Learning in places – introduction

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We reprint here, as a taster, Zvi Bekerman, Nicholas C. Burbules and Diana Silberman Keller’s introduction to Learning in Places – The informal education reader.

cover - learning in placesAny new book on a widely published topic, especially a rather large book, must explain and justify itself as yet another addition to the literature: Why another book on informal learning? We believe that Learning in Places: The Informal Education Reader fills an important gap in the literature and approaches the problem of formal and informal education in a distinctive way. “Learning in places” suggests that an emphasis on learning “loci” can yield a perspective through which questions regarding formality and informality in education are viewed in relation to the increasing variety of learning sites: the home; the workplace; libraries; museums; popular culture; the media; the streetcorner, the mall, and other “public” spaces; and, most recently, the Internet. Hence we seek to free up the study of learning from constraining assumptions about traditional institutional arrangements and hegemonic definitions of what counts as “learning.” This book recounts teaching and learning processes in a variety of sites and under a range of circumstances.

Moreover, referring to the second part of our title, an “Informal education reader”, this can be read with two meanings: a reader on informal education, or a reader organized in a more informal way. Indeed, it is both. While every essay in this collection is a serious piece of original scholarship on informal education, rigorously reviewed and revised by the editors, the constellation of perspectives here is “informal” in the sense that we have not tried to impose a uniform theoretical perspective, style, or format on the pieces, in order to preserve their character as a polyphonically voiced and internationally representative conversation about the changing meanings and contexts that shape formal and informal education today; indeed, some of the pieces raise fundamental questions on ways in which that very distinction may need to be rethought.

Accordingly, this volume charts what we regard as a transformation in educational thinking, shining light on teaching and learning activities normally on the periphery of study within the field of education. Formal education has long been the preferred daughter of educational theorizing while non-formal education has been relegated to the position of an exotic or poor relative. For the most part, policymakers who approach the subject regard much of non-formal education as supplemental, marginal, or recreational — i.e., not centrally important. Even the rhetoric adopted by those who practice it often seems to assume this position, defining the non-formal in negative terms, as education which is not formal. The full educational potential of non-formal education in a positive sense, as an important and unique domain that is not just a substitute for, or a supplement to, “real” education, is seldom recognized.

Sporadically in the last decades, academicians have approached this subject from a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives. Anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists of education have begun to recognize the need to attend to spheres and sites other than schools, where education takes place. More recently, attempts have been made to discuss the possible contribution of non-formal educational approaches to more formal activities.

High modernity and globalization have raised old and new questions about a variety of educational problems in and out of school. Citizenship instruction, multicultural tensions, distance education, work-place training, and the improvement of school pedagogies are only a few of the challenges confronting education around the world today. In all of these areas, non-formal education has taken on a greater role; yet no concerted effort has been undertaken to create a resource book that can introduce academic, professional, and lay readers to a field which, while not yet fully shaped, is becoming more and more central. Our interest in putting together a collection of papers relevant to non-formal education follows from this situation. Accordingly, we aim to present some of the most promising theoretical advances in the field; to analyze a variety of social, cultural, political, historical, and economic contexts within which non-formal education has developed (as well as those in which it is hidden, erased, or unappropriated); and to probe into the views of knowledge which nourish the development of non-formal learning contexts and the practices through which non-formal learning is implemented.

These theoretical and methodological choices express our intention to treat learning as something that happens in a variety of places and to think of these places as sites that generate learning in a variety of forms, which should force us to reconsider the meaning of “a good education.” Even the informal/formal dichotomy is questioned here and many of the papers in this volume adopt an overall approach that emphasizes the (possible) relation between these two domains.

Opening this volume, Smith examines some aspects of the renewed interest in informal education and explores the possibilities for learning that flows from associational life (la vie associative) in schools. Smith argues that informal education is, essentially, a noncurriculum form that can make a significant contribution to the development of a more convivial public life. It is especially important today, in light of the increasing tendency of neoliberal economic regimes to marketize social services, among them public education, thereby transforming their purposes and functions in ways that have had a deleterious impact on public life. This shift has reconfigured these services so that they can be priced and sold; it has induced people to see them as something to be purchased (if they can afford them), rather than simply as a right they can expect as citizens; it has transformed the workforce from one working for collective aims, with a public service ethic, to one working to produce profits for owners of capital.

