Non-Formal Education and Thinkery


Jessica Smith is a former Camp Education Intern at the Thinkery who wrote an extensive research paper about Non-Formal Education and the Thinkery. On the blog today is a condensed version of her paper- great job, Jessica! 

NFE, Equity, Thinkery
Jessica Smith

Classrooms, textbooks, tests…this is how we most commonly envision education.  But what if education could also include paper airplanes, trips to the creek, rockets, hula hooping and splash zones?  It can.  It’s called non-formal education (NFE).

currentsMost education discussions center on the curriculum, policies, and goals of formal education, but non-formal education (NFE), due to its ability to engage a wide range of members of a community, including traditionally underserved members, is becoming a very significant aspect of education world-wide (Brennan, 1997).  NFE is “any organised, systematic educational activity carried on outside the framework of the formal system” (Brennan, 1997, p.186).  It includes “skills development, collaborative group activities, [and] information and training on issues of everyday life and work” (Mohsin, 2000, p. 103).

NFE is able to offer flexible hours and locations and curricula can be tailored to provide students with knowledge and skills to respond to the changing and evolving world (Mohsin, 2000).  NFE functions within the context of the student’s community, culture, and surroundings (Mohsin, 2000).  In addition, NFE settings encourage self-motivated learning.  Science centers, for example, can provide opportunities for active science exploration in environments where the focus is not on evaluation, inviting girls to experience a subject that is traditionally viewed as male-dominated (Eshach, 2007).  These settings have “the potential to engage students, to teach them, to stimulate their understanding, and most important, to help them assume responsibility for their own future learning” (Eshach, 2007, p. 171).

NFE has the potential to reach a diverse population because it can function as a complement, alternative, and/or supplement to the formal education system.  The first recognized and currently most accepted aspect of NFE is as a complement to formal education.  This aspect of NFE is designed to target those students that have been unable to attend or complete formal education.  A second role of NFE is as an alternative to formal education.  This form of NFE focuses on the use of indigenous and local customs in education and learning that might not be used often in formal classrooms.  Indigenous education might value body measures, for example, as a way of solving everyday mathematical problems.  For the Yup’ik of Alaska, a kayak’s dimensions are determined based on the arm and forearm lengths of its owner (Solano‐Flores & Nelson‐Barber, 2001).  The goal of this form of NFE is to identify, value, utilize, and advocate for local strategies associated with learning.  The most recent form of NFE, NFE as a supplement to formal education, offers a quick reaction to changing educational, social, and economic needs.  Curriculum for this portion of NFE focuses on proficiency in areas such as computers, agriculture, medicine, or language.

IMG_2740NFE has been part of the international dialogue on education policy since the late 1960s, and there are many successful examples of NFE implementation world-wide (Smith, 2001).  One excellent example in the United States is the Thinkery.  The Thinkery began in 1983 as the Austin Children’s Museum, and was founded by a group of parents and educators who wanted Austin children to have more educational and cultural opportunities.  One of the primary missions of the Thinkery is to create an equitable educational environment, and this is evident in the first key value of the Thinkery: to “be inclusive by making every facet relevant and accessible to all” (Thinkery, 2013).  The Thinkery aims to provide an inspiring and inclusive learning environment for all members of the community, regardless of financial status, through community outreach programs and free-admission days supported by annual gifts from the Thinkery Clubhouse.  The Museum provides NFE experiences to children as well as adults as a complement to formal education.  Spark Shop, for example, one of the hands-on learning exhibits, engages older children and adults in design challenge learning experiences.  The Thinkery embraces NFE as an alternative to formal education by incorporating indigenous learning through En mi familia, a storytelling exhibit inspired by the art of Carmen Lomas Garza, a Chicana narrative artist.  One of the Thinkery’s outreach programs, Tech Reach, illustrates how the Museum functions as a supplement to formal education by equipping students from underserved communities with computer skills and technical literacy in response to the increasing technical demands of the economy and workforce.  As the Austin Children’s Museum out-grew their previous facility, discussions began about where to setup the permanent Museum, and many of these discussions focused on offering their programs to the widest audience possible.  Research was done to ensure the site chosen for the Thinkery was accessible to the entire community, and the costs, such as parking, would be minimal.  The Thinkery is thriving in its new location.  It has been and will continue to be a model for how NFE can successfully serve all members of a diverse community.



Brennan, B. (1997). Reconceptualizing non-formal education. International Journal of Lifelong
Education, 16
(3), 185-200. doi:10.1080/0260137970160303

Eshach, H. (2007). Bridging in-school and out-of-school learning: Formal, non-formal, and
informal education. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(2), 171-190.

Mohsin, S. (2000). Impact of technology on women: Strategies for non-formal education. Indian
Journal of Gender Studies, 7
(1), 101-123. doi:10.1177/097152150000700108

Smith, M. K. (2001). What is non-formal education? infed. Retrieved December 15, 2013, from

Solano‐Flores, G., & Nelson‐Barber, S. (2001). On the cultural validity of science assessments.
Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38
(5), 553-573. doi:10.1002/tea.1018

Thinkery. (2013, December 6). About. Retrieved from

Thinkery. (2013, December 6). Exhibits. Retrieved from

Thinkery. (2013, December 6). Programs & Events. Retrieved from

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