Non Formal Learning Communities: The Way Forward

Renu Nanda, B K Passi & S C Agarkar

Background/ Introduction

Education as an activity is a social artifact modeled and remodeled from time to time to enable successive generations to realize their human potential as they grow from infancy to adulthood and beyond. The contours & characteristics of the strategies adopted for organizing the processes involved are themselves dependent on a number of factors that vary across time & space. A retrospective look at the history of mankind and the way the strategies of education have changed over the centuries reveal several interesting features.

The overall concern for illiterate, unorganized and suffering got a boost in the form of a manifesto prepared by Marx and Engles in the later half of the 19th century, becoming the first ideological base provided to voice the demands of this suffering class of humanity. Mass illiteracy, a worldwide phenomenon, is a sign of socio-economic and educational underdevelopment. Levels of literacy in a country indicate the minimum educational achievement that the population has accomplished. The rate of literacy has been used by educationists and economists, to show strong relationship between education and economic development.

Indian democracy has completed 63 years, its impact on various sectors of Indian life has been varied and in certain cases inadequate. The occasion has come for social scientists to take stock of situation and evaluate the extent to which social legislation and forces of modernization have been successful in eradicating causes of inequality and in evolving processes of healthy growth of Indian society through an appropriate educational system of the country.

The Indian Government has invested resources to strengthen the educational programme and make it accessible to all. An important aspect of the educational development in India during post-independence period has been the continuous and sustained effort to evolve a system of education relevant to the life, needs and aspirations of the people. In order to give concrete shape to these goals several commissions and committees have examined the progress of education, but none of the policies have succeeded in substantially influencing the educational status of the masses in the country, because the educational system has not been able to draw linkages with the social organism. Universalisation of primary education emanating from Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, reform programme in elementary education sub sector i.e. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and launch of Rashtriya Madhyamik Shikha Abhiyan being implemented in the country since 2009 are all efforts for learning communities to be formally literate.

This backdrop raises two questions:

1. Why cannot we have universalization of education through the formal system?

2.  Do we need a programme of education which is different from the prevailing formal system to achieve the target of universalization of education?

To realise these we need a parallel system, different from the formal to have universalization of education.


A system which gives the freedom to learn how, when & where one likes is non-formal education(NFE). This system can be better as it

1. Provides education to those who have no or partial schooling

2. Is not highly structured, gives freedom to learn

3. Provides lifelong educational facilities

4. Is close to real life situations

5. Promotes peer learning

6. Is need based

7. Leads to productive activity

8. Can tackle the issue of teaching large numbers

9. Is a good solution for maximizing returns from the given resources

For whom can we have NFE

1. Children outside the formal system

2. Unemployed youth

3. Adult illiterates & neo literates

4. Women & girls

Community development through NFE started in Philippines in 1972 by Green Revolution, Cleanliness& Beautification Campaigns and development of cottage industries. A project on Cotobato Rural Uplift Movement (CORUM) targeted non credit training to adults and out of school youth. Similarly training programmes were taken up in Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka & Bangladesh. All these were related to community needs.

NFE is the middle ground between the traditional school system and the informal learning practices with no specific edges at its boundaries. In it schooling is not in a classroom yet formal curriculum is taken up with flexibility. It can be termed as Alternate System/School.

A large number of researches indicate that NFE if put into practice carefully, can yield wonderful results. Dr Renu Nanda has some experience in this area. Working with different learning communities over the last two decades, she has been able to transform youth of her State (Jammu & Kashmir) in to value oriented responsible citizens. Initiating her Non Formal Education pursuits at the grass root level was a challenge but then since she came out with a tailor made approach , which is similar to Hilda Taba`s Model of Grass- Root Rationale.

Field Experiences

Turning the pages of time Dr Renu Nanda`s NFE Model is closely related with National Bal Bhavan & the initiatives commenced in the year  1988 in an informal manner. Prior to getting associated with National Bal Bhavan, Dr Nanda was involved with multiple programs & organisations which focussed on inculcating human values & helping to create an environment for peace & tranquility in the militancy prone state of Jammu & Kashmir. Her special focus & target group has been young boys & girls living in rural & remote areas of the state with the belief that if it is peace, young souls could be given proper value orientation in the formative years of their lives. Her mission & vision  always guided her that it would be possible to restore peace & normalility in the state if one works with children like her. Inspired by the stated national mission Dr Nanda joined National Bal Bhavan formally in 1994 .Her association with National Bal Bhavan is here under mentioned in terms of activities & programs.

1.In the year 1988 – 89 a visit to the far flung areas started by her in which she involved the youth with her.After a survey done by her & her volunteers she decided to commence her work with children from Thather Ploura , a rural sight not very far from the city but was very very backward in terms of children & their development. There she stared working with children through community singing, role playing & some yogic exercises.

2.    With Thather Ploura she moved to a border village Rangpur Mulanian in R S Pura  in 1993 and was moved to see the plight of children due to continuous shelling all along the border LOC. There she took a resolve to start a centre for children at Maharaja Suraj Mal Institute Of Education & Research with Mr Sushil Chowdhary. Here stared regular classes for Border children of remote areas & slowly in six months time she had children of 54 villages coming to her centre for games, craft, clay modelling, yoga, community singing & theatre in education. Taking forward the Banner of Non Formal Education she stared with value inculcation in these children in a practical mode. Now with time these children had a platform to come and share their fears and apprehensions with others. This instilled a confidence in these children who otherwise would be either in fields growing rice or else with the cattle taking care of them and now apart from these chores they also had their own space.

