maandag 17 mei 2010

Education on display: exploring the future of formal and non-formal education

This is an article I recently wrote for New Zealand Futures Trust. Although it is somewhat long for a blog, I thought it interesting to share. 
Education on display
Nelson Mandela famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” This quote is the driving force, the mission, vision and ambition that motivates my activities as a consultant in the field of education, both formal and non formal, for people from 3 to 83. Over the course of the nearly ten years that I have now been involved in this field, I have noted that education seems to be permanently on the move both literally and as a figure of speech. The two are closely interrelated, as both the literal part refers to the place where education takes places and the figure of speech part as the definition of what education is and how it is delivered, is shifting.
This article explores the future of formal and non-formal education, focussing on the relation between museums and schools. In doing so it puts formal and non formal education and the relation between the two on display. The first section of this article puts the purpose of education center stage. Secondly the terms formal and non-formal education will be explored. Thirdly the article takes a closer look at the shifting balance between formal and non formal education. From this background in the fourth section I explore what the future of education might look like.
This article is meant to provide a broad view on education for policy makers and stake holders in the educational field. With this article I aim to extend an open invitation to those interested to start a discussion on the future of education in the Netherlands, New Zealand and - if at all possible- around the globe.
Purpose of education
What the purpose of education is, increasingly is the topic of a heated debate in the Netherlands, Europe and probably world wide. In this debate two main lines of thought can be distinguished.
The first line of thought sees the primary purpose of education in transferring skills and tools to students that enable them to be successful in the labour market, to make a contribution to the economy and to prepare them to adapt swiftly and flexibly to possibly changing demands. The end goal of this education is a problem solver who is capable of dealing with the changing demands of a continuously evolving business environment[1]. This line of thought has been prevalent in The Netherlands for the last decades as is for example signified by the development and implementation of the so called core goals in primary and secondary education. These core goals specify what a student should know and should be able to do at the end of primary school and, for secondary education: per subject[2].
The second line of thought puts emphasis on education as a formative process with the focus on the development of the student as a human being. It comes from a rather more humanist background and sees the primary purpose of education to uncover and develop the possibilities, interests, and capabilities in the student through bringing them in contact with cultural and historical sources of value. In this line of thought the focus is on life rather than on work. Aspects of life such as suffering, joy, disloyalty and friendship should be a part of the educational process and should be discussed, reflected on and lived[3]. These are aspects of a human life that are not manageable, but very much part of human life. It is the conviction of the proponents of this line of thought that when these aspects of life are systematically and structurally integrated into education, society as such will profit from it[4].
From my consultancy experience and from observation in my humble opinion these lines of thought are not mutually exclusive any more. The proponents of the second line of thought realise that it is important that skills and tools are of vital importance for a growing economy which is necessary to finance a blossoming public domain of which education is an important part. From recent debates in the media it has become clear that the proponents of the first line of thought understand that the skills and tools oriented approach is not sufficient to create citizens who share norms and values and who deliver a valuable contribution to the society as a whole.
By consequence the two lines of thought now seem to be in a phase where they are looking on how and where they can meet. This development is signalled amongst others by the increasing demand on topics to be included in the teaching programme of schools. Following several dramatic incidents on schools, amongst which the shooting of a teacher and fights between children in The Netherlands, there is also an increasing demand on schools to explicitly transfer norms and values to their students.
The meeting of the two lines of thought means that education is essentially becoming a two tiered enterprise[5] in which students both learn to adapt to an established world by being outfitted with skills and tools that will help them, but in which they also learn to continuously and consciously intervene and bring about change. It is precisely the latter which makes humans into ethical beings.
In addition to painting part of the educational landscape, this brief deliberation on the purpose of education makes emphasises that educational practices by nature are ethical and political. They are never neutral, but rather they are based on goals, ideas methodologies and ideals. Choices are and must be continuously made on the basis of these ingredients. This makes that education in essence is a profoundly ethical activity.
The geography of education: on formal, informal and non-formal learning
In the educational field a distinction is made between formal and non-formal education, and even sometimes informal education.
Formal education in the framework of this thesis follows the definition of Combs, Prosser and Ahmed and is taken to be “the hierarchically structured, chronologically graded 'education system', running from primary school through the university and including, in addition to general academic studies, a variety of specialized programmes and institutions for full-time technical and professional training[6]”.
The definition of non-formal education following UNESCO refers to “any organized and sustained educational activities that do not correspond exactly to the above definition of formal education. Non-formal education may take place both within and outside educational institutions, and may cater to persons of all ages. Depending on the context in a specific country, it may cover educational programmes to impart adult literacy, basic education for out-of-school children, life-skills, work-skills, and general culture. Non-formal education programmes do not necessarily follow the 'ladder' system, may have varying durations, and may or may not confer certification of the learning achieved”[7].