Smith characterizes informal education as being based on conversational practices. While he looks positively at the possibility of incorporating informal education into schools, he points out the dilemmas inherent in the idea of “formalizing” informal education, which could undermine the very purpose of ameliorating some of the shortcomings of formal education through including informal learning at schools. Amongst these dilemmas he includes tendencies in the formal system such as the increased use of coursework; the need to address mandated curriculum requirements; and an increased emphasis upon monitoring and bureaucratic activity. By contrast, informal education emphasizes confidentiality; personal discipline; learning about sensitive issues; and the uniqueness of its targets. Smith concludes that alternating the two approaches to education and learning strategies within schools could moderate the impact of neoliberal attitudes in formal education, if policymakers will come to appreciate that the learning involved in associational activity is of fundamental importance to the well-being of society.

The next two articles in this volume approach the home and parents as educators. Ash & Wells and Goldman examine the “forgotten” role of parents, since the development of formal education, as mediating early learning processes. Applying activity theory to the analysis of two different, yet complementary, dialogically-based episodes of artifact-mediated joint activity – one in a museum, the second in a classroom – Ash and Wells argue that the characteristics of productive learning activities are remarkably similar in the two settings. They conclude that those responsible for the design of learning and teaching environments must create conditions that will closely match the principles laid out in the article, where the practice of dialogue improves the possibilities of learning.

Goldman has worked with a team of parents, teachers, researchers and materials developers on a project called PRIMES, dedicated to finding ways to reconnect parents of middle grades students with the school math enterprise. Their assumption was that helping to make visible the mathematics that people do in their lives and showing how it is connected to the school math of their children would begin to lay a foundation for more productive parental involvement in school math. The work they report on here makes the case for parents’ continued role in the learning process especially after their children leave elementary schools, and shows that parents have a knowledge base for being truly helpful. Goldman’s basic conclusions are that:

  • Parents use math successfully in their everyday lives, whether they label it as “math” or not; and
  • Once invited to do so, parents can use these everyday competencies to support their children in their math achievements.

The growing presence of after-school programs in the U.S.A offered an opportunity for Hull & Greeno to re-examine and challenge two common assumptions within the field of education. The first is that the ways people learn and develop differ, of necessity, depending on whether the context for learning is formal or informal, within school settings or outside them. The second assumption examines and challenges the hierarchical relationship that is commonly assumed between school and non-school: that learning out-of-school — through participation in after-school programs, for example — should be supplemental to learning in school. They argue for a reversal of this relationship: that school should be understood as being supplementary to students’ out-of-school worlds. Hull and Greeno present their arguments through an examination of cases of mathematics and literacy learning in classrooms, after-school programs, and workplaces. In some instances, powerful learning takes place at school, and in such cases the best relationship to an after-school program is one of seamless continuation. But in other instances — and Hull and Greeno suggest that these might be in the majority -— school is organized in less than optimal ways, and children have less than optimal chances to develop relationships with teachers and with subject matter that support their learning. In such instances, learning in other contexts is not helped by close association with school activities.

In discussing the construct of identity, the centerpiece of their analysis, Hull and Greeno review different ways of theorizing identity and agency, principally the idea of identity and agency as positional (in respect to interactions and to subject matter), and as connected to entering a discourse. In the course of their analysis, they challenge common misconceptions related to formal learning (usually associated with the institution of school) and informal learning (usually associated with non-school worlds), especially learning in after-school or out-of-school programs.

Nocon and Cole “steer” between two theoretical interpretations of the function of schooling: one seeing it as, a tool for access to participation in a democratic society for future citizens and workers; and the other seeing it as a means of colonizing immigrants and the poor by the state and industry in a process of rationalized distribution of access to wealth and power. Nocon and Cole focus on after-school programs and ask whether they are invaded by school and hence also play a role in these processes of colonization and restricted access. They describe the Fifth Dimension, a model (Cole, 1996) used to create systems of mixed activities: Children come to play (and learn), adult students come to learn (and play); researchers and community members come to work (and play and learn). The authors’ general argument, which moves between the evaluation and the revision of this after-school educational model, is that while potentially “semi-colonizing”, after-school programs complement formal schooling as valuables sites of informal education because they provide low income and immigrant children with access to social development and learning without failure.

