Some see informal education as the learning that goes on in daily life. As friends, for example, we may well encourage others to talk about things that have happened in their lives so that they can handle their feelings and to think about what to do next. As parents or career’s we may show children how to write different words or tie their laces. As situations arise we respond.
Others may view informal education as the learning projects that we undertake for ourselves. We may take up quilting, for example, and then start reading around the subject, buying magazines and searching out other quilters (perhaps through joining a Quilters Guild).
Many view informal education as the learning that comes as part of being involved in youth and community organizations. In these settings there are specialist workers / educators whose job it is to encourage people to think about experiences and situations. Like friends or parents they may respond to what is going on but, as professionals, these workers are able to bring special insights and ways of working.
Informal education can be all of these things. It is a process - a way of helping people to learn.
In the examples above we can see that whether we are parents or specialist educators, we teach. When we are engaged in learning projects we teach ourselves. In all of these roles we are also likely to talk and join in activities with others (children, young people and adults). Some of the time we work with a clear objective in mind - perhaps linked to some broader plan e.g. around the development of reading. At other times we may go with the flow - adding to the conversation when it seems right or picking up on an interest.
These ways of working all entail learning - but informal education tends to be unpredictable - we do not know where it might lead. In conversation we have to catch the moment where we can say or do something to deepen people's thinking or to put themselves in touch with their feelings.
'Going with the flow' opens up all sorts of possibilities for us as educators. On one hand we may not be prepared for what comes, on the other we may get into rewarding areas. There is the chance, for example, to connect with the questions, issues and feelings that are important to people, rather than what we think might be significant.
Picking our moment in the flow is also likely to take us into the world of people's feelings, experiences and relationships. While all educators should attend to experience and encourage people to reflect, informal educators are thrown into this. For the most part, we do not have lesson plans to follow; we respond to situations, to experiences.
Such conversations and activities can take place anywhere. This, contrasts with formal education which tends to take place in special settings such as schools. However, we should not get too tied up with the physical setting for the work. Formal education can also take place in almost any other location - such as teaching someone to add up while shopping in the market. Here it is the special sort of social setting we have to create that is important. We build an atmosphere or grab an opportunity, so that we may teach.
Obviously, informal educators work informally - but we also do more formal things. We spend time with people in everyday settings - but we also create opportunities for people to study experiences and questions in a more focused way. This could mean picking up on something that is said in a conversation and inviting those involved to take it further. For example, we may be drinking tea with a couple of women in a family or health center who are asking questions about cervical cancer. We may suggest they look at some materials that we have and talk about they see. Alternatively, it could mean we set up a special session, or organize a course. We may also do some individual tutoring, for example, around reading and writing. Just as school teachers may work informally for part of their time, so informal educators may run classes or teach subjects. The difference between them lies in the emphasis they put on each.
So what is informal education? From what we have looked at so far we can say the following. Informal education:
Works through, and is driven by, conversation;
Involves exploring and enlarging experience;
Can take place in any setting;
However, there is more – purpose.
What we are talking about as 'informal education' may well be described in Scotland as community education or community learning, in Germany as social pedagogy, and in France as animation. Similarly, informal educators' concern for justice and democracy may well bring them close to popular educators in South America. Another possible way of describing this way of working is as 'non-formal education'.
We can get into all sorts of side alleys if we spend too much time arguing for our own way of naming the work. We can focus too much on difference and not enough of what is common. However, there is a serious point in thinking about these things. Naming the work in this way or that brings out different qualities, emphasizes different things.
In Informal Education - conversation, democracy and learning Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith look at these terms:
Non-formal education. Some may contrast informal with non-formal education. The people who do this tend to present:
informal education as the lifelong process in which people learn from everyday experience; and
non-formal education as organized educational activity outside formal systems .
The distinction made is largely administrative. Formal education is linked with schools and training institutions; non-formal with community groups and other organizations; and informal covers what is left, e.g. interactions with friends, family and work colleagues. (See, for example, Coombs and Ahmed 1974).
The problem with this is that people often organize educational events as part of their everyday experience and so the lines blur rapidly. These pages tend to contrast informal and formal education to bring out issues around setting, aim and process.
Community education. 'Community education' is also used to describe the work we are interested in. Community educators in Scotland and in many Southern countries have similar concerns and approaches as 'informal educators'. In fact the way that the Scottish Community Education Council defines community education is very close to our view of informal education.
The main difference may lay in the way that workers view the setting in which they operate. Community educators may see themselves as educating for community, in the community. Informal educators may also be working to further democracy and commitment to others, but they may not label the setting for their activities as being 'in the community'. A social worker in a residential home may see it as a community, but not as the community as a whole.
Youth work and community work. Some youth workers and community workers describe themselves as educators. Others may view themselves, first and foremost, as organizers (of groups and activities), or as case or care workers. As a result, youth work and community work can take very different forms. To limit confusion we can focus on aim and 'client group':
youth work: work with young people that is committed to furthering their well-being.
community work: work that fosters peoples' commitment to their neighbours; and participation in, and development of, local, democratic forms of organization.
If we think about these as educational processes, then much of what is claimed to be special about youth work and community work are the very qualities we have been describing as informal education. Examples of this include a concern with conversation, reflection on experience, choice, and participation. In other words, if workers see themselves as educators then their work can be best approached as informal education either with young people or with people in particular communities.
Social pedagogy and social education. In Germany our focus here may be described as social pedagogy and associated with social work and, perhaps, a 'problem-focus'. It is a perspective, 'including social action which aims to promote human welfare through child-rearing and education practices; and to prevent or ease social problems by providing people with the means to manage their own lives, and make changes in their circumstances' (Cannan et al. 1992: 73-4).