Informal education then by consequence refers to the truly lifelong process whereby every individual acquires attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience and the educative influences and resources in his or her environment - from family and neighbors, from work and play, from the market place, the library and the mass media[8].
In addition to these definitions it might be interesting to have a brief look at the history of these terms. Apparently in 1967 at an international conference in Williamsburg USA, ideas were set out for what was to become a widely read analysis of the growing 'world educational crisis'. There was concern about unsuitable curricula; a realization that educational growth and economic growth were not necessarily in line with this, and that jobs did not emerge directly as a result of educational inputs. Many countries were finding it difficult either politically or economically or both to pay for the expansion of formal education. The conclusion was that formal educational systems had adapted too slowly to the socio-economic changes around them and that they were held back not only by their own conservatism, but also by the inertia of societies themselves. If we also accept that the development of educational policies tends to follow rather than direct other social trends, it follows that change would have to come not merely from within formal schooling, but from the wider society and from other sectors within it. It was from this point of departure that planners and economists in the World Bank began to make a distinction between informal, non-formal and formal education[9]. This is the same time when UNESCO can be seen as moving towards lifelong educations and notion of the learning society. From these parallel movements emerges the above defined distinction between educational systems.
Following Fordham[10] non-formal education can be characterized as follows:
1. relevance to needs of disadvantaged groups;
2. concern with specific categories of person;
3. a focus on clearly defined purposes;
4. flexibility in organization and methods.
The distinction made between formal and non-formal education is largely administrative. Formal education is linked with schools and training institutions; non-formal with community groups and other organizations; and informal covers what is left, e.g. interactions with friends, family and work colleagues. In ordinary everyday life boundaries between the different forms of education tend to blur, as people often organize education events as part of their everyday experience. However, this holds less true for youngsters in the school going age (4-18 in general). It is in these ages that the distinction between formal and non-formal education is strict, clear and very relevant. Formal education then is the system through which one can advance socially speaking, where one gets grades for activities, knowledge and skills on the basis of which one can choose a certain job raining or academic career. Non-formal education becomes a tool for teachers to enable their students to understand certain principles or to gain certain experiences. For these experiences they visit a museum as part of the curriculum.
The shifting balance between formal and non-formal education
Institutions for formal and non-formal education are rapidly developing solid partnerships in The Netherlands and abroad. A visit to a museum is on the educational agenda in almost every school in nearly every year in Dutch primary education and I have noticed through European and international projects that this situation is not unique. In secondary education students pay visits to a museum as part of their education. The contribution that museums deliver to the formal educational system is at least five fold.
In the first place museums offer a stimulating physical environment. Foreign objects are displayed, stories are told, and increasingly artefacts are displayed in such a way that they can be felt, sniffed, heard, in short: experienced by the visitor. In addition being in a museum means being outside the school, which in itself has proven to provide a stimulus to students.
Secondly museums offer different teaching methods from schools as they have assimilated the methods of other industries. They have developed ingenious ways of communicating non-cognitive attitudes, cultural habits and abstract ideas through the use of media technologies[11]. Think for example about the walk you can make in a zoo through a rainforest park with proper mist and bird sounds all around. But think also about fake cro magnon people behind a glass wall whom you can hear “speaking” to each other when you push a button. In short: museums offer an experience as a teaching method rather than a a guide presenting the story to an audience (although that also happens in museums!).
This possibility to give the educational visitor an experience is the third contribution that museums deliver to the formal educational setting.
Fourthly the collection the museum offers sets it apart and makes it a valuable partner. By nature museums - as houses of muses following the Greeks - gather, collect and preserve historic artefacts or artefacts from other cultures. They do so and have being doing so in a systematic and orderly way for many years. This means that in addition museums have generated an unparalleled body of knowledge regarding these artefacts, their physical components, geographical background and historical context.
Last but certainly not least museums offer a valuable contribution in that they are closely related to the schools as they are partners, but are still outside the curriculum. Where the school has to cover all core goals, has to grade students, flunk them for exams etc. museums do not have to do so. Their educational programmes museums assist schools in achieving these core goals, however they have no final responsibility for achieving these core goals nor are they responsible for grading students. This gives museums a certain freedom in their approach of the subject at hand and of the students who visit.
