Haltung, pedagogy and informal education

#Haltung by Trending Topics 2019 | flickr ccby2

Within informal education and social pedagogy, the character and integrity of practitioners are seen as central to the processes of working with others. Here Mark K Smith explores how the German notion of ‘haltung’ draws together key elements around this pivotal concern for pedagogues and informal educators.

contents: introductionpatience • haltung, Aristotle and pedagogues and educators the disposition/haltung of educators and pedagoguesin conclusion: haltung, integrity and the process of pedagogy references • acknowledgements how to cite this piece


Pedagogy, as I have argued elsewhere, can be viewed as a process of accompanying people, and:

  • bringing flourishing and relationship to life (animation)
  • caring for, and about, people (caring); and
  • drawing out learning (education) (Smith 2012; 2019a).


These processes lead to a focus on the character and integrity of pedagogues and informal educators – and it is here that the discussion of haltung is helpful.

We find this focus right from the start in the distinction made within ancient Greek society between the activities of pedagogues (paidagögus) and subject teachers (didáskalos). The latter, as Kant (1900: 23-4) put it, ‘train for school only, the other for life’. In short, pedagogues set out with the idea that all should share in life, and an appreciation of what people may need to flourish.

Two roles were common in the activities of early pedagogues (Smith 2006). The first was to be an accompanist or companion – carrying books and bags, and ensuring their wards were safe. The second was to help them learn what it was to be a man or woman. They did this by a combination of example, conversation and disciplining. Pedagogues were moral guides who were to be obeyed (Young 1987: 156).

Today, rather than seeking to ‘train’ or ‘discipline people, most pedagogues try to offer opportunities and experiences that help people to grow, relate to one another and live happier and more fulfilling lives. They look to being with others. As practitioners, we invite people to join, create opportunities and experiences, learn, and change. We do not try to organize their lives for them. We do not seek to impose our ideas and views on them. We do not work on them.

Instead, we travel with people on their journeys and seek to build relationships where people:

  • Learn more about themselves, others and the world.
  • Talk about things that matter to them, are heard, and helped.
  • Act to improve their lives, relationships and communities.

As with the ancient Greek, Roman and Jewish pedagogues, conversation and dialogue remain central to practice. Similarly, today’s practitioners tend to be concerned with the whole person; with what the great educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) once described as head, hands, and heart. Crucially, this holistic mindset does not stop with the individual. Pedagogues and informal educators also look to the communities of which people are a part, and the world in which they live.

Social pedagogy locates these processes in awareness of the social nature of living. Like informal education, it looks to the experiences and relationships of everyday life, and what might call people’s lifeworld (Lebenswelt). Here, following Jürgen Habermas (1987), we use lifeworld to describe the taken-for-granted practices, roles, social meanings that allow for shared understanding and interaction.  Crucially, social pedagogy also makes sociality – connection, community and mutual aid – a core aim.


Writing nearly seventy years ago, one of the great pioneers of informal education and of working with young people – Josephine Macalister Brew – once commented:

Only by the slow and tactful method of inserting yourself unassumingly into the life of the club, not by talking to your club members, but by hanging about and learning from their conversation and occasionally, very occasionally, giving it that twist which leads it to your goal, is it possible to open up a new avenue of thought to them. (1943: 16)

She understood that one of the key virtues we require is patience. Pedagogy – working with – is a process. It involves hope and the ability to wait.

The experiences, feelings, and understandings we deal with often go deep and are complex. It is rare for people to suddenly ‘see the light’ and to work for change. A lot of time is spent in being around for people, sharing in their lives and in small acts that build environments where learning and hope can flourish. Trying to speed things up can block progress and harden opinion.

We also must pick our time to intervene. There are moments when insight and change become possible and we should act quickly. This makes our work complicated. Saying the right thing or being the right person requires we relate to others in sophisticated ways.

Unfortunately, we live in societies where instant results are valued. In our sort of work often the outcomes are not obvious. Change can take time to surface and be seen; in the words of the old French proverb, ‘Rome was not built in a day’. Being patient, and recognizing that important work takes time, is a necessary part of the way of working we are concerned with here. This is also something that others will often require help to learn. Sadly, many of those funding work do not look to the long. Too many just want to be seen to doing something for young people or deprived communities rather than really caring about their wellbeing.


