On 6 June the European Parliament’s Lifelong Learning Interest Group met to discuss the topic of 21st Century Learning Environments: where is non-formal and informal learning in the Future of Learning? The meeting brought together Members of the European Parliament, representatives of the European Commission, civil society organisations and other stakeholders to discuss the concept of learning environments and explore the relationship between such environments across formal, non-formal and informal settings. In that respect, the meeting served as an opportunity to reflect on the extent to which EU policies support a modern understanding of learning environments; in other words, give value to learning that occurs beyond the formal sector.
In the course of the discussions speakers highlighted a number of issues relevant to how we conceive learning environments in the 21st century, such as the need to update the traditional relationship between educators and learners, recognising the increasing role of teachers as “facilitators” rather than controllers of the learning experience; the crucial role of lifelong learning in helping people adapt to digital and other forms of change; the value of arts and humanities alongside science-based disciplines (shifting from STEM to STEAM); as well as the recognition and validation of prior learning. The need to integrate such concerns into the ongoing work of the European Commission on realising the vision for a European Education Area was emphasised by several speakers.
Opening the debate, the host MEP Roberta Metsola underlined the role of informal and non-formal learning environments in gaining new skill sets, such as media literacy. She highlighted that learning is a lifelong process and education goes beyond entering the labour market after graduation. The importance of constantly updating skills in a fast-changing world was also underscored by MEP Julie Ward. “We need transferable life skills that enable people to respond to different situations in which they find themselves,” she said, explaining that this meant not only skills needed by employers, but also skills that allow learners to become active citizens.
Youri Devuyst, Senior Expert at the Directorate General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture of the European Commission, outlined the three main objectives of the new European Education Area: to give a real boost to learning mobility, to eliminate the barriers to the creation of a genuine European learning space, and to ensure that education systems are inclusive, lifelong-learning-based an innovation-driven.
Several initiatives released in the past few weeks will help achieve these aims – such as the proposal for new Erasmus+ programme and proposals for Council Recommendations on mutual recognition of diplomas and study abroad periods, language learning and Early Childhood Education and Care. “What is essential to realise the European Education Area is the input of all stakeholders – teachers, youth workers and adult education centres,” he emphasised.
Other speakers brought their perspectives on learning environments, ranging from formal to non-formal and informal. Caroline Kearney from European Schoolnet shared the example of the Future Classroom Lab, a reconfigurable learning space which encourages active participation of pupils. Gina Ebner from EAEA looked at non-formal learning environments in adult education, such as Swedish folk high schools functioning as community learning centres. She also outlined the multiple benefits of family learning, which create a win-win for both children and parents.
Marguerite Potard from World Organisation of the Scout Movement (WOSM) and Michiel Heijnen from the Association for Teacher Education in Europe (ATEE) underlined the need for a holistic approach to learning, in which different stakeholders cooperate and build synergies instead of working in silos. “We need to move from standardised to personalised learning and from formal to a combination of formal and informal,” said Mr Heijnen.
Looking at the recognition of learning outcomes acquired in non-formal and informal learning, Adam Gajek from the European Students Union(ESU) emphasised the importance of trust in validation processes both by learners and stakeholders. “The problem is not in our wallets but in our heads,” he said, calling for a promotion of validation procedures at all levels.
The many commonalities between formal, non-formal, and informal settings were evident. Although coming from different sectors, participants acknowledged the need to work together towards a 21st century definition of learning environments. The practices showcased were excellent examples of ways to modernise formal education and showed how adapting the classroom space is a useful step, but not enough by itself. As MEP Julie Ward noted, outdoor and out-of-classroom activities are just as important as other learning environments. The call for more cooperation between sectors was strongly supported by Ms Thérèse Zhang, from the European University Association, who stressed the need for a more integrated approach to lifelong learning.
Discussions on how to define learning environments in the modern era and promote collaboration between formal, non-formal and informal learning spaces will continue at the Lifelong Learning Platform’s Annual Conference “Lifelong Learning Culture: A partnership for rethinking education” taking place in Vienna on 5-6 July, as well as at future meetings of LLL Interest Group this year and the 2018 LLLWeek taking place at the European Parliament on 3-7 December.