It is precisely in these five points that the formal education of the school and the non formal education offered by museums meet. Implicit in these five points is where school and museum can be complementary in their education. The formal curriculum in Dutch schools, both in primary and secondary education, is guided by core goals and competencies. With reference to the debate outlined earlier in this article these goals are mainly skill and knowledge oriented. The museums I interviewed over the course of my consulting life professionals clearly stated that their purpose is to work at the level of attitude. This is perhaps most poignantly phrased by Dutch museum director Pieter Matthijs Gijsbers, former director of Orientalis[12] and currently director of the Netherlands Open Air Museum[13]: “Orientalis uses education as an instrument to achieve understanding and respect for others in our multi-religious and multicultural society.(…) Orientalis stimulates its visitors to think about the question how they themselves can constructively deal with the centuries old, philosophical and religious traditions that have developed in our society. “ [14]
Looking at the future of education
The concept of what is a museum and what is a school and the very image of the school as the alfa and omega of education seems to be coming to an end. Other institutions that have thus far been qualified as institutions for non-formal education are rapidly professionalizing. Thus the concept of what is a museum seems to be shifting at a rather fundamental level. Let’s push this point a bit further: looking further down the road a convergence between museums and schools might be a future vision for museum[15]. Where museums slowly but surely shift to an educational redefinition of themselves, formal educational institutions face a continuously growing demand for a broader educational programme that goes explicitly beyond knowledge and skills. Seeing these developments and seeing the increasing professionalism with which museums undertake to fulfil their educational role, one might wonder to what extent to geographical boundaries between schools and museums are of practical or moral relevance in the future. Are these borders not merely artificial and mainly motivated and kept alive by tradition and the monetary flows that reflect this tradition? I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we would put these practical constraints and divisions to the site for the sake of theoretical exploration and then look at education and who provides it. Looking from that perspective, would then the divide between schools and museums still be relevant and necessary? Would it still be defensible? Or would we then come to the core of education, namely the question of what we want students to know, to be able to do and perhaps most importantly to be as persons? I wonder whether the answer or answers to notably this last question would lead us to a functional division between schools and museums. I think not. I think that rather it would lead us to define a curriculum on the one hand and a number of places where (modules of) this curriculum can be followed on the other hand, without making a distinction between institutions. Pursuing this line of argument would obviously have far reaching practical, organisational and even philosophical consequences with regard to the nature of education, but should that mean that we should not pursue it and take it to its very limits to then explore how we can restructure today’s educational system? Which is perceived to be in a crisis, precisely because the direction and goals of education are unclear? Will in the future the museum become a teacher? And will schools and teachers become part of a museum, as phenomena that illustrate an era in which society focussed on the geography and geographical borders between educational institutions rather than on the educational content proper, an era in which the “where” was seemingly more important than the “what”? I cannot substantiate whether this future vision is where museums and schools will end up down the road, nor do I think that at this point in time this is the most important thing to do. What is important, is that this picture, or in rather more brash terms: this future vision, by taking the current developments to its extremes, illustrates the tension that museum face in defining their identity. Looking from the outside in, this tension might seem rather trivial, but looking from the museum inside out, this tension is far from trivial and is the focus of intense moral concern. To move away from the museum identity in terms of moving away from its collection, may also mean to move away from a body of knowledge, that was build and is advanced on the basis of the collection, of continuous research to objects and the building of human networks on the basis of this. For what educational institution is the museum without its collection?

[1] Derkse, W. (et.a.l). (2002). Vitaal leren: pleidooi voor een onderwijswende. Budel: Damon.
[3] Ibid 4 and also following Dohmen, J. (2007). Tegen de onverschilligheid; pleidooi voor een moderne levenskunst. Amsterdam: AMBO.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Cf Freire as mentioned in Suransky, C., ( (eds.) (2005). Global civil society, world citizenship and education. Amsterdam: SWP Publishers.
ibid 3
[6] Coombs, P. H. ( (1973) New Paths to Learning for Rural Children and Youth. New York: International Council for Educational Development.
[9] ibid
[10] Fordham, P. E. (1993). Informal, non-formal and formal education programmes in YMCA. George Williams College ICE301 Lifelong Learning Unit 2, London: YMCA George Williams College.
[11] Hein, H.. Assuming responsibility: lessons from aesthetics, p2-3. In: Genoways, H.H. (2006). Museum philosophy for the twenty-first century. Lanham: Rowman & Litllefield publishers Ltd.
[14] A quote given to me while doing research for my master thesis in Applied Ethics in 2008. The full interview is included in the appendixes of the master thesis, available by request via
[15] I owe gratitude for prof. dr. Willem Burggraaf of Nyenrode University for the line of thought presented in this paragraph. This came up in an informal conversation I had with him following a presentation he kindly agreed to give at a workshop of the Netherlands Association of Science Centers on entrepreneurship. This paragraph in no way officially reflects the thoughts of prof. dr. Burggraaf, but since it was directly motivated by my conversation with him, I would like to thank him for the avenue of thought he showed me.

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