Continuing the line that links a conceptual consideration of formal and informal learning settings, Callanan and Braswell’s research concludes that parents have a unique perspective on their children’s learning in both informal and formal settings. They reach these conclusions by studying children’s interactions with the Alice’s Wonderland exhibit in the San Jose Science Museum; interactions that were enhanced when parents accompanied the children. An analysis of parent-child conversations related to science concepts suggests that these conversations greatly improved the chances that children would link their museum experiences to abstract scientific concepts. From this perspective, Callanan and Braswell found that parents’ participation in informal education activities with their children supports and strengthen formal learning

In their paper Maynard and Greenfield show how formal schooling as well as exposure to television and commercial activities transform the ways in which learners respond to informal learning in traditional settings. Maynard and Greenfield present historical research that diachronically and synchronically explores the nature and development of cultural teaching and learning in traditional communities in Mexico. Cultural teaching adapts to changing ecocultural circumstances; parents and sibling socialize children in accordance with a changing world. Cultures develop fairly general models of cultural teaching that are the foundation for further adaptation to environmental change. Maynard and Greenfield stress the connection between the adaptive modes of cultural teaching and particular emphases in cognitive development. From an evolutionary perspective, adaptation of informal education to a changing environment is connected to cognitive ontogeny. Active participation in learning in a particular domain leads to cognitive development in that domain. Further experience with a given cognitive skill in a new domain can lead to cross-domain generalizations of the skill in question. At the same time, cultural teaching conceptualized as the ability to teach according to a particular cultural model with techniques and tools adapted to the developmental level of the learner also respects the constraints of cognitive maturation.

Shugurensky’s article reflects on the political and social landscape of Latin America and examines the informal civic and political learning that occurs in local processes of deliberation and decision-making. His article has two main sections. The first advances a conceptual discussion of informal learning; the second draws upon theories of situated learning and of participatory democracy, as well as other current research, to analyze the pedagogical dimensions of the participatory budget of Porto Alegre, Brazil, an experiment in local democracy that has been in place since 1989.

Dichotomizing not between formal and informal learning places, but between the social and cultural contours of informal learning places, Duensing’s article examines case studies of science and technology museums and science centers as cultural creations and cultural institutions. Duesing argues that like formal education institutions, informal education institutions reflect the cultural contexts in which they exist. In their exhibits and educational programs these centers develop and disseminate images and understandings concerning both the content and process of science and of learning. Different museums and centers do this in different ways, but they are all embedded in socio-cultural contexts of museum practice, science, and public education as well as national and local cultural milieus that influence the form and content of their presentations. This chapter examines different ways in which exhibits and programs have been designed and adapted by museum staff to fit particular cultural contexts in science centers in a variety of different countries. Duensings’ discussion centers on ways in which these adaptations perpetuate certain cultural norms, thought, and practices, and she explores the kinds of learning experiences the museum creates for its visitors, which can then lead to issues of access and potential connections to formal classroom practice, as discussed in other chapters of this book.

Informal learning in advanced industrial societies has grown in quantity, quality and thematic subjects, and it is in this context that Livingstone’s article offers a broad picture of this situation. Livingstone examines different conceptions of informal learning, summarizes and critically assesses the empirical research to date on the extent of informal learning in advanced industrial societies, and offers suggestions for future research on informal learning practices with a particular focus on survey research.

“Hanhaia” is the Hebrew word for group working and its use in Israel (a society where traditional and modern tendencies of development and conservation interweave) offers some insights that might possibly be used by the large number of NGO’s dealing with education toward values. Values education is a strategy that stresses the function of values as adaptation facilitators that, through values clarification, alleviates the need to face basic existential dilemmas in daily life. Beckermans’ article examines group work as a pedagogical approach implemented in informal educational settings, and he questions the types of goals it achieves in areas related to values education. He assumes that new identities are not built solely on the basis of a rejection of traditional views nor by simply buying into critical perspectives, but, rather, by formulating and offering symbolic and concrete alternatives to the ones under suspicion. He thus questions the extent to which the pedagogy under examination ultimately serves to challenge or support hegemonic modes of thought. Through the analysis of in-depth interviews, he uncovers mediating hegemonic cultural strategies that dwell in the practices of this pedagogy. His paper cautions theoreticians and educators about supporting uncritically any pedagogical strategy whatsoever — whether informal or other.

Envisioning the possibility of theorizing about the common characteristics of the principles and practices that generate modern informal education, Silberman-Keller aims to arrive at a characterization of “non-formal pedagogy”. The underlying assumption of Silberman-Keller’s essay is that any given pedagogy, whether humanistic, conservative, liberal, or critical, creates and reflects a narrative that includes its ideal vision of educators, learners, and teaching and learning processes. Images of time and place are created and shaped within the exclusive narrative framework of every type of pedagogy. Her essay introduces the concept of “non-formal pedagogy” and interprets one of its characteristic practices as the active creation and reflection of images of place and time. She assumes that images of place and time configure and are configured by specific practices performed during educational activities in non-formal educational settings. Although the research that has fed her essay draws from a variety of representative educational institutions that comprise a “non-formal educational system” (including community centers, youth movements, historical, art and science museums that run educational activities, advocatory and interest educational organizations and local government units dealing with non-formal education activities), Silberman Keller believes that similar images of place and time characterize non-formal educational practices as a social and cultural phenomena across contexts. On the basis of this assumption, it might be possible to state that non-formal pedagogy interprets the term “education” in a specific and special way.

Burbules focuses on what he calls “self-educating communities,” groups engaged in formal, informal, or non-formal teaching and learning activities amongst themselves. His primary interest is with online self-educating communities, those using the Internet as an educational medium. The first section of his paper offers a typology of the kinds of online networks that are formed with such co-education in mind. His second section discusses the internal practices and norms that allow these networks to act successfully as self-educating communities, and the areas in which these practices and norms can run into conflict with one another. His third section situates the discussion against the background of different conceptions of formal, informal, non-formal, and life-long learning.

Completely blurring differences between formal and informal settings, McDermott’s critical article concludes that theories of in-genious or disabled learning have been treated as if they were a resource in the explanation of different kinds of children and different kinds of learning. McDermott claims that learning theories are not in our lives just to help us explain differential learning. Rather they are a part of what must be explained, taken into account, and confronted. They and the institutional demands to which they answer are part of what must be changed. We do not need new theories of learning as much as new institutions for their emergence and application; we need not change our theories of learning as much as we need to change ourselves.

In closing but not concluding this “Introduction”, it is worthwhile to think of Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch, in which he presents various possibilities of reading a novel and/or by extension, every book. He proposes a linear order and alternatively an order that allows “jumping” — like playing hopscotch — from chapter to chapter according to a delineated and alternative plan of order the of chapters. It is in this sense that the order of chapters presented in this Introduction reflects one way of reading the thematic relations between them. But we are aware that there are many more interrelations that can be drawn. The reader is thus invited to create his/her own pattern of reading and cross-reading the insights of Learning in Places.

Contents: Zvi Bekerman/Nicholas C. Burbules/Diana Silberman-Keller: Introduction – Mark K. Smith: Beyond the Curriculum: Fostering Associational Life in Schools – Doris Ash/Gordon Wells: Dialogic Inquiry in Classroom and Museum: Actions, Tools, and Talk – Shelley Goldman: A New Angle on Families: Connecting the Mathematics of Life with School Mathematics – Glynda A. Hull/James G. Greeno: Identity and Agency in Nonschool and School Worlds – Honorine Nocon/Michael Cole: School’s Invasion of «After-School»: Colonization, Rationalization, or Expansion of Access? – Maureen A. Callanan/Gregory Braswell: Parent-Child Conversations about Science and Literacy: Links between Formal and Informal Learning – Ashley E. Maynard/Patricia M. Greenfield: Cultural Teaching and Learning: Processes, Effects, and Development of Apprenticeship Skills – Daniel Schugurensky: «This Is Our School of Citizenship»: Informal Learning in Local Democracy – Sally Duensing: Culture Matters: Informal Science Centers and Cultural Contexts – D. W. Livingstone: Informal Learning: Conceptual Distinctions and Preliminary Findings – Zvi Bekerman: «Dancing with Words»: Narratives on Informal Education – Diana Silberman-Keller: Images of Time and Place in the Narrative of Nonformal Pedagogy – Nicholas C. Burbules: Self-Educating Communities: Collaboration and Learning through the Internet – Ray McDermott: Situating Genius.

Taken from: Zvi Bekerman, Nicholas C. Burbules and Diana Silberman Keller (2006) Learning in Places – the informal education reader, New York: Peter Lang. [See publisher’s details]

© Zvi Bekerman, Nicholas C. Burbules and Diana Silberman Keller 2006
Reprinted here with permission