From the 1st of November until 9th of November, we attended a special project: a training of trainers in Misaktsieli, Georgia. The goal of the training was to improve our skills on working with youth and groups, using the methods of so-called non-formal learning (NFL).

During the training, we also discussed the differences and similarities between our countries, and the meaning of concepts related to democracy. The group consisted of us (Sanne, Anne-margot and Nephtis), from The Netherlands and participants from Denmark, Latvia, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Germany, Ukraine and Spain (Catalonia). The training was organized by the Danish organisation Support Initiative for Liberty and Democracy (SILBA) and the Georgian host-organization Youth for the World.

What is non-formal learning?

Non-formal learning is contrasted with the idea of formal learning, in which one person explains a certain topic, and a group of people listens and makes notes: the traditional classroom situation. Non-formal learning is, as the name suggests, a lot less formal. From an outsiders perspective, it might actually seem as if nothing useful is happening, and people are just playing games and doing weird things. The opposite is true. Non-formal learning usually takes place in (small) groups, involves a lot of discussion, and very little lectures. Instead of talking, non-formal methods use experience and reflection on those experiences as a style of learning. For example, in order to understand concepts such as ‘conflict’, or ‘creativity’, you can hold a lecture about it (which is formal learning), or, alternatively, you can organize ways in which people actually experience and feel these concepts. Afterwards, participants reflect on the actions, talking about what they felt, thought, what this experience has taught them, and how it relates to real life. For example, when the topic was creativity, we were instructed to come up with a game in which we had to use 5 randomly chosen objects.

The idea is that you remember and learn more when you feel strong emotions -bad or good ones, and that you learn the most when you reflect on this. In fact, the biggest learning potential of non-formal learning lies in reflection. Another difference with formal learning is the fact that there are no strict hierarchies between trainer and participants, and that there (usually) are no tests. Participants themselves are responsible for what they learn, and the same situations can have very different impressions on people. Because of this, it doesn’t always make sense to test the result. This is certainly not to say that non-formal learning is always fun or easy. Some methods can be quite confronting, especially when applied in trainings on how to deal with conflict. Sometimes it is required to get people out of their comfort zone, into the so-called stretching zone. As a trainer, it is important to know how far you can go, and you have to be careful not to ask too much of your participants: if participants get into the panic zone, they won’t learn anything.

On the topic of Democracy

Back to democracy: what has non-formal learning to do with the difficulties our democracies are coping with? Well, everything! It deals with ways to activate and engage people, to create space for difference and opportunities for mutual understanding and learning. The meaning of democracy is not fixed by laws or a separation of powers (although an important condition), but stems from the ways individuals and groups relate to each other. Non-formal learning, through role playing, theatre and debate makes abstract concepts like authority and conflict explicit, understandable and thereby debatable. During the training, we also focused on the challenges for the active participation of youth in processes of developing their societies. More opportunities for youth to engage in non-formal learning is certainly an important way to overcome the barriers that prevent youngsters from becoming active in their communities. Luckily, 24 brand new, international trainers are working to familiarize youth with democracy and turn them into future youth leaders, activists and politicians.

Why would you do a project in Georgia? Here is why

At first, we didn’t fully understand why such a project would be held in Georgia, quite a far away place for us. However, as the week progressed, we began to realize that the location contributed greatly to the experience. Georgia became an independent country in 1991, being part of the Soviet Union before. Since its independence, it has been gradually developing into a democratic state. However, the process of democratization has not been without obstacles, and is still far from finished, though impressive progress has been made. As the training was hosted by a Georgian organization, we had plenty of opportunities to discuss the particular challenges to youth participation in relatively new, developing democracies. During the week, we gained insight in the differences between the problems faced by established democracies in Western Europe and developing democracies in the East. This made us fully realize that in The Netherlands, we sometimes take democracy for granted too much, along with all the possibilities and facilities we have here. Feeling this, we feel that it is worth fighting for basic human rights, more democracy in our own country, and possibly in others. Although our country is certainly not without its problems, it really is something special, and definitively worth fighting for.

And not only that, Georgia turned out to be a very interesting and beautiful country, with very hospitable people, great food, an ancient culture and magnificent nature.  And the wine…  Oh the wine

Written by Sanne Raap, Anne-margot Lambers and Nephtis Brandsma

Go to our Facebook page to see some photos from the project.