3. From Rangpur the efforts of the centre were extended to children in Abdullian the last village on the border where no other NGO would dare to go because of cross firing and shelling. Bal Bhavan was given a space in the house of Mehar Singh to run the centre and this had all girls in the age group of 12 – 16 years and had practically come out of their shell for the first time. Initially cutting, tailoring and embroidery were taken up and then gradually girls started with community singing, games, hygiene and sanitation in the village. Today most of these girls are married to other villages and are comfortably running their own tailoring centres very happily and some of them are even working as volunteers with our Rangpur Bal Kendra for border children.

4.  Then Dr Nanda moved to Bega, Chanducack, Chakrohi, Kalyana, Rithana, Arnia & Mill area in R S Pura and also to Bajalta in Sambha Tehsil in 1994 – 95.Moving ahead with the mission of Peace building and value inculcation by way of being with these children and youth stared a new project in these areas which focussed on care of the wounded and the cattle. For this a First Aid Training couse was organised for these children and youth which was very helpful as a Blood Grouping Index was developed by these villagers.

5.  Faculty of IGNOU (STRIDE),University of Kashmir &National Bal Bhavan`s  two Chairpersons came to Jammu in  1996 – 97 and visited most of the centres. They interacted with the border area children and were touched to see their plight in tough conditions. The Non Formal Education initiatives kept them going in the worst of the times with active community participation activities all around. Activities like creative art, performance, photography, games and sports were witnessed by these officers and the most amazing thing was this work was being done in areas which were not only difficult to reach but also without much resources.

6.  Subsequently many more researchers, scholars & psychologists visited thses centres which was a dream coming true for children in Border, Kandi (Arid zone) Remote areas of the State.With this the NFE initiatives went ahead with a greater zeal as children were being appreciated & quoted as role models. These children started visiting other areas and exchanging their views with other children.Then started the Kargil War as a result of which Jammu had huge number of Border Migrants in Akhnoor ( Pallanwala ) and R S Pura. Dr Nanda extended her services to these children in tents who had no food & no proper shelter. Starting from community singing in the evenings to cleaning of the tents, planting some shady trees with children, saving water and electricity to rallies on Drug Abuse several initiatives were taken up for these Border Migrants by NFE model of Dr Nanda. In times of distress and disturbance it was only NFE model that ensured the stability of these children and youth all the nine years till they returned back to their original destinations.Value inculcation initiatives were very regularly followed for children as during this time most of the children who participated in all events were from Bomal Camp in Akhnoor and Border migrants of R S Pura.

7. A special project on inculcation of Human values was done by Dr Nanda and her volunteers in all the five Tehsils of District Jammu. Theatre, quiz, painting, craft, writing competitions were the modes used to instill values in school children in the age group of 11 – 15 years. Historical and religious personalities were enacted by children. A structured questionnaire was used to collect the data in pre value inculcation phase and post  value inculcation phase and the results were very encouraging. The whole project was done in Dogri language ( a largely spoken and read language of the region and included in the Eighth Schedule). This also resulted in Development of Self- instructional Modules for inculcation of Human Values in children and are now being used by Dr Nanda as a successful approach in her Non Formal System.

8.  Initiatives of Peace Building of Dr Nanda also resulted in conduct of regular workshops for children and youth in these areas on Conflict Resolution, Peace Building and Value Inculcation.

Though these are varied learning communities but Non Formal Mode was found to be very interesting, participative & interactive. This model is being replicated by Dr Nanda & her volunteers in other regions of the State.

Learning Communities

A group of people with common emotions, values and beliefs actively engaged in learning together from each other, and by habituation form a learning community. Community psychologists such as McMillan and Chavis (1986) state that there are four key factors that defined a sense of community: “(1) membership, (2) influence, (3) fulfillment of individuals needs and (4) shared events and emotional connections.

Barbara Leigh Smith felt that the learning community approach fundamentally restructures the curriculum, and the time and space of students. Many different curricular restructuring models are being used, but all of the learning community models intentionally link together courses or coursework to provide greater curricular coherence, more opportunities for active teaming, and interaction between students and faculty.

This is also the experience of Dr Nanda who believes that learning community improves the learning environment by ensuring enrollment, retention & better learning. Besides learning communities can offer more: curricular coherence; integrative, high-quality learning; collaborative knowledge-construction; and skills and knowledge relevant to living in a complex, messy, diverse world.

Experts frequently describe five basic nonresidential learning community models:

1. Linked courses: Students take two connected courses, usually one disciplinary course such as history or biology and one skills course such as writing, speech, or information literacy.

2. Learning clusters: Students take three or more connected courses, usually with a common interdisciplinary theme uniting them.

3. Freshman interest groups: Similar to learning clusters, but the students share the same major, and they often receive academic advising as part of the learning community.

4. Federated learning communities: Similar to a learning cluster, but with an additional seminar course taught by a “Master Learner,” a faculty member who enrolls in the other courses and takes them alongside the students. The Master Learner’s course draws connections between the other courses.

5. Coordinated studies: This model blurs the lines between individual courses. The learning community functions as a single, giant course that the students and faculty members work on full-time for an entire semester or academic year.


Non formal education can surely take care of learning communities who for one reason or the other do not have access to formal education. Research studies show that such like initiatives could go a long way in realising Universalisation of Education, making the dream of Literate India come true. Several other measures could be taken to strengthen the basis of Non Formal Education. In fact discussions, round tables & conferences on this issue should be organised more frequently which could lead to more innovative explorations in the area.

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