Originally, in the mid 1800s, the term was used for a way of thinking about schooling as education for community (or sociality). Hence, social pedagogy is sometimes translated as 'community education'. In North America it was talked of as 'social education' - and connected with many of John Dewey's concerns. In Britain social education has tended to be used rather more to describe the process of fostering personal development and achieving maturity. It has a more individualistic orientation and may not put 'sharing in a common life' at its core, although there has been an emphasis on working with groups.
Animation. Finally, in France and Italy, and among some arts workers the processes we explore here may be described as animation. For example:
using theatre and play as means of self-expression with community groups, children and people with special learning needs. (sometimes called creative-expressive animation).
networking with people and groups so that they participate in and manage the communities in which they live (sometimes called socio-cultural animation).
developing opportunities for pre-school and school-children such as adventure playgrounds, toy libraries, outdoor activity centres, and organized sports activities (sometimes called leisure-time animation).
At one level, we can talk of animation as 'making things move or happen' - much as animators do of cartoon pictures. In this view workers are motivators or 'inspirers'. Some animators (animateurs) are less keen on this emphasis as it can lead to doing things to people, rather than working with them. It is this latter strand that is closest to informal education. Animators in this sense, look to breathe life into situations rather than people. They help to build environments and relationships in which people can grow and have a care for each other.
Here, then, is something of the promise of informal education. Hopefully, informal educators: attend to the vast range of opportunities that arise in everyday settings for learning. look to relationships and processes - and how these can be made more fulfilling. express certain, compelling, concerns - for democracy, justice and respect for others. Informal education's central form - conversation - carries these. value people's experiences and feelings work in ways that help people to deepen their understandings and commitments and to act on them.
In daily life we all act as educators from time to time. But there is also a need for specialists - educators who are skilled in, and committed to, working with people in everyday situations so that life can be more fulfilling and all can share in its fruits.
How does informal education contribute to different areas of work? See practising informal education.
At one level, the purpose of informal education is no different to any other form of education. In one situation we may focus on, say, healthy eating, in another family relationships. However, running through all this is a concern to build the sorts of communities and relationships in which people can be happy and fulfilled. John Dewey once described this as educating so that people may share in a common life. Those working as informal educators have a special contribution to make here.
A focus on conversation is central to building communities. The sorts of values and behaviours needed for conversation to take place are exactly what are required if neighbourliness and democracy are to flourish. What is more, the sorts of groups informal educators such as youth and social action workers work with - voluntary, community-based, and often concerned with mutual aid - are the bedrock of democratic societies./p>
It comes as no surprise then, that those working as informal educators tend to emphasize certain values. These include commitments to:
work for the well-being of all.
respect the unique value and dignity of each human being.
equality and justice.
democracy and the active involvement of people in the issues that affect their lives.
As informal educators we have to spend a lot of time thinking about the values that run through our work. We do not have a curriculum or guiding plan for a lot of the work, so we have to consider how we should respond to situations. This involves going back to core values. Reflecting on these allows us to make judgements about what might best help people to share in a common life.
As we have seen, everyone is an educator - but some people are recognized or appointed to teach and to foster learning. There are three main reasons why specialist informal educators may be needed. First, it may be that some situations demand a deeper understanding or wider range of skills than many of us develop in our day to day lives. Through reflection and training specialists can become sophisticated facilitators of groups and of conversations with individuals. They can also develop a certain wisdom about people and situations because of the opportunities they have. In many communities the role may be fulfilled and developed by 'elders' or by those who are recognized to be wise. In other situations, often linked to the development of capitalism, there has been an increased division of labour. Additional or alternative forms of learning and teaching are needed.
Second, it may be that people do not have the time to spend exchanging and learning with others in the ways they wish or need. Because of their situation, they may not have a chance to engage in the sorts of conversations they find fulfilling. Where we, for example, have to work some distance from home, deal with complex systems or have so much to do simply to get by, the amount of time we can spend in open talk can shrink. In addition, we may choose not to spend time in conversation or doing things with others. With our increased use of different (and often individualized) entertainment media such as television, the amount of time we spend directly engaging with others may well be lessened.
Third, a good deal of the work that informal educators engage in is with other professionals. For example, an informal educator working in a school will have to spend a lot of their time deepening and extending the understanding and orientation of teachers and other staff. With the pressure to produce results and to achieve good test scores, relationships and processes can be easily neglected. Furthermore, there can be a narrowing of educational focus. In these situations, while informal educators may be appointed to work with students, they have to encourage and educate staff so that the needs of students can be recognized and, hopefully, met. To do this informal educators will often need both to develop a detailed understanding of the situation, and (in that status-conscious world) have some sort of professional qualification.
So what sets informal educators apart? If we examine what they are doing, a number of characteristics emerge. They:
place conversation at the centre of their activities.
operate in a wide range of settings - often within the same day. These include centres, schools and colleges, streets and shopping malls, people's homes, workplaces, and social, cultural and sporting settings.
look to explore and enlarge experience.
put a special emphasis on building just and democratic relationships and organizations.
use a variety of methods including groupwork, casual conversation, play, activities, work with individuals and casework. While their work for much of the time is informal - they also make use of more formal approaches to facilitate learning.
work with people of all ages although many will specialize around a special age range e.g. children, young people or with adults. In other words informal education is lifelong education.
develop particular special interests such as in children's play and development; community development and community action; literacy and basic education; advice; outdoor and adventure activities; arts and cultural work; and youth work.
Cannan, C., Berry, L. and Lyons, K. (1992) Social Work in Europe, London: Macmillan.
Coombs, P. H. and Ahmed, M. (1974) Attacking Rural Poverty. How non-formal education can help, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1996, 2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Ticknall: Education Now.
© Mark K. Smith 1997, 2005; First published May 1997. Last update: 03 September 2009