A brief history of informal education

picture: school children, ghana - bigfoto.com [free to use for not-for-profit sites]A brief history of thinking about informal education. So where did informal education come from? Who are the key thinkers? How does it relate to other ways of describing education?

contents: education from daily life · informal educators in ancient greece · developments in britain and ireland · informal education and philanthropy · developments in educational theory · innovations in schooling · the development of groupwork · thinkers within social movements · theorising informal education

Informal education has been around as long as people have grouped together. One way of thinking about it is as the education of daily living. We can see the process at work in children’s play. For example, this is Nisa, a !Kung woman describing part of her childhood:

And that is how we grew up. We would leave our parents’ village and set up a small, ‘grown-up’ village of our own nearby. We played at gathering food from the bush, at bringing it back and eating it. Then we ‘married’ and played sexually together. We played like that all day….

We entered our huts and stayed there, playing. The boys pretended they were men, that they were tracking an animal and that they struck it with their poisoned arrows. They took some leaves and hung them over a stick, carrying them as though they were strips of meat. The girls stayed in the village, and when the boys came back we pretended we were living there and eating – until all the meat was gone. On the next hunt, the boys took the girls and we followed along. After we found another animal and killed it, we all carried the meat back: the girls in their karosses, and the boys, hanging it on sticks. We played in the bush like that, pretending we were living there, getting water and eating meat. (Shostak 1990: 116, 120-1)

In this example we can see how the children pick-up on what the behaviour they have seen . They are playing – rehearsing conversations and interactions. In so doing they learn about how they should act, and what different situations feel like. At one level this learning may seem incidental – but is not accidental. Parents and others in the village have encouraged, or at the very least permitted, such play.

As well as play we can also find teaching in many aspects of our daily lives. What follows is a short exchange during a family lunch in a small Greek village. The grandmother, Katerina (K), is helping Alexis (A), aged 4, to be aware of being teased by his father, Thomas (T).

T. Do you hear you’ll sleep outside tonight, there; don’t be afraid.

A. Why – ? (Alexis’ mother laughs)…

K. Alexi, your Dad is laughing at you/taking you in.

K. Dad is taking you in silly,: why should I go outside, say.

A. Ah man leave us alone/give us a break over there.

K. Hah

Rosemary Henze (1992) Informal Teaching and Learning. A study of everyday cognition in a Greek community, Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p.68.

Katerina is teaching her grandchild to respond in kind – and it is an example of the ways people teach and learn while they are engaged with each other in doing other things. We could think of it as learning through participation in the events of daily life.

The emergence of specialist informal educators in Greece

At some point specialist educators appeared in different communities. In tribes this may have been associated with the role of elders. In ancient Greece we know that people had ‘jobs’ as specialist educators. For example, Achilles had a tutor, Phoenix, who had the task of teaching him to be ‘both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds’ (reported in the ninth book of the Iliad). Some centuries later, in Athenian society, there were schools (perhaps based on earlier Babylonian models), and there were both teachers and pedagogues.

Pedagogues share some qualities with specialist informal educators. They were family attendants (often slaves) whose duties were to supervise, and be with, the young sons of the house. They took the boys to school and sat with them in the classroom as representatives of their fathers. This was an important task. The schoolteacher only taught boys their letters, the pedagogue taught them how to behave. It was later that pedagogy came to be used to describe the art and science of teaching.

As well as making changes in the form and nature of education, the ancient Greeks also started to build theories about it. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle began to reflect on the meaning and the process of education. In later years some of these ideas and approaches spreading through, for example, Jewish and Roman education. However, it is with the growth of the Christian church that a concern with schooling and with the education of adults gained some significance in Europe.

Developments in Britain and Ireland

In Britain, it can be argued that the first adult educators were the missionaries who came from Ireland or from continental Europe. The church became and remained for many centuries, ‘the greatest educational force in the country’ (Kelly 1970: 1).The clergy had a duty to teach. This they did through preaching, talking with people as they went about their lives, and through more specialized means such as schooling. However, it is with the beginnings of religious non-conformity and the work of people such as John Wycliffe that we see a major shift. Rather than look to the priests around matters of faith, Wycliffe believed that we must look directly to the Bible. For this to happen people – all ‘classes of people’, not just the rich or privileged, had to learn to read. From the late 1370s, ‘Poor Preachers’ started to spread the gospel around Britain.

At the same time we can see a range of activities and people adding to the education of people within daily life. Examples include miracle and morality plays, wandering bards and minstrels and the training involved in membership of the guilds (Bards were important animators of learning in Wales). Significantly, by the middle of the fifteenth century we can find the beginnings of parish libraries. These grew, with the introduction of the printing press (by William Caxton in 1476), and so did the numbers of roving Puritan preachers who were now able to refer directly to their own bible.

In the seventeenth century we see the further development of academies and charity schools, and of libraries. With a growing interest in science and in secular and rational thought, mutual improvement societies, debating societies and coffee houses emerged as places for exploration and discussion. These came into their own in the eighteenth century. We can also find calls for secular adult education and open debate such as that of the Leveller, Gerrard Winstanley (1652) in his Law of Freedom in a Platform, or The True Magistracy Restored (published by Penguin in 1973 – see pp. 361-5).

By the early 1700s there was a further development in the nature of religious adult education. Of great importance was the growth of the Welsh Circulating Schools (which moved from place to place and were attended by adults and children), and the development of church societies and Sunday Schools.

Exhibit 1: Welsh circulating schools in the 1750s

At these Circulating Schools, so anxious were the people to learn their own ancient language, that persons of all ages attended, from six years of age to above seventy. In several places, indeed, the older people formed about two-thirds of the number in attendance. Persons above sixty, attended every day; and often lamented, nay even wept, that they had not leaned forty or fifty years sooner. Not unfrequently the children actually taught their parents; and sometimes the parents and children of one family resorted to the same Circulating School during its short continuance in a district; while various individuals, who from great age, were obliged to wear spectacles, seized the opportunity, and learned to read the Scriptures in Welsh, at that advanced period of life.

Extract from paper included in Thomas Pole (1816) A History of the Origin and Progress of Adult Schools, Bristol: C. Mc Dowall, page 5.

Schools such as these were part of a range of activities ranging from informal discussion and street preaching through to benefit clubs.

In England two of the best known figures in promoting local education were sisters Hannah and Martha More. In the 1790s undertook summer campaigns in Mendip villages to establish Sunday schools, day and evening schools, benefit clubs, distribute bibles – and undertake various other good works so that the lower classes may be formed ‘to habits of industry and virtue’. Hannah had been worried by the arguments of Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man and sought to reconcile the poor to their fate.

Informal education and philanthropy

It is in the nineteenth century that we see the great expansion of provision and the entry of paid workers and informal educators. This is particularly associated with the emergence of philanthropic organizations (developments which are chronicled in Walking informal education. We witness the emergence of:

  • youth organizations. The YMCA was founded in 1844 and within a few months was employing its first worker/secretary. Boys and girls clubs and institutes began to appear mid-century, and uniformed brigades such as the Boys Brigade in the 1890s. See, for example: George Williams and the Central YMCA, Maud Stanley and the Soho Club and Home and Baden-Powell as an educational innovator
  • mechanics institutes – which had their origins in the working men’s libraries and mutual improvement societies of the eighteenth century. These appear to have began around 1810 – with the most famous, the London Mechanics’ Institution, being formed in 1823 (now Birkbeck college). See, for example: George Birkbeck and the London Mechanics Institute.
  • the co-operative movement. From fairly early on, the Co-operative movement in Britain and Ireland placed a significant emphasis on education and improvement. Perhaps one of the most interesting in terms of informal education has been the Women’s Co-operative Guild (founded in 1883) which drew on club forms developed within the adult school movement in order to improve the social and political position of women within the movement.
  • ragged schools and youth institutes. The first ragged schools appeared in the late eighteenth century (the Ragged School Union was founded in 1844) and were concerned with the schooling and welfare of children who were unable to access other forms of schooling. Out of them grew hostels, clubs and various more formal opportunities for continuing education. See, for example: Lord Shaftesbury and ragged schooling and Quentin Hogg and the Youth’s Christian Institute.
  • adult schools. The first adult schools appeared at the end of the eighteenth century and were initially concerned with teaching reading (the bible), writing and arithmetic (see the Welsh Circulating Schools above). Later, in the 1850s there was something a revival of adult schools associated with the Society of Friends. With this came a shift of emphasis to association and discussion. See Quakers and the development of adult schools. A more social form was the working men’s club. See Henry Solly and working men’s clubs.
  • public libraries, galleries and museums. The development of libraries, art galleries and museums have been fundamental to the opening up of opportunities for self-education and informal education. Of particular significance were the emergence of town libraries in the 1600s and parochial libraries and circulating in the early 1700s. There were museums attached to one or two of the early coffee houses (see Coffee houses and informal education) and art galleries in the 1800s (see The National Gallery and Trafalgar Square).
  • working men’s colleges. The first such college. The Sheffield People’s College, was founded in 1842 by the Rev. R. S. Bayley. He had found the Mechanic’s Institutes to be rather narrow in their studies and sought to open up the curriculum to ‘humane studies’. It was followed in 1854 by The London Working Men’s College which was intimately connected with the Christian Socialism movement and thinkers such as Frederick Denison Maurice. The college set out to be a community of teachers and students with a common life.
  • university extension. The term ‘university extension’ first really appeared in the 1840s in Britain but the focus usually falls on the work of James Stuart and the University of Cambridge from the mid 1860s on. He initiated a series of courses in various towns which met with a considerable response – largely from women and teachers. Kelly (1970: 220) notes that it was in this early period that three key features emerged almost accidentally: the printed syllabus, the written work and the discussion period.
  • settlements. Henrietta and Samuel Barnett founded the first university settlement in 1884 (soon to be followed by many others). They were characterized by considerable opportunities for their residents to develop through participation in the life of the association (pa vie associative), the fostering of various clubs, groups and initiatives, and programmes of adult education. See, also, Mary Ward and the Passmore Edwards Settlement and Jane Addams.

The development of education theory

‘Modern’ understandings of informal education owe much to the work of Rousseau (in Emile, and The Social Contract) – and to educators such as Pestalozzi and Hebart – who took up his concerns. Pestalozzi once wrote that within the living room of every household ‘are united the basic elements of all true human education in its whole range’. In Denmark Grundtvig’s exploration of the education in the context of the folk high school also added to this tradition.

From there various aspects of play, environment and learning were explored by Froebel, Montessori and others. A growing appreciation of developmental stages and situations – particularly influenced by the work of Jean Piaget from the late 1920s on also contributed.

However, in terms of taking forward the thinking this century it is the figure of John Dewey that dominates. He picked up on many of the ideas explored by Hebart and others – and infused them with his own commitments and interests. These included a concern with democracy and community; with cultivating reflection and thinking; with attending to experience and the environment. Such interests and ideas were in turn developed by Carl Rogers (in conceptualizing counselling), Eduard Lindeman (in providing a classic statement of adult education), Grace Coyle (in popularizing groupwork), and Josephine Macalister Brew (in youth work) (see below).

Intellectually, perhaps the two most significant figures in the latter part of the twentieth century have been Paulo Freire with his emphasis on dialogue and on seeking to change consciousness; and Ivan Illichwith his concern for conviviality, deschooling and the problems of professionalization.

The impact of innovators within schools

The founding of Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire in 1889 by Cecil Reddie can be taken as the beginning of a remarkable period of innovation within certain strands of schooling. Within what may be described as progressive schooling we see the emergence of some significant innovations that have had both a direct and indirect influence upon informal educators. Many of the these innovations took place within the private sector. Summing up the central characteristics of such schools Stewart writes:

Progressive schools have a belief that education is made for man and not man for education. Uniformly they have a fundamentally religious, if not always Christian, view of the worth of persons; knowledge and competition are subordinate to the ideal of relationship; intellectual achievement is ultimately part of your way of living with yourself and others, and even if you cannot grasp this until much later, your school should so balance your learning and living that you are on the way to seeing that this is a real issue. This demands a proper respect for a range of experience – intellectual, aesthetic, religious, moral, social, physical, emotional, and expressive. It also requires a comprehensive view of what the curriculum provides and what the rest of school life is directed toward. (1968: 362)

Some of the key figures after Reddie include:

  • John Haden Badley who began at Abbotholme and went onto found Bedales. Among the important innovations there were the pioneering of co-education, the use of broadly-based curriculum, a concern for self-development and an interest in more open and democratic relationships within the school.
  • Homer Lane and his work with the ‘Little Commonwealth’. This was an experimental educational community organized a bit like a state with its legislature, judiciary and citizenry. The three principles that were said to run through the work were: ‘the law of love’ – Lane believed that badness was misdirected goodness; to teach citizens that there is no such things as absolute freedom – we can never escape the consequences of our actions; and self government. The members of the community elect the authority that are prepared to accept and make their own laws (see Stewart 1970: 89).
  • Susan Issacs who brought insights from Dewey and Montessori cut with an appreciation of psychology and psychoanalysis to a short but highly influential experiment in education at the Malting House School in Cambridge.
  • Leonard Elmhirst and Dorothy Elmhirst (nee Witney-Straight) and the development of the community at Dartington Hall. Here they sought to combine the revitalization of country crafts and the agrarian economy, the cultivation of creativity and art, with progressive schooling and adult education. Leonard Elmhirst had spent a considerable amount of time India working with Rabindranath Tagore on developing new forms of village education for children; Dorothy Elmhirst had been active in US progressive causes such as The New Republic and had given Eduard Lindeman considerable support in his concern to develop democratic adult and social education.
  • Kurt Hahn and experiments in education around character development and challenge – first at Salem and later at Gordonstoun.
  • A. S. Neill and his comprehensive attempts to fashion a democratic educational community informed by psychoanalytical insights at Summerhill.
  • libertarian educators such as Louise Michel who developed local initiatives stressing creativity, freedom and growth.

To these innovators within the private school sector can be added a few significant individuals within the state sector including:

  • Henry Morris who pioneered the development of village colleges which were designed to incorporate schooling, rural regeneration, village associations and key services such as libraries under one roof.
  • Edward O’Neill who developed a remarkable experiment in education for personal growth through self activity at Prestolee Elementary School (Farnworth, Lancashire) between 1918 and 1951. ‘Children were allowed to work on whatever subject they liked, for as long as they wished and with whom they chose. Everybody was encouraged to go and get, and later put away, anything needed. The monitorial system was completely dispensed with. (Shotton 1993: 165). Innovations included what effectively was an early adventure playground, the use of small group work, and the encouragement of reading everyday forms such as newspapers.

The significance of these educators for informal education is at several levels. First, they provide evidence of the use of informal educational concerns and process within formal educational settings. Secondly, they have provided a range of insights into informal educational processes which has been drawn from their understandings of key theorists tempered by their daily classroom or managerial work. Third, the forms they have adopted have made their mark on the organization of work in other settings such as youth work and adult education. Examples of the latter include the development of community education initiatives (after Morris); the use of craft and the expressive arts; and more communal forms of government (after Homer Lane and A. S. Neill). There were, of course, other influences at work in each of these examples – but these innovations in education were well documented and discussed and helped to define the context in which debates about informal education practice took place.

The development of groupwork

A further, critical element in the development of theorising around informal education has been a growing appreciation of the ways in which groups function and how interventions can be made in them so that they may work for the benefit of their members. Of particular significance here has been that strand of groupwork that looks to interaction. A number of the key figures in the development of informal education theory have also explored and written on such social groupwork (e.g. Eduard Lindeman, Josephine Macalister Brew, Malcolm Knowles and Bernard Davies) – and have drawn upon group work concerns in conceptualizing the work. This is, perhaps, understandable given the emphasis within social group work upon democratic process, associationalism and community.

A number of writer-practitioners stand out in this area. Grace L. Coyle who had been a settlement worker and then on the staff of the YWCA’s Industrial Women’s Department produced an early influential text Social Process in Organized Groups in 1930. Drawing on significantly on Dewey she explored interaction, morale and group function. Two of her later books were especially influential: Group Experience and Democratic Values and Group Work with American Youth (1948). However, arguably the landmark text in terms of practice appeared in 1949: Social Group Work Practice. Written by Gertrude Wilson and Gladys Ryland, this book surveyed the social group work method; different program media (play, games, music etc.) and explored social group work in action in some detail in different settings – pre-school and school, groups of adolescents, young adult groups and adult groups. In one go they had articulated a clear rationale, explored processes and then looked across client group and setting. This is of some significance for informal education as not only were some of its central processes explained – but also the claims of specialism around youth work etc. were somewhat undermined.

Alongside the emergence of practice material there were significant advances in our understanding of group process. Of particular note here is the material generated by sociologists – especially out of the University of Chicago – about the meaning and operation of everyday groups. Examples here include Thrasher’s study of The Gang ((1927) and Whyte’s classic exploration of Street Corner Society (1943). To this may be added the work of Kurt Lewin on action research, group dynamics and human relationships and George Homans on conceptualizing group process.

In the 1950s and 1960s we see Gisela Konopka and Josephine Klein make a considerable impact on practitioner thinking through their writing about group work and their concern with young people and contemporary cultures.

The contribution thinkers in social movements

A further, central strand in the development of informal education thinking has been associated with the activities of various social and political movements – and of key figures within them.

An early influence were the experiments and concerns of early socialists such as Robert Owen (at New Lanark) and William Lovett (and the Chartists). Both were involved in significant educational activities and spent some time articulating the possibilities of more open, inclusive and communal forms. Later, the thinking of writers and lecturers such as Edward Carpenter played an important part in shaping the thinking of head teachers such as Badley (see above)

Further strands arise out of the struggle to establish trade unionism and the desire to open up education to workers. On the one hand there was the development of university extension work, the emergence of Ruskin College, Oxford, and phenomenal growth of the Workers’ Educational Association. (Two figures stand out here – Albert Mansbridge and R. H. Tawney). On the other hand there is what can be described as independent working class education and trade union education. This can be seen as ‘a creative movement from below, a sustained attempt to control their own education in opposition to what they perceived as externally imposed and hostile state curriculum’ (McIlroy 1996: 264). Within there was a considerable emphasis on self-education, study circles and on subject matter that deepened understanding of the political struggle. It is a tradition that has lived on in the interests of a number of more contemporary educators such as Tom Lovett.

To this mix must be added the theorising and practice of socialists in other countries. Perhaps the most significant of these in terms of the way that practice has been conceptualized in recent years by more radical educators is Antonio Gramsci.

Some of the most profound contributions have come from those at the centre of anti-colonial movements. A number of central figures in these movements were educationalists and had an appreciation of the possibilities of education within political struggle. Among these we may list Mao Zsedong and Julius K. Nyerere. Other important figures who wrote extensively on education include M. K. Gandhi. More recently, writers such as bell hooks who look to feminism and post-colonial discourses to develop a critical stance on education, have been taken up by some informal educators to explore their practice.

AA further key influential strand has been second wave feminist writers such Jane Thompson. First wave feminists such as Emmeline Pethick and Lily Montagu had a profound influence on the development of work with young women and girls – and this carried through in some important respects to Josephine Macalister Brew and others.

Informal education theorists

The first full-length exploration of informal education as a deliberate practice was written by Josephine Macalister Brew (at least this is the first that I can find written in English). Informal Education: Adventures and reflections was published in 1946. There had been earlier collections such as that by Layton (1940) around citizenship that focus on informal education; and Lindeman’s and Yeaxlee’s work on adult and lifelong education catch many of the qualities of the enterprise. Malcolm Knowles had his more programmatic version, Informal Adult Education published in 1950.

The next (in time) most significant addition English-language to the literature came in 1966 with the publication of The Social Education of the Adolescent by Bernard Davies and Alan Gibson. Indeed, Bernard Davies has remained the most influential English language writer concerning informal education with young people since Brew.

Within the adult education field there have been a number of important contributions to what might be described as informal adult education or community education. Stephen Brookfield has explored ‘education in the community’, Tom Lovett ‘community education’ and social movements, Jane Thompson has looked to critical adult education and feminism, Myles Horton continued to explore radical adult education, and Alan Tough developed the notion of learning projects.

More directly, there has been what might be called a ‘second wave’ of books on informal education – particularly from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith. Writers within this tradition have looked to various anthropological studies that deepen our understanding of the processes involved (for example the work of Rosemary Henze). The work of Erving Goffman on interactional orders and encounters; the study of conversation by Deborah Tannen, John J. Gumperz and others; and the exploration of literacy events by researchers such as Shirley Brice Heath have also made their mark. Philosophically, the work of Gadamer on conversation, Habermas on ideal speech situations and Foucault on power/knowledge have made some impact on those theorizing informal education.


Castle, E. B. (1961) Ancient Education and Today,, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Henze, R. (1992) Informal Teaching and Learning. A study of everyday cognition in a Greek community, Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kelly, T. (1970) A History of Adult Education in Great Britain, Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press.

Pole, T. (1816) A History of the Origin and Progress of Adult Schools, Bristol: C. Mc Dowall.

Shostak, M. (1990) Nisa. The life and words of a !Kung woman, London: Earthscan.

Shotton, J. (1993) No Master High of Low. Libertarian education and schooling 1890 – 1990, Bristol: Libertarian Education.

Stewart, W. A. C. (1968) The Educational Innovators. Volume II: Progressive schools 1881 – 1967, London: Macmillan.

Winstanley, G. (1652) Law of Freedom in a Platform, or The True Magistracy Restored (republished London: Penguin in 1973).

Acknowledgements: Picture: school children, Ghana – bigfoto.com [free to use for not-for-profit sites]

© Mark K. Smith 1997.