Lifelong learning in Germany – which forms of learning do workers use?

Friederike Behringer, Gudrun Schönfeld, Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training

Lifelong learning is accorded a high degree of significance from an educational and employment policy point of view. The Federal Government and the federal states have set themselves the objective of achieving 50 percent participation of the working age population in continuing education and training by the year 2015, measured by the Adult Education Survey (AES). There is a further focus on increasing participation by educationally disadvantaged groups. Alongside continuing education and training as defined in the German AES reporting system, there are, however, other forms of adult learning. The present article provides a summary of these learning forms whilst also investigating whether such learning can offer a successful means of reducing inequalities.

Forms of learning in the AES

The AES is a “data collection on the participation and non-participation of adults in lifelong learning”. The conducting of such a survey by the member states of the European Union became compulsory for the first time in 2011/12. In Germany, a representative sample of the population aged 18-64 was surveyed in 2012. A total of 7,099 persons were asked about their learning activities in the twelve months prior to the interview.

The AES differentiates three forms of learning (cf. Behringer/Schönfeld 2014; Bilger/Behringer/Kuper 2013; Eurostat 2006, pp. 9 ff.).

  • Formal education takes place within a national educational system comprising schools, the dual system of vocational education and training (VET) and tertiary education. The certificates that can be achieved are included in the respective National Qualifications Framework (NFQ; regular educational programmes). Educational programmes are hierarchically structured and are required to have a minimum duration of six months. Alongside the schools, the dual VET system and the institutions of higher education, advanced training that leads to a qualification (such as master craftsman or technician) also constitutes part of formal education.
  • Non-formal education comprises learning activities that take place outside the formal educational system. It involves structured activities that either do not result in a certificate or else in a certificate that is not localised in the National Qualifications Framework (NFQ). This includes all activities conducted within the scope of a teaching-learning relationship, such as courses, seminars, conferences, distance learning and private lessons. Pre-planned training and learning at the workplace, e.g. in circumstances where line managers act as tutors, also forms part of non-formal learning.
  • Informal learning encompasses all activities that explicitly pursue a learning goal (i.e. are intentional) but are less structured. Informal learning includes learning activities outside teaching-learning settings (use of teaching materials, observation of other persons, learning or quality circles) as well as learning activities with a coach, expert or similar that are not planned in advance such as spontaneous instructions provided by colleagues in the case of urgent problems at the workplace. Informal learning can occur almost anywhere, e.g. in the family, with friends or at the workplace.

The national reporting system on the German AES defines the term “continuing education and training” as exclusively referring to non-formal education and training of adults. This excludes both formal education and training of adults (e.g. second-chance education, advanced education and training) and informal learning. An analysis of participation in education and training by workers aged 18-64 (full-time and part-time employees not including apprentices) is given below on the basis of the various forms of learning.

Participation of workers in different forms of learning

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The total rate of worker participation in intentional learning (formal, non-formal and informal) is 73 percent (cf. Table). Because many workers make use of more than one form of learning, the overall participation rate is lower than the total of the participation rates in the individual forms of learning. Participation in non-formal learning is 56 percent, the highest rate. Informal learning is undertaken by 48 percent, whereas four percent of workers participate in formal education and training. In the case of persons aged 18-24-years, however, formal learning mostly constitutes an initial phase of education that is still continuing. Narrowing the debate on adult learning to non-formal education and training (as currently predominant in Germany) excludes a considerable part of adult learning.

Again and yet again it is reported that participation in continuing education and training varies between different groups. In the case of persons employed, the main differences to be stated are according to general and vocational qualifications, age and migration background. As the table shows, participation in all forms of learning rises in line with the level of general and vocational education. Informal learning also cannot compensate for the educational differential in participation. Regarding informal learning, the differences even tend to be stronger, as compared to non-formal education and training. It is noticeable that participation in informal learning by German citizens with a migration background and by foreign nationals is almost as high as the participation of these groups in non-formal education. In the case of Germans not from a migration background, participation in non-formal education is significantly higher. There are also differences with regard to the size of the employer (number of staff employed at the local business unit). Employees of large companies are significantly more likely to participate in non-formal education and training than those who work for the smallest category of company. With regard to informal learning, correlation with company size is significantly weaker. It is even the case that employees of the smallest category of company are more likely to engage in informal learning than in non-formal learning. Pre-planned training at the workplace forms an important sub-section of non-formal education1. As is the case with non-formal education, participation by the low skilled is shown to be below average. Workers who do not have German citizenship are also significantly less likely to undergo training at the workplace. Correlation with company size is particularly striking. Only a small proportion of persons employed in the smallest category of company is involved in training at the workplace.


Alongside formal and non-formal education and training, informal adult learning also plays an important role in lifelong learning. In order to obtain an overall picture of lifelong learning in all contexts, it is not sufficient merely to take participation in non-formal education and training into account. If all forms of learning are considered, the proportion of adults involved in lifelong learning becomes significantly greater. It is, however, also revealed that informal learning has thus far contributed to compensating for inequalities in access to lifelong learning in the case of few individual groups only.

  • 1 Work-integrated learning is predominantly aligned to non-formal education and training in the AES. However, the border between non-formal and informal learning activities at the workplace cannot be clearly drawn (cf. Kuwan/Seidel 2013).

Behringer, F.; Schönfeld, G.: Lernen Erwachsener in Deutschland im europäischen Vergleich [Adult learning in Germany in European comparative terms]. In: BIBB (Ed.): Datenreport zum Berufsbildungsbericht 2014. Informationen und Analysen zur Entwicklung der beruflichen Bildung [Data Report to accompany the 2014 Report on Vocational Education and Training. Information and analyses on the development of vocational education and training].Bielefeld 2014, pp. 381-413

Bilger, F.; Behringer, F.; Kuper, H.: Einführung [Introduction]. In: Bilger, F. et al. (Eds.): Weiterbildungsverhalten in Deutschland. Resultate des Adult Education Survey 2012 [Continuing training behaviour in Germany. Results of the 2012 Adult Education Survey]. Bielefeld 2013, pp. 13–23

Eurostat (Ed.): Classification of learning activities – Manual. Luxemburg 2006

Kuwan, H.; Seidel, S.: Informelles Lernen Erwachsener [Informal adult learning]. In: Bilger, F. et al. (Eds.): Weiterbildungsverhalten in Deutschland. Resultate des Adult Education Survey 2012 [Continuing training behaviour in Germany. Results of the 2012 Adult Education Survey]. Bielefeld 2013, pp. 264-288

Head of the “Costs, Benefits, Financing” Division at BIBB

Research assistant in the “Costs, Benefits, Financing” Division at BIBB

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 5/2014): MARTIN STUART KELSEY,
Global Sprachteam Berlin