Within informal education and social pedagogy, there is an emphasis on the bearing and attitude of the worker. The German term for this is Haltung. It is also translated as stance, posture or mindset. To qualify practitioners must develop, and maintain, their understanding of the philosophy of the work – and express this in the way they engage with others. As the Social Pedagogy Professional Association puts it, such standards, ‘should be held in a person’s heart and guide their way of living and working’ (SPPA 2016).

Much as is the case with informal educators, pedagogues do not generally set out to spread specific understandings or knowledge. There will be, however, times when they teach – moments when it is appropriate to intervene so that people ‘learn particular things, and go beyond the given’ (Smith 2016, 2018). For most of the time, they are not ruled by a curriculum. Instead, pedagogues and informal educators look to situations, and the experiences of those involved, and then try to work out with people what the best course of action might be. They guide their actions by reference to their Haltung (Eichsteller 2010). It is central to what they do.

Pedagogues act in the belief that, as Bertold Brecht put it some time ago, ‘When taking up a proper bearing, truth …will manifest itself.” (BBA 827/07, ca. 1930, in Steinweg 1975: 101). However, we must, again, return to the ancient Greeks to appreciate how this process works. More accurately, we need to focus on the work of one ancient Greek – Aristotle (384-322 BCE).


Portrait of Aristoteles, imperial Roman copy, Louvre Museum (Wikimedia)

Aristotle placed human experience at the centre of his thinking. He argued that:

… creating happiness is not a matter of fanatically applying big rules and principles, but of engaging with the texture of life, in every situation, with every galloping horse, as we meet its particularity. There are general guides; just as in medicine or navigation, the doctor or the captain will be equipped with knowledge of certain principles, but every single patient and every single voyage will present slightly different problems, which call for different solutions. (Hall 2018: 20)

For him, happiness (eudaimonia) is an activity in accordance with virtue. It is, as Philippa Foot (2001: 97) once put it, ‘the enjoyment of good things, meaning enjoyment in attaining, and in pursuing, right ends’. Aristotle did not see virtues as qualities of character. Rather, he viewed them as habits that can be learned via practice and applied to different situations. However, it is not possible to apply a neat formula or moral code and then read off what ‘right ends’ may be. We must reflect on what we can see, and on what we know, and work out how we should act. We need an active mind and an appreciation of what living well – flourishing – can look like. Aristotle was also very aware that, often, this involved good luck.

Aristotle also recognized that every individual is different and that humans are social animals. Unsurprisingly, he argued for cooperation and conversation. He also practised it. He engaged with others. Indeed, much like pedagogues, Aristotle took part in philosophical debates while walking in the company of his students and co-explorers. Through conversation and cooperation, he believed, we develop individual and shared ideas and habits that help us to act in different situations, and foster happiness in both ourselves and in others.

The disposition/haltung of educators and pedagogues

The haltung of educators and pedagogues is wrapped up with who we are as practitioners, and how we are experienced by others. It is useful here to start with a basic distinction made by Erich Fromm (1979), and others, between having and being. Fromm approaches these as fundamental modes of existence. He saw them as two different ways of understanding ourselves and the world in which we live.

  • Having is concerned with owning, possessing and controlling. In it, we want to ‘make everybody and everything’, including ourselves, our property (Fromm 1979: 33). It looks to objects and material possessions.
  • Being is rooted in love. It is concerned with shared experience and productive activity. Rather than seeking to possess and control, in this mode, we engage with the world. We do not impose ourselves on others nor ‘interfere’ in their lives (see Smith and Smith 2008: 16-17).

These different orientations involve contrasting approaches to learning.

Students in the having mode must have but one aim; to hold onto what they have ‘learned’, either by entrusting it firmly to their memories or by carefully guarding their notes. They do not have to produce or create something new…. The process of learning has an entirely different quality for students in the being mode… Instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, they listen, they hear, and most important, they receive, and they respond in an active, productive way. (Fromm 1979: 37-38)

In many ways, this difference mirrors that between pedagogy and schooling. Schooling entails transmitting knowledge in manageable lumps so it can be stored and then used so that students can pass tests and have qualifications. Pedagogy (and education generally) involves engaging with others and the world. It entails being with others in a particular way and adopting a certain mindset or orientation. Here I suggest it has six key dimensions – being respectful, holistic, engaged, hopeful, informed and wise.


Being respectful

The processes of animation, care and education flow from a basic orientation of respect – respect for truth, others and themselves, and the world. It is an attitude or feeling which is carried through into concrete action, into the way we treat people, for example. Respect, as R. S. Dillon (2014) has reminded us, is derived from the Latin respicere, meaning ‘to look back at’ or ‘to look again’ at something. In other words, when we respect something, we value it enough to make it our focus and to try to see it for what it is, rather than what we might want it to be. It is so important that it calls for our recognition and our regard – and we choose to respond.

We can see this at work in our everyday relationships. When we think highly of someone, we may well talk about respecting them – and listen carefully to what they say or value the example they give. Here, though, we are also concerned with a more abstract idea – that of moral worth or value. Rather than looking at why we respect this person or that, the interest is in why we should respect people in general (or truth, or creation, or ourselves).

Being holistic

As Pestalozzi put it, pedagogues are concerned with head, hands and heart (Brühlmeier 2010). A more modern way of saying this is that we look to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes. But this is only part of the story. Pedagogues are holistic. They look not just to the whole person, but to the relationships and the world of which they are a part. This is how Ron Miller (2000) describes holistic education:

[It] is based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion and peace. Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning. This is done, not through an academic “curriculum” that condenses the world into instructional packages, but through direct engagement with the environment. Holistic education nurtures a sense of wonder. (Miller 2000)

A holistic disposition looks to the whole, and to interconnection.

Being engaged

As we have already seen, there is a strong emphasis within pedagogy and informal education for practitioners to be both involved and committed. Being engaged in this way involves:

  • inviting others to join us in some activity or responding to an invitation to connect;
  • being present in encounters – attending to what others are saying and doing, to the situation and environment, and to what we are thinking, feeling and doing;
  • looking to the needs, lifeworlds and wishes of participants, and to people as a whole;
  • contributing to deepen and extend understanding; and
  • helping people to turn understanding into action.
Being hopeful

Underpinning engagement is an attitude or virtue – hopefulness. As educators ‘we believe that learning is possible, that nothing can keep an open mind from seeking after knowledge and finding a way to know’ (hooks 2003: xiv). In other words, we invite people to learn and act in the belief that change for the good is possible. This openness to possibility isn’t blind or over-optimistic. It looks to evidence and experience and is born of an appreciation of the world’s limitations (Halpin 2003: 19-20).

We can quickly see how such hope is both a part of the fabric of education and pedagogy – and, for many, an aim. Mary Warnock (1986:182) puts it this way:

I think that of all the attributes that I would like to see in my children or in my pupils, the attribute of hope would come high, even top, of the list. To lose hope is to lose the capacity to want or desire anything; to lose, in fact, the wish to live. Hope is akin to energy, to curi­osity, to the belief that things are worth doing. An education which leaves a child without hope is an education that has failed.

But hope is not easy to define or describe. It is:

  • an emotion,
  • a choice or intention, and
  • an intellectual activity.

As an emotion ‘hope consists in an outgoing and trusting mood toward the environment’ (Macquarrie 1978: 11). As a choice or intention, it is one of the great theological virtues – standing alongside faith and love. It ‘promotes affirmative courses of action’ (op. cit.). Yet hope is not just feeling or striving, according to Macquarrie (1978:11) it has a cognitive or intellectual aspect. We develop a language to help make sense of things and to imagine change for the better – a ‘vocabulary of hope’. It helps us to critique the world as it is and our part in it, and not to just imagine change but also to plan it (Moltman 1967, 1971). It also allows us, and others, to ask questions of our hopes, to request evidence for our claims.

Being informed

To animate, care and educate we must have some understanding of the matter being explored and tackled, and the impact our actions could have on those involved. In other words, our interventions should be intelligent.

We expect, quite reasonably, that when people describe themselves as pedagogues or educators, they know something about the subjects they are concerned with. In this respect, our ‘subject area’ as educators is wide. It can involve particular aspects of knowledge and activity such as those associated with community organizing or learning to read. However, it is also concerned with happiness and relationships, the issues and problems of everyday life in communities, and questions around how people are best to live their lives.

We also assume that pedagogues and educators know how to help people. The forms of practice we are exploring here are sophisticated. They can embrace the techniques of classroom management and of teaching to a curriculum that has been the mainstay of schooling. However, they move well beyond this into experiential learning, working with groups, and forms of working with individuals that draw upon insights from counselling and therapy.

In short, we look to pedagogues and educators as experts, We expect them to apply their expertise to help people learn, cope and change. However, things don’t stop there. Many look for something more – wisdom.

Being wise

Wisdom is not something that we can generally claim for ourselves – but a quality recognized by others. Sometimes when people are described as wise what is meant is that they are scholarly or learned. More often, I suspect, when others are described as ‘being wise’ it that people have experienced their questions or judgement helpful, and sound when exploring a problem or difficult situation (see Smith and Smith 2008: 57-69). This entails:

  • appreciating what can make people flourish.
  • being open to truth in its various guises and allowing subjects to speak to us.
  • developing the capacity to reflect.
  • being knowledgeable, especially about ourselves, around ‘what makes people tick’ and the systems of which we are a part.
  • being discerning – able to evaluate and judge situations. (op. cit.: 68)

This combination of qualities, when put alongside being respectful and informed, comes close to what Martin Buber talked about as the ‘real teacher’. The real teacher, he believed:

… teaches most successfully when he is not consciously trying to teach at all, but when he acts spontaneously out of his own life. Then he can gain the pupil’s confidence; he can convince the adolescent that there is human truth, that existence has a meaning. And when the pupil’s confidence has been won, ‘his resistance against being educated gives way to a singular happening: he accepts the educator as a person. He feels he may trust this man, that this man is taking part in his life, accepting him before desiring to influence him. And so, he learns to ask…. (Hodes 1972: 136)

In conclusion: haltung, integrity and the process of pedagogy

From what has already been said, you may well have seen the basic shape of the processes of pedagogy – animation, care and education (see the core processes of pedagogy). In Aristotle’s terms it comprises a leading idea (eidos); what we are calling haltung (phronesis a moral disposition to act truly and rightly, and the ability to reflect upon, identify and decide on ends that cultivate flourishing); dialogue/interaction and praxis (informed, committed action) (Carr and Kemmis 1986; Grundy 1987). In the following summary, we can see many of the elements we have been exploring here.


To this, we need to add what Aristotle discusses as hexis – a readiness to sense and know. This is a state – or what Joe Sachs (2001) talks about as an ‘active condition’. It allows us to take a step forward – both in terms of the processes discussed above, and in what we might seek to do when working with learners and participants. Such qualities can be seen as being at the core of the haltung and processes of pedagogues and informal educators. There is a strong emphasis upon being in touch with feelings, of attending to intuitions and seeking evidence to confirm or question what we might be sensing. A further element is also present – a concern not to take things for granted or at their face value (See, also, Pierre Bourdieu on education, Bourdieu 1972|1977: 214 n1).

Integrity – practising what we preach

When we become a worker or informal educator or pedagogue, we cross a line. We become different from others in much the same way as calling ourselves Christian or Muslim. This can be a difficult thing to get used to – especially if we have to change our role in the community where we live or spend a lot of our time. There is both a practical and moral reason for this. Our role as a pedagogue or worker does not finish when we leave the project or building. We have a community-based role. This means that we can be called upon in all sorts of situations and that we have to keep our wits about us.

The moral reason concerns our realness and integrity. Our behaviour in social situations cannot be seen as being at odds with that at work. Another way of putting this is that our values-in-practice need to be as close to the same as our espoused values (Bolton and Delderfield 2018: 27). Being good to be around in this sense entails trying to:

  • Live our lives according to moral principles like being honest and treating others with respect.
  • Do what we say we will do.
  • Be wise and sound in the judgements we make.

To be accepted by others as pedagogues, informal educators and workers, we must try to practice what we preach. There will be times when we fall short of this – we are only human after all. Hopefully, though, we will have the luck and opportunity to change.


Bolton, G. E. J. (2018). Reflective Practice. Writing and professional development. 5e. London: Sage.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1972|1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. First published in French as Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique, précédé de trois études d’ethnologie kabyle, (1972).

Brew, J. Macalister (1943). In the Service of Youth. A practical manual of work among adolescents, London: Faber.

Brew, J. Macalister (1957). Youth and Youth Groups. London: Faber & Faber.

Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research. Lewes: Falmer.

Dillon, R. S. (2014). Respect. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). [http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/respect/. Retrieved: February 10, 2015].

Eichsteller, G. (2010). The Notion of ‘Haltung’ in Social Pedagogy, The Therapeutic Care Journal. [https://www.thetcj.org/in-residence/the-notion-of-haltung-in-social-pedagogy. Retrieved May 22, 2019]

Eriksson, L. and Markström, A-M (2003). ‘Interpreting the concept of social pedagogy’ in Anders Gustavsson, Hans-Erik Hermansson and Juha Hämäläinen (eds.). Perspective and theories in social pedagogy. Göteborg: Daidalos.

Foot, P. (2001). Natural Goodness. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Forbush, W. B. (1902). The boy problem; A study in social pedagogy 3e. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Grundy, S. (1987). Curriculum. Product or praxis. Lewes: Falmer.

Gustavsson, A., Hermansson, H.-E., & Ha?ma?la?inen, J. (2004). Perspectives and theory in social pedagogy. Go?teborg: Daidalos.

Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. II: Lifeworld and System. T. McCarthy (trans.). Boston: Beacon.

Hall, E. (2018). Aristotle’s Way. Ten ways ancient wisdom can change your life. London: The Bodley Head.

Hodes, A. (1972). Encounter with Martin Buber. London: Allen Lane/Penguin.

Kornbeck, J. (2009). The diversity of social pedagogy in Europe. Bremen: Europ. Hochsch.-Verl.

Scott, C. A. (1908). Social education. Boston: Ginn & Company.

Kant, I. (1900). Kant on education (Ueber paedagogik). Translated by A. Churton. Boston: D.C. Heath. [http://files.libertyfund.org/files/356/0235_Bk.pdf. Accessed October 10, 2012].

Sachs, J. (2001). Aristotle: Ethics, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (https://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-eth/. Retrieved: July 19, 2020).

Smith, M. J. (2006). ‘The Role of the Pedagogue in Galatians’, Faculty Publications and Presentations. Paper 115. Liberty University. [http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/sor_fac_pubs/115. Retrieved January 23, 2012].

Smith, M. K. (2012). ‘What is pedagogy?’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/what-is-pedagogy/. Retrieved: March 16, 2019].

Smith, M. K. (2015). What is education? A definition and discussion. The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/what-is-education-a-definition-and-discussion/. Retrieved: May 27, 2019].

Smith, M. K. (2016, 2018). ‘What is teaching?’ in The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/what-is-teaching/. Retrieved: May 31, 2019].

Smith, M. K. (2019a). Animation, care and education – the core processes of social pedagogy, Developing Learning. [https://infed.org/mobi/animate-care-educate-the-core-processes-of-social-pedagogy/. Retrieved: May 28, 2019].

Social Pedagogy Professional Association (2016). Social Pedagogy Standards. London: SPPA. [http://sppa-uk.org/governance/social-pedagogy-standards/. Retrieved May 22, 2019].

Steinweg, Reiner, ed. (1976). Brecht’s Modell der Lehrstücke. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Young, N. H. (1987). ‘Paidagogos: The Social Setting of a Pauline Metaphor’, Novum Testamentum 29: 150.

Acknowledgements: Picture – #Haltung is by Trending Topics 2019 and sourced from Flickr (ccby2).

This piece includes some revised material from: Smith, M. K. (2015). What is education? A definition and discussion. The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/what-is-education-a-definition-and-discussion/. Retrieved: May 27, 2019].

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2019). Haltung, pedagogy and informal education, infed.org. [https://infed.org/mobi/haltung-pedagogy-and-informal-education/. Retrieved: insert  date].