years ago, “the OECD education ministers agreed to develop strategies for ‘lifelong learning for all’.” They still don’t have it right.

Who are these guys? OECD? According to Wikipedia,

    The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, in French: Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques, OCDE) is an international economic organisation of 34 countries founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade. It defines itself as a forum of countries committed to democracy and the market economy, providing a platform to compare policy experiences, seeking answers to common problems, identifying good practices, and co-ordinating domestic and international policies of its members.

    The OECD originated in 1948 as the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), led by Robert Marjolin of France, to help administer the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. Later, its membership was extended to non-European states. In 1961, it was reformed into the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development by the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Most OECD members are high-income economies with a high Human Development Index (HDI) and are regarded as developed countries (Chile being the only OECD member which is also a member in the organisation of developing countries, the Group of 77).

    The OECD’s headquarters are at the Château de la Muette in Paris, France.

The latest report says:

    Formal learning is always organised and structured, and has learning objectives. From the learner’s standpoint, it is always intentional: i.e. the learner’s explicit objective is to gain knowledge, skills and/or competences.

    Informal learning is never organised, has no set objective in terms of learning outcomes and is never intentional from the learner’s standpoint. Often it is referred to as learning by experience or just as experience.

    Mid-way between the first two, non-formal learning is the concept on which there is the least consensus, which is not to say that there is consensus on the other two, simply that the wide variety of approaches in this case makes consensus even more difficult. Nevertheless, for the majority of authors, it seems clear that non-formal learning is rather organised and can have learning objectives.

    [Emphasis is mine.]

This talk of absolute like always and never is bi-polar thinking at work. Either/or thinking obscures the nuances. Most learning is not “mid-way between” formal and informal. Rather, it’s a little of this and a lot of that along many dimensions.

    Because non-formal and informal learning is happening everywhere all the time, this OECD activity could not address all the issues related to non-formal and informal learning in general. In consultation with the participating countries, it was agreed to focus solely on the processes that make visible this learning that has not been formal.


Because learning is ubiquitous, OECD decided to overlook how to make informal learning better in favor of surveying what yardsticks are available to measure it. The “relevant documents” are an effective sedative. They get no further than “who gives credit for what” in various countries.

I’m glad these aren’t my tax dollars at work, but I hate to see opportunities to make progress squandered, and that’s my reading of the OECD’s work on “non-formal learning.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: