Developing youth work: Chapter 7 – Informal education

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In Chapter 7 of Developing Youth Work (1988) Mark Smith argues for the rehabilitation of the notion of informal education. He critiques dominant, administrative definitions and instead looks to process.

contents: introduction · informal education and its alternatives · what is informal education? · critical dialogue · informal education and problems with curriculum · in conclusion · references

This chapter was my first attempt at setting out an understanding of informal education that moved beyond the then dominant understanding of informal education put forward by Coombs (1973) . He saw it as ‘the truly lifelong process whereby every individual acquires attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience and the educative influences and resources in his or her environment — from family and neighbours, from work and play, from the market place, the library and the mass media’. Instead, I turned to process and looked at some particular dimensions including dialogue

The development of this approach to informal education can be seen in my work with Tony Jeffs – Using Informal Education (1990) and Informal Education – conversation, learning and democracy (1996; 1999) and in Local Education (1994). In these later explorations we placed an appreciation of what makes for human flourishing at the core and strengthened the focus on the contrast conversation with curriculum as a key dividing line between informal and formal education.

The notion of informal education has subsequently featured more strongly in what is written in Britain and Ireland about youth work and community education/learning. Unfortunately, those using the term are not necessarily that clear on what they mean by it, and more recent usage of the notion of informal learning has been particularly sloppy.

Mark K. Smith, 2001

links: informal education · informal learning · non-formal education · dialogue and conversation · curriculum · association · using informal education – chapter one · josephine macalister brew and informal education

[page 124] Having dismissed social education as a description of method and made some assertions concerning purpose in youth work, it is necessary to reassess and rehabilitate the notion of informal education. Unfortunately, within youth work, informal education has become entwined with that of social education. For example, the Albemarle Report asserted that the Youth Service provides ‘for the continued social and informal education of young people in terms most likely to bring them to maturity, those of responsible personal choice’ (HMSO, 1960: 103). Goetschius and Tash argued for the use of ‘the tools and techniques of informal education. The method might best be described as social education’ (1967: 134). This apparent absorption of the informal within the sphere of social education helps explain why the concept has rarely appeared in contemporary debates and discussions within youth work. Similarly, the growth of interest within schooling in social education and in schemes such as Active Tutorial Work, combined with a general shift towards extra-mural leisure provision has contributed to the lack of critical attention to the informal within that sector. The story is little different in community work, where ‘the lacunae about informal educational goals and methods… were the most important consequences of the withdrawal of educationalists from community work in the l970s’ (Thomas, 1983: 32).

While the usage of ‘informal’ may often appear confused, its very familiarity and association with ideas which articulate the processes under consideration still make it an attractive label for method. For example, ‘informal’ is commonly used to indicate that something is not of an official or stiffly conventional nature; is appropriate to everyday life or use (such as informal clothes); or is characterized by [page 125] the idiom and vocabulary appropriate to everyday conversational language, rather than formal written language (Collins English Dictionary, 1979). These are very suggestive meanings and are worth pursuing.

Informal education and its alternatives

Informal education is often used to describe the learning activities of everyday life. These are then contrasted with those that occur within the ‘formality’ of the school or college. To this may be added further categories such as the non-formal:

Formal education: the hierarchically structured, chronologically graded ‘education system’, running from primary school through the university and including, in addition to general academic studies, a variety of specialized programmes and institutions for full-time technical and professional training.

Informal education: the truly lifelong process whereby every individual acquires attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience and the educative influences and resources in his or her environment — from family and neighbours, from work and play, from the market place, the library and the mass media.

Non-formal education: any organized educational activity outside the established formal system — whether operating separately or as an important feature of some broader activity — that is intended to serve identifiable learning clienteles and learning objectives. (Coombs, 1973, quoted in Fordham et al., 1979: 210—11)

There are major problems involved in categorizations such as these. These can be demonstrated through a consideration of Jensen et al.’s (1964) well-known distinction between ‘natural societal settings’ and ‘formal instructional settings’: the former being described as the everyday world of individual experience – in the family, at work, at play — where learning is often regarded as incidental; and the latter settings where an ‘educational agent’ takes on responsibility for planning and managing instruction so that the learner achieves some previously specified object. Presumably this covers both the non-formal and formal categories of Coombs et al. (1973).

First, on a narrow definition, ‘educational agents’ could be considered to be people only in the employ or under the jurisdiction of recognized educational institutions who have as their prime task [page 126] enabling people to learn. This would seem unnecessarily restrictive. A more helpful course would be to consider anybody who consciously helps another person to learn as an educational agent, whether that help is given directly or takes the form of deliberately creating an appropriate environment to facilitate learning.

Secondly, there are often occasions when formal instructional settings are created within those environments labelled as natural societal settings. Thus, short courses in management might take place within a community association, individuals may arrange sessions with an expert in their chosen interest or hobby, and the study of theology by house groups may occur in a religious organization. This poses particular problems for the distinction made between informal and non-formal education by Coombs et al. (1973). The ‘life-long processes’ of informal education can actually involve organized educational activity with learning objectives.

Finally, while there may seem to be a commonsense difference in settings, the examples given — the workplace, home and leisure — are no more or less ‘natural’ than a school or college. Work organizations, social clubs, sports centres and families are constructed with a purpose. In this they are no different to ‘formal instructional settings’. However, what could be different are the explicit and implicit purposes to which they are put.

With similar processes occurring within two, or possibly all three of Coombs et al. ‘s (1973) categories, the bases of these divisions looks suspect. The introduction of the notion of non-formal education simply confuses the situation. Further divisions via the nature of the setting add little on their own. To progress it is necessary to examine the characteristics of the learning process and the way in which they interact with objectives and the setting or institution in which the activity is placed. In this way we can begin to make sense of the attraction of the notion of informal education.

What is informal education?

As we have seen, the nature of the setting is one of the basic elements used when describing informal education. It is the first of seven elements I wish to advance as characterizing informal education. We must begin by noting that informal education can happen within a wide variety of settings, many of which are used by others at the same time for completely different purposes. Examples of these would be clubs and pubs. Further, if we consider process, rather than simply institutional sponsorship or a normative idea of setting, then it becomes apparent that informal education may also occur within [page 127] schools and colleges. Perhaps the most obvious examples would be the forms of learning associated with free-time or after-school clubs and activities and timetabled activities that students can choose to attend or not.

Secondly, a central consideration has been the apparently incidental manner in which learning may occur in informal or ‘natural societal’ situations. As Brookfield notes, we should not fall into the trap of equating incidental with accidental:

Although learning occurring outside schools, colleges and universities may be unplanned and accidental, there must be much that is purposeful and deliberate . . . the circumstances occasioning learning may often be outside the individual’s control; for example an enforced job change, childbirth, conscription. However, the individual who decides that the acquisition of certain skills and knowledge is essential to managing such crises and changes successfully is behaving in a highly purposeful manner. (Brookfield, 1983: 12—13)

In addition, it should be remembered that much of what happens within formal instructional settings is unplanned and has unintended outcomes, even though the task focus is on learning and that this involves planning curricula, choosing methods and creating an appropriately ordered milieu.

The question of curricula, or rather of learning objectives, is a crucial one. Lawson has written of the looseness of the concept of ‘learning situation’. He regards this as being so general that it is of little use as a guide to educational practice:

If all learning, in any circumstances, is regarded as education it is impossible to order priorities and meaningless to talk of educational methods and standards because ‘learning situations’ in the unqualified sense develop regardless of priorities, methods or standards; they simply happen. (Lawson, 1974: 88)

On this view, that which is acquired in casual encounters or in many youth work, social work or community work settings does not fulfil an essential educational criterion, in that learning objectives may not be shared by both parties. While, undoubtedly, there is a high degree of looseness about ‘learning situation’, it is dangerous to define the learning process over-restrictedly. Much rests on what is meant by ‘objectives’ and by ‘shared’. For example, there has to be some question as to the degree to which objectives are actually known and agreed to both ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ in so-called formal instructional settings. Are pupils in primary schools fully aware of [page 128] the curriculum, for example? While there may be an agreed broad purpose, objectives may not be shared and agreed. Hence the equating of deliberation and intention in learning with the pursuit of previously specified learning objectives requires special attention.

Central to this consideration is the specificity of objectives and the point at which they are agreed. The process of learning inevitably involves the constant reformulation of objectives as learners develop their understanding. New questions become apparent, other avenues of thought open up. Thus, while learners may be operating within a broadly agreed area, their activities may well take them in unpredictable directions. Perhaps the important distinction is that between aims and objectives. Aims could be conceived of as the ultimate goal, where objectives are the steps by which aims are achieved. To be effective, such objectives will be specific, measurable and have some indication of when they are to be achieved. In this sense the broad direction is given by the aim and specifics by the objective. Thus only a narrow range of endeavours, often linked to examination, could really be said to be characterized by having previously specified objectives in this sense. Dewey (1933), in discussing the role of reflection in learning, presents the activity as purposeful, although the goals may not be clear at the time either to the educator or to the learner. Learners know that they need to sort something out – to put information and feelings in order. Hence learning is deliberate and purposeful in that the people concerned are seeking to acquire some knowledge, skills and/or attitudes. However, the purpose and intent may not always be marked by closely specified goals (Brookfield, 1983: 15).

A third characteristic concerns time structuring. The initial conclusion might be that informal education does not follow timetables, and is not linked to the forms of time organizing associated with schooling and higher education. While there may not be terms, periods, breaks and academic years, forms of time structuring will be present, usually influenced by the institution or setting where the work takes place. For example, pubs and clubs have opening times, there are such things as public holidays, and everyday living inevitably follows certain patterns. Further, many of the settings that informal education could be said to take place within, are linked with academic timetables. These might include school-based youth provision and youth work that is located within local education authorities. Many of those young people engaged in informal learning will also be at school and, for the most part, will therefore only be available for youth work at those times when the school is not operating. [page 129]

A further question that arises in relation to time is the extent to which interventions have a future and a past. Not possessing some of the formalized conventions concerning attendance, and not necessarily having a contract for work over time, informal education can take the form of discrete interventions. There can be a ‘one-off’ quality to some of the work. None the less, the work does not occur in a vacuum and it is often the case that ‘contracts’ are made that involve considerable time spans. Thus, such forms of learning do not lack time structuring, but the structuring is highly variable and can alter according to the particular learning project, the nature of the group and the impact of any number of other, external elements such as ‘closing time’.

Fourthly, people participate in informal education by choice. They engage in learning as a result of their own volition. This element has been asserted because it connects with the fluidity of informal education practice and the disposition necessary for the fulfilment of other characteristics. Thus, while attendance at school may be compulsory, there will be times when participation in certain activities is not required, and when informal educational activities may take place. As involvement is voluntary, there is an assumption that educators do not have to spend large amounts of time on the sorts of control questions that so occupy school teachers. However, important control questions are present. A central problem in this respect is how to control the intrusion of the ‘external world’ into the learning process, be it in the form of music, drunks or toddlers. Another problem concerns how to keep people ‘on the point’ if the situation is ‘informal’. In addition, voluntary participation does imply a degree of motivation but, crucially, it also means that participation can often be withdrawn at a moment’s notice.

Fifthly, informal education is informed by considerable responsiveness between educator and learner and between learner and learner. In other words, it involves a high degree of dialogue. As Moore has argued, this can be determined by the content or subject matter which is explored, by the educational philosophy of the educator, by the personalities of educator and learner and by environmental factors, most important of which is the medium of communication (1983: 157). Undoubtedly the most common medium within informal education is the spoken word, which clearly makes for responsiveness. The notion of dialogue also implies a particular kind of relationship between educator and learner and between learners, one which is based upon mutual respect. All this is discussed at some length later in the chapter.

Sixthly, informal education is distinguished by the use of familiar [page 130] cultural forms and social systems. Rather than create an institution largely separated from, or beyond the day-to-day context in which people operate, informal educators will attempt to work within or alongside forms and structures familiar to, and owned by, participants. This requires an active appreciation of local social systems and the culture of those engaged. The danger here, of course, is of making a false separation between, say, ‘the school’ and ‘the community’. On almost all counts, the school is pre-eminently part of the community; however, the staff may not feel themselves to be. This subjective dimension can be encapsulated in the phrase ‘locus of identity’ (Wallman, 1984: 214). Thus, informal educators’ identities as educators are linked with a commitment to making exchanges with the social systems and culture through which learners operate. That identity tends to be less with their immediate institution, and rather more with the learning processes that can be generated within everyday life. Indeed one way of thinking about informal education is as the informed use of the everyday in order to enable learning. It may be that informal educators identify with the values and view of the world expressed by members of the particular local system, but this need not be the case. However, the essential point is that informal educators adopt or work with cultural forms familiar to those involved. In doing so they may seek to confront them in some way. Finally, for many practitioners, informal education is synonymous with a pattern of learning that might be described as experiential, ‘education that occurs as a result of direct participation in the events of life’ (Houle, 1980: 221). Such a pattern starts with concrete experience, with people doing things. Then, so the model goes, there is a period of reflection and theory-making which leads again to the testing out of new understandings and more concrete experiences (Kolb, 1976). This pattern is contrasted with that which is supposed to reside in formal educational institutions — a process of information assimilation. Here, the process begins with the educator transmitting information through some symbolic medium such as a lecture. The learner then receives information, assimilates and organizes it, uses the general principle gained to infer a particular application, and then takes action (Coleman, 1976: 50). Yet, even a cursory examination of practice soon reveals that both patterns of learning are in use within informal education approaches. There will be times when educators or learners may need to communicate ideas and information in a comprehensive and organized form and will therefore need to utilize the information assimilation pattern. At other moments it will be necessary to begin with an experience and to develop a generalized understanding from it. [page 131]

The focus upon starting points and the debates between those advocating experiential or information assimilation methods tends to divert attention from the process that follows. As Dewey noted in the context of the debate between so-called traditional and progressive education, there is the inherent danger that principles are formed by reaction, ‘instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems and possibilities’ (1938: 6). By becoming wrapped up in the starting point, it often seems that the simple provision of information or experience is enough. The rest of the process is largely ignored and, hence, any understanding of the educative role is somewhat limited. If the information or experience is not interrogated, reflected upon and some theory developed, then there appears to be little educative point to the exercise. A major problem is that within the sort of settings we are considering here, even where there is some appreciation of the need for attention to reflection and theory-making, not enough time may be given over to such activity. This may be a result of inadequate pedagogic skills, though more often it is an outcome of the fact that in the heat of a particular activity it is often difficult to encourage people to think about what they are learning. It is the activity that is the central object of their attention. This is an expression of the classic tension between process and product which has been the subject of some debate within both youth work and community work (M. Smith, 1982: 6-7). Reflection and theory-making are left to the individual and the gains are made smaller than they might be had attention be paid to competences in, and commitment to, theory-making.

In sum, informal education could be said to have the following characteristics:

1. It can take place in a variety of settings, many of which are used for other, non-educational, purposes.

2. The process is deliberate and purposeful in that the people concerned are seeking to acquire some knowledge, skills and/or attitudes. However, such purpose and intent may not always be marked by closely specified goals.

3. Timescales are likely to be highly variable and often structured by the dynamics of the particular institution(s) in which exchanges are set. Most of those institutions will not primarily be concerned with education.

4. Participation is voluntary and is often self-generated.

5. The process is dialogical and marked by mutual respect.

6. There will be an active appreciation of, and engagement with, the social systems through which participants operate, and the cultural forms they utilize. [page 132]

7. It may use both experiential and assimilated information patterns of learning.

When set against the characteristics of formal education, the contrasts are apparent. Formal education will tend to take place in a ‘sole-use’ setting, possess a more explicit and codified curriculum, exhibit different forms of time structuring, participation may or may not be voluntary, processes may or may not be dialogical, and there may not be an active appreciation of the participants’ cultures and social networks. However, we should not fall into the trap of seeing these forms as polar opposites. They are more akin to traditions of thinking. Nor should we regard one tradition as being superior to the other. They contain elements which are appropriate to specific situations and could be seen as complementary to one another. The obvious slippage that can occur when considering these, is the simple equation with classical and romantic notions of education:


Classical Romantic
Subject-centred Child-centred
Skills Creativity
Instruction Experience
Information Discovery
Obedience Awareness
Conformity Originality
Discipline Freedom (Lawton, 1975: 22)


It can be quickly seen from this listing that particular formal and informal educational initiatives could be expressive of either of the two ideal types. However, it is probably true that educators with a more romantic view have been drawn to informal approaches and, as such, have tended to put form before content (Yarnitt, 1980). Linked with this has been an assumption that in some way a concern with process and the so-called romantic curriculum is more radical, more likely to achieve social change. That view is disputed here. First, pedagogic method is secondary to the overall purpose of education. Secondly:

Education aiming to promote the eradication of class division must include, at the very least, some old-fashioned instruction, set into an ordered curriculum, which includes basic information and skills required to execute necessary management tasks. (Lovett et al., 1983: 144)

[page 133] Furthermore, each person must be able to ‘analyse and think on a par with those intellectual traditions he must overcome in order to take up his proper place in civil and political society’ (Gramsci, quoted in Stone, 1981: 241) and such learning is often based upon ‘tedious rote learning of a whole intellectual tradition’ (ibid.). For this reason it is essential to pay due regard to direction and content in any conceptualization of informal education we may care to advance and recognize that an over-reliance upon informal educational methods can actively disable those involved. Just as a focus on enlarging people’s understanding of well-being and developing their civic courage is just one aspect of the educational task, so informal education is just one element of the process.

Critical dialogue

One of the key points of orientation for informal educators is the quality of dialogue that exists in the settings where they work. By helping to create and maintain the conditions and context for dialogue, educators are performing an essential part of their task. The importance of this has been recognized by many youth workers, but often in a somewhat under-theorized way. For example, when exploring the social and leisure traditions of youth work, it was seen that workers used notions such as ‘there was a real buzz’ or ‘people were really talking’ when asked how they judge whether a session had been ‘good’. What features in these judgements is a concern with the nature and experience of communication. Often there is an interest in content, that people are ‘talking about things that really matter’. However, these ideas require rigorous examination.

In everyday usage, dialogue is usually taken to mean something rather more than conversation. It suggests a note of seriousness. For example, in the traditional political arena, the word is often used to denote the exchanges between parties prior to formal negotiation. For the informal educator, five important elements require attention. First, dialogue implies a shared focus. A characteristic of many conversations is that they are often, in reality, separate monologues. The participants have their own themes which they develop as the conversation continues, but the subjects may never meet. Hence, dialogue entails some agreement about what is actually to be talked about, and adherence to this by those involved.

Secondly, dialogue presupposes listening, thinking and talking. It assumes that that participants make an effort to hear what is being said, attempt to understand it and apply their critical faculties before responding. This is not simply the application of a series of technical [page 134] skills. In order to listen, and to engage genuinely in dialogue, participants must respect each other.

Thirdly, while we have been using the example of face-to-face spoken exchanges, dialogue can also exist when using the written word or symbols. Writing letters or communicating via electronic mail would be a reasonably responsive example of such a dialogue, but it could equally be the interaction of reader and writer. Similarly, the dialogue may only involve one person. Sometimes we say that reflection is the mind’s conversation with itself. ‘If not explicitly in language, at least we must admit that this conversation prefigures language’ (Kemmis, 1985: 143).

Fourthly, dialogue requires a language of some form. Language allows communication, social interaction, thought and control. It is a means of transmitting ideas and perceptions of experiences between individuals and provides a medium through which people can categorize, order and direct their experiences, understandings, and relations with other people. These functions do not operate independently.

Individuals come to recognize the ways in which others communicate — the linguistic rules they seem to obey, the styles to which they conform, and the particular symbols they employ to describe the world and to order their knowledge of it. In learning how to use these practices for their own purposes, they internalize certain representations created by other people which can be used in the formulation of their own understandings and interpretations of the world. (Walker and Meighan, 1981: 133)

In this way, the language environment in which people are engaged will come to influence both how people communicate with others and how they conceptualize and think. The informal educator has, therefore, to pay special attention to words and symbols and their context.

Fifthly, the informal educator must be concerned with praxis:

Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed — even in part — the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world’ (Freire, 1972: 60).

Freire places a particular emphasis upon praxis, upon informed action and thinking occasioned by action: [page 135]

The act of knowing involves a dialectical movement that goes from reflection upon action to a new action. For the learner to know what he did not know before, he must engage in an authentic process of abstraction by means of which he can reflect on the action-object whole, or, more generally, on forms of orientation in the world. (Freire, 1985: 50—51)

Goulet has described one of the basic components of Freire’s work as ‘participant observation of educators “tuning in” to the vocabular universe of the people’ (1974: viii). However, ‘tuning in’ is only one element of a process which aims to problematize the historical and cultural reality in which people are immersed. Through dialogue with an educator people come to create a new understanding of words, one which is ‘explicitly critical and aimed at action, wherein those who were formally illiterate now begin to reject their role as mere “objects” in nature and social history and undertake to become “subjects” of their own destiny’ (Goulet, 1974). Instead of existing in a culture of silence and submission, learners are to be encouraged to be creators and to become autonomous.

Along with this laudatory emphasis upon process, two dangers are apparent in the romantic nature of Freire’s work. First, there is a seeming disregard for content and direction. Here, Freire often appears to relapse into the ‘maze of authenticity’ (Lovett et al., 1983: 142), of judging things by some largely rhetorical and non-empirical vision of the true-self. Secondly, there is a tendency towards collapsing the roles of educator and learner. I have already argued that it is necessary to recognize the distinctions between the roles. Even where there is ‘self-education’ there are two roles and a dialogue between them. In this formulation of informal education, the relationship is to be marked by mutual respect and this, in turn, is based upon the recognition of differences. The educator does possess certain forms or combinations of expertise which the learner, by and large, does not. This is not to deny that ‘the relationship between teacher and pupil is active and reciprocal so that every teacher is always a pupil and every pupil a teacher’ (Gramsci, 1971: 350). The learner certainly possesses other forms of expertise which are relevant to the enterprise and of worth to the educator, but this should not lead to the erroneous assumption that they are the same or necessarily of equal interest at that point in time.

The recognition of the significance of dialogue for the educator is of great importance. The relationship between educators and learners is brought into being through the use of forms of discourse and content which are rooted in the culture and experiences of the [page 136] learners and ‘made problematic through modes of critical dialogue’ (Giroux, 1983: 228). This process of enabling ideas, attitudes and experiences to be viewed as problematic, as requiring questioning and analysis, is also directed towards action. Here the notion of praxis is essential, directing attention to the importance of informed action and theory which has a meaning in the world.

Informal education and problems with curriculum

While there is an air of immediacy about informal education practice, of the need to start with the concerns that are presented, this should not blind us to the amount of planning and structuring that is necessary for effective practice. It is often those very activities which appear most unstructured and reactive, which require substantial preparation and critical attention. An obvious example here is detached youth work, where workers would soon be dominated by the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ (Freeman, 1975). Without the usual rhythms and imperatives of building-based work, it is necessary to have a clear sense of purpose and to establish patterns simply to survive, let alone to undertake effective work. The obvious label under which much of this structuring process could be addressed is ‘the curriculum’; however, there are particular problems associated with this concept in the context of informal education.

There is, of course, a confusing range of definitions attached to ‘curriculum’. In its original sense it could be understood to be ‘the prescribed content’ for study. Thus, a curriculum is not a syllabus, which rather suggests a detailed account of materials or resources to be used, nor a statement of aims, but an outline of the subject matter to be studied (Barrow, 1984: 3). However, much writing in the field of curriculum studies has tended to redirect attention from content. For instance, Stenhouse argues that the fundamental questions on which curriculum research and development can throw light on are questions of translating purpose into policy and trying to realize aspirations, whatever they may be (Stenhouse, 1975). This shift came about with a growing awareness of the range of extraneous factors that can make a substantial difference to how content is experienced and what is learnt. Terms like ‘hidden curriculum’ came into common usage and have been applied to an ambiguous range of concerns. As a result, Jackson (1971) talks of the three R’s of rules, routines and regulations that must be learnt by pupils if they are to survive in the classroom; Holt (1969) describes a set of strategies called ‘right answerism’; and Bowles and Gintis (1976) have analysed the social control aspects in terms of ‘correspondence theory’ where [page 137] the attitudes inculcated by the school are said to correspond to those required to maintain the class-based system of production.

The problem with this extension of meaning is that it can become coterminous with ‘education’ and so lose use. As Barrow argues, it is easier to recognize that a curriculum, defined relatively narrowly in terms of content, may have unintended consequences, and then to explore that issue, than it is to be alert to all the conceivable ramifications of a broad concept (Barrow, 1984: 10). For discussion here, I have, therefore, taken Barrow’s adaptation of Hirst’s (1968) definition and view the curriculum as ‘a programme of activities (by teachers and pupils) designed so that pupils will attain so far as possible certain educational and other schooling ends or objectives’ (Barrow, 1984: 11). What this definition of curriculum does leave open is the way in which the content may be prescribed. It may take the form of named activities, situations to be experienced or, for example, specified subjects.

The literature of schooling has exhibited a longstanding concern with ‘curriculum’ while that of youth work and community work has not. The reasons for this are not hard to find. First, as such work is not usually linked to certification there has not been a need to work through a prescribed syllabus. In this sense content has been less to the fore. Secondly, as we noted in our earlier discussion of informal education, purpose and intention may not be marked by closely specified goals. Learning may be apparently haphazard and unsuccessful at times. Thirdly, ‘education’ is only one of a number of interlinking traditions that have informed the development of youth work and community work.

There have been those who have sought to encourage ‘curriculum thinking’ in these sectors (National Youth Bureau, 1975, 1983), but it is, in general, an unhelpful notion, as reflection on Barrow’s definition demonstrates. Central to this consideration is the relative openendedness of both aim and method. It is a characteristic of informal education that exchanges are based around a broad set of aims or concerns within which objectives are formulated and reformulated as the learning project progresses. Such concerns and objectives arise from the dialogues involving educators and learners. Outcomes at any one point may not be marked with a high degree of specificity. The concerns that informal educators bring to their exchanges with young people may be to do with the subordination of girls and young women, the desire to empower the young, to give them an opportunity to enjoy themselves or the wish to see them gain the ability and confidence to organize things for themselves. Similarly, young people will bring another set of concerns which will need to [page 138] overlap in some way if there is to be agreement about programme. It is misguided to call these sets of concerns or indeed the programme that results, a curriculum. First, the level of prescription has to be ‘low’. In such a fluid situation, the important element that educators and learners need to hold on to is the essential direction of their activities. Thus, while there may be a fundamental concern with content in the model of informal education presented here, this cannot approach the degree of specificity that might be expected in some more formal situations. Learners and educators are liable to alter the activities utilized as circumstances and feelings change. When a fair comes to town, youth workers may well close down their building and use the fairground as the site for their activities. Community workers will have to respond to rapid changes in the political, social and physical environment. At one point the concern of the people they work with may be heating bills, at another the closure of a school, at yet another changes in social security regulations. Some educators will be able to describe and utilize a detailed programme of activities that could approximate to a curriculum. To do so they would have to create and maintain a working environment that controls and limits the extent to which the changing concerns of those they work with are brought into the process. In other words, they will have to sacrifice a degree of ‘responsiveness’ when attempting to take people’s current concerns and work with them. While this is clearly important and necessary in a large number of cases, it does alter the nature of the enterprise.

Secondly, there is a rather more pragmatic set of reasons for wishing to avoid the notion of curriculum (as against content). Not only has the notion of curriculum been the subject of definitional debate and somewhat loose usage, but it is very much the property of formalized education. It is steeped in that tradition. Thus, while informal educators must rightly be encouraged to pay attention to content, to express that concern within the language of curriculum is to invite forms of thinking that do not necessarily resonate with informal traditions and the realities of practice. It is important to find a way of expressing the notion of prescribed content, that both links with the language of informal education, and that recognizes the essential differences with formalized education. The way in which the notion of curriculum has been imported tends not to meet these requirements. Indeed, it can all too easily amount to the colonization of a particular educational form by the proponents of another.

If the notion of curriculum is problematic, and significance is [page 139] attached to content, then some other way of conceptualizing this dimension is necessary. Here I have portrayed content at two levels. First, it is necessary for educators and learners to have an idea of the direction in which they wish to go. Thus, educators may bring, for example, a range of concerns about enabling the collective advance of black people or the development of an enhanced understanding of well-being. Given the fluidity of informal education, it is essential that direction or essential purpose is a constant point of reference, both for the learner and the educator. Indeed, it is likely to be a source of tension and debate between both educators and learners and within these ‘groupings’. Secondly, on a day-to-day level, the concern with direction and purpose should lead to a focus upon topic, the actual subject under discussion or investigation. The question here being what the relationship of the particular subject matter is to the concerns of those involved.

In practice, the consideration of direction and topic is an essential prerequisite of any thinking about method. The nature of the topic will have serious implications for the structuring of the learning environment and the means adopted. Similarly, it is likely that the intended direction of learning will predispose people to particular ways of proceeding.

In conclusion

Dewey concluded that ‘one of the weightiest problems with which the philosophy of education has to cope is the method of keeping a proper balance between the informal and the formal, the incidental and the intentional modes of education’ (1916: 9). The assumption that informal education is not an intentional mode has been disputed here. Indeed, it has been argued that informal education is a distinctive method which can be utilized in a range of social settings. Characterized by the central place accorded to critical dialogue, the stress laid upon engagement with learners’ culture and the social systems through which they live their lives, the variety of settings that are utilized and the voluntary participation of learners, the notion of informal education would appear to offer youth work practitioners a useful means of thinking about method.


Consult the full bibliography

© Mark Smith 1988

Reproduced from Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton: Keynes: Open University Press.

First placed in the Archives in April 2001. Refreshed July 2019

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