From tools to non-formal learning tools

Nov 2012
Cards and crafts on a table

Human beings have been developing and using tools for over 100,000 years. Initially tools were developed from stone, wood, and other natural fibres. From 6,000 years ago tools made from copper, bronze and iron began to be developed and used. The 19th century ushered in a virtual revolution in the development of standardised precision tools and this continued into the 20th century with ever more sophisticated tools being developed and used particularly in such diverse fields as science, engineering, manufacturing, and communications technology.

By the end of the 20th the concept of tools to aid teaching and learning had also come into vogue. The Centre for Learning and Performance Technology has a Directory of Learning and Performance Tools that lists some 2,000 tools for learning both in education and the workplace.These include tools for social and collaborative learning; image; audio and video tools; collaborative and sharing tools; as well as communication tools among others. In recent years, SALTO has introduced a Toolbox for training and youth work and has also held Tool Fairs to promote their development and use.

But is the very concept of learning tools in any way meaningful when it comes to non-formal learning? Given the nature of non-formal learning and the environment in which it takes place, is it appropriate to use the term tool at all? Are non-formal learning tools in effect blunt instruments?

A tool is normally any physical item that can be used to achieve a particular physical result, especially if the item is not consumed in the process. However, informally the word has also come to be used to describe a procedure or process with a specific purpose. Tools can be classified according to their basic functions such as: cutting tools, moving tools, tools that bring about chemical changes; measuring and perception tools; sharpening and fastening tools; and information and data manipulation tools.

However, tools have a particular aspect that is relevant for non-formal learning purposes. Often, as a result of design or coincidence, a tool may share key functional attributes with one or more other tools. In this case, some tools (multi-tools or multi-purpose tools) can substitute for other tools, either as a makeshift solution or as a matter of practical efficiency. This emphasises important aspects of non-formal learning: imagination, creativity, inventiveness, and improvisation.

It is therefore possible to attempt a definition of a non-formal learning tool as a physical item that creatively and inventively initiates or supports a particular action or process that leads to a particular result or outcome.

  • But what of the non-formal learning environment in which such tools are employed?
  • Are there other dimensions to non- formal learning that need to be in place?
  • In other words, what other features does a non-formal learning tool need to have if it is to be effective?

The non-formal learning environment has a number of common characteristics. Because it is neither mandatory nor compulsory,non- formal learning needs an open, attractive and flexible environment. Consequently, as participants engage in non-formal learning voluntarily it needs to address in particular their own learning needs and aspirations. While non-formal learning is an activity in its own context, it often takes place with, or in place of, more formal learning environments. While lacking some of the more common features of the formal learning environment such as curricula, syllabi, validation and assessment; it nonetheless aims to adhere to coherent and constructive learning experiences. 

Accordingly, in addition to the definition of non-formal learning tools outlined above, such tools should also have the following features:


...and capable of further change and development depending on context – much like the multi-purpose tools mentioned above 

Results identifiable learning outcomes

Adaptive a variety of learning methods and approaches, for example group work, games, discussions, simulations


...a theme, target group, timing, materials, description of activity and other tips


...participants in identifying their own learning needs and capacities 


...and stimulates participants in the learning process


...friendly and flexible

Stand alone

...but can also be part of or related to a broader programme.

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