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In the field of education policy, a distinction is often made between formal, informal and non-formal learning (or education). The difference between these categories, and especially between the latter two (informal and non-formal), is not always clear-cut and confusing, but if we go back to the origin of the distinction it is possible to understand things better.

According to the classic definitions, formal education is education provided in schools, colleges and training institutions; non-formal education is associated with community and civil society groups and organizations, while informal education covers everything else.

In practice, and due to the very nature of the educational phenomenon, the boundaries between categories are easily blurred, especially between non-formal and informal education. This tripartite distinction also became associated with a new concept that emerged at the time in the field of education policy: that of lifelong or life wide learning.

Formal education

Learning normally offered by an education or training centre, structured and concluding with a certification. Formal learning is intentional from the perspective of the learner.

It is that area of education that is intentional, planned and regulated. This is the entire educational offer known as compulsory schooling, from the first years of infant education to the end of secondary education.

It is the education that is transmitted in recognized institutions, above all the school in its multiple variants, and that responds to an established curriculum, normally controlled by the Government or other institutions. It has different degrees of compulsory education depending on the education system of each country

Informal education

Learning that takes place in everyday activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured and does not normally lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but, in most cases, it is not.

Informal education is that which takes place in an unintentional and unplanned way, in one’s own daily interaction. The diffuse and unplanned action of environmental influences. It does not occupy a curricular area within educational institutions and is generally not susceptible to being planned. It is an unorganized, individual educational action, often provoked by interaction with the environment in areas such as family life, work and information received by the media.

Non-formal education

Learning that is not offered by an education or training centre and does not normally lead to certification. However, it is structured (in terms of didactic objectives, duration or support). Non-formal learning is intentional from the perspective of the learner.

Non-formal education takes place in those contexts where there is an educational intention and planning of teaching-learning experiences, which occur outside the scope of compulsory schooling. Adult training courses, the teaching of leisure activities or sports are examples of non-formal education.

It is clear that these concepts sometimes overlap with others that have been used at various times at national level. But what interests us above all from the point of view of translation is the fact that all these concepts arise in a specific context and are used today in a theoretical framework and with certain connotations. In order to use the appropriate terminology in each case, we must therefore take into account the context in question.