Here we focus on informal education as a spontaneous process of helping people to learn. Informal education works through conversation and dialogue, and the exploration and enlargement of experience. It's purpose, we suggest, is to cultivate communities, associations and relationships that make for human flourishing.
contents: · introducing informal education · what is informal education? · what is the purpose of informal education? · why have specialist informal educators? · what is its relationship to other forms? · the promise of informal educationSome 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 carers 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. However, here we focus on informal education as a spontaneous process of helping people to learn. It works through conversation and dialogue, and the exploration and enlargement of experience. It's purpose, we suggest, is to cultivate communities, associations and relationships that make for human flourishing.
So what is informal education?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 - and spontaneous. 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 centre 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.
- is spontaneous and can take place in any setting.
... and the purpose of 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.
Why have specialist informal educators, what sets them apart?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.
Informal education and other formsWhat 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.
Looking forwardHere, 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.
Further readingJeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Ticknall: Education Now.
For more on infed.org on informal education go to exploring informal education.
Acknowledgement: Picture - conversation by Jason Schultz. Reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdawg/484678361/
© Mark K. Smith 1997, 2005, 2011How to cite this piece: Smith, M. L. (1997, 2005, 2011). 'Introducing informal education', the encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://www.infed.org/i-intro.htm. Retrieved: Enter date].http://www.infed.org/i-intro.htm