Learning in the community and community learning

Picture: Modern learning by Tony Hall. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence.

Learning in the community and community learning. The idea of learning in the community has been around for some time. But what is it, what does it involve, and how does it relate to the notion of community learning – popularized in Scotland?

Contents: introduction · learning in everyday life and formal instructional settings · learning in the community · community learning · further reading and references · how to cite this piece

Discussions of learning in the community and community learning tend to be fraught with problems. Learning in natural settings is confusingly set against the formality of the school; learning and education get substituted for each other; and there is often a lack of clarity about the role and purpose of the educator. Here we will try to look at the conceptual basis of learning in the community.

Learning in everyday life and formal instructional settings

Our starting point is the setting of everyday life against the life of the school or college. While this distinction can be found in much of the literature it is far from straightforward. Jensen’s (1964) distinction between ‘natural societal setting’ and ‘formal instructional setting’ is a case in point. The former is described as the everyday world of individual experience – in the family, at work, at play – where learning is often regarded as incidental. The latter are settings where an ‘educational agent’ takes on responsibility for planning and managing instruction so that the learner achieves some previously specified object.

Let’s look at this distinction a little more.

First, we need to be careful of words such as ‘natural’. Whilst there may seem to be a common-sense difference, 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 do not appear naturally but are constructed with a purpose. In this they are no different to ‘formal instructional settings’. What is different are the purposes to which they are put.

Second we should not equate ‘incidental’ with ‘accidental’. As Brookfield (1983: 12-13) comments:

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.

Third, we have to be careful with the idea of ‘educational agents’ (Smith 1988: 127). On a narrow definition they could be considered to be people only in the employ or under the jurisdiction, of recognized educational institutions who have as their prime task enabling people to learn. This would seem to be an unnecessarily restrictive definition given the sort of situations where people do much of their learning. I think it is probably more productive to take ‘educational agents’ to be anyone who consciously helps another person to learn – whether that help is given directly or takes the form of creating an appropriate environment to facilitate learning.

Fourth, while an advantage of formal instructional settings is that the task focus concerns learning – and that this involves planning curricula, choosing methods and creating an appropriately ordered milieu – much that happens within such settings is unplanned and has unintended outcomes. Attention must also be paid to the degree to which objectives are actually known and agreed to both ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ in such settings. Whilst there may be an agreed broad purpose, objectives may not be shared and agreed. We must also consider purposes which are not open to the ‘learner’ and perhaps not even known to the ‘teacher’. The ‘hidden curriculum’, the way in which the setting is organized, is clearly a factor here.

Fifth, to add to the confusion, there are often occasions when formal instructional settings are created within those institutions labeled as natural societal settings. Thus short courses in management might take place within a community association, classes may happen in a farming co-operative and the study of theology in house groups may occur in a religious organization. Crucially, there is the whole area of individual learning projects.

The scale of learning projects undertaken by individuals outside of formal education provision is formidable. In Sargant’s study of UK provision one in six people are trying to learn about or teach themselves something informally – at home, at work, or elsewhere (1991: 15) (see participation in learning). Tough, in a famous American study (1967) initially described this as ‘self-teaching’ – where learners assume responsibility for planning and directing their studies. As he developed his approach Tough tended to conceptualize his approach in terms of learning projects. These he defined as a series of related episodes, adding up to at least seven hours where more than half the person’s total motivation is to gain and retain certain clear knowledge and skill, or to produce some other lasting change (1976: 31). His ‘typical’ adult had been involved in around eight different learning projects during the year prior to the interviews. This result is somewhat different to that of Sargant – much of this can be put down to the nature of the survey, and the way questions are asked and interpreted.

From this discussion we can see that within the daily round there are various situations and institutions in which people take responsibility either for fostering their own, or others’, learning. Some of these situations will be formal, such as when sitting down with someone to teach them to read or to add up; some will be informal. Sometimes this may take place within an institution known as a school; at other times within other forms. As Kenyatta (1961) argued in relation to Africa, we ignore at our peril, indigenous educational traditions. The adoption of ‘Western’ patterns of schooling can not only bring with them assumptions about the significance of certain bodies of knowledge – they can also fail to engage with the rich educational potential of local life.

Learning in the community

In recent years the work of Stephen Brookfield has provided one of the more interesting ways of conceptualizing the phenomenon.

Exhibit 1: Brookfield on learning in the community

Stephen Brookfield’s (1983) book Adult Learners, Adult Education and the Community, is one of the most coherent contemporary discussion of learning outside conventional educational frameworks. His approach is via the hypothesis that this phenomenon has certain features:

  1. It is deliberate and purposeful in that the adults concerned are seeking to acquire knowledge and skills.
  2. Such purpose and intention may not, however, always be marked by closely specified goals. Learning may be apparently haphazard and therefore unsuccessful at times. A tenants group faced with a massive increase in rents may spend much time engaged in unprofitable and inappropriate enquiries as they are initially unable to specify the terminal skills and knowledge they require to achieve their broad objective.
  3. It occurs outside of classrooms and designated educational institutions and does not follow the strict timetable of the academic year.
  4. It receives no institutional accreditation or validation.
  5. It is voluntary, self-motivated and self-generating. Adults choose to engage in this learning, although the circumstances occasioning that choice may be external to the learner’s control (as in the example in point 2).
  6. Acknowledging that the term ‘learning’ is a gerund – a word which can stand as a noun or verb – it is used (here) in its active sense. Thus, learning refers to the process of acquiring skills and knowledge, rather than an internal change of consciousness. (Brookfield 1983: 15)

Brookfield’s approach has a number of strengths. He highlights the fact that learning is happening all the time outside ‘educational institutions’. Crucially, he is able to bring out the purposeful nature of the activity while at the same time showing that it does not conform to those models of education which ask for tightly specified goals. Other key dimensions are also present – such as engagement in the activity by choice. His focus on learning as a process rather than a change of consciousness is useful as it helps to keep in view the fluid and changing nature of what we are exploring. In this we do need to bear in mind that his focus is on learning in the community. The task of educators (following his 1986 formulation) would be to ‘manage the external conditions’ (op cit: 46) so that such a process can take place. In the case of individual or self-directed learning projects the learner would also take on the role of educator (Tough 1967 described these efforts at one point as ‘self-teaching’).

This said, there are some problems around his formulation.

First, the definition limits learning to the process of acquiring skills and knowledge, and this would appear to be unnecessarily constraining. Why has the conscious acquisition of attitudes and values been left out? Negative feelings:

can distort perceptions, lead to false interpretations of events, and can undermine the will to persist. Positive feelings and emotions can greatly enhance the learning process; they can keep the learner on the task and can provide a stimulus for new learning. The affective dimension has to be taken into account when we are engaged in our own learning activities, and when we are assisting others in this process. External influences to validate the worth of individual learners and groups of learners are often needed. (Boud, Keogh and Walker 1985: 11)

Second, Brookfield appears to set school against ‘community’. There is:

  • learning in the community; and
  • learning in the school (or formal institution).

The former specifically excludes the latter and Brookfield does not specify at this point what ‘community’ means. In the definition it is simply something beyond the school or formal educational institution. Talking about educating or learning ‘in the community’ does not mean making a crude distinction between the school or college on one hand, and the community on the other (Smith 1988). Schools and colleges link into the very social systems that many see as constituting communities (Bell & Newby 1971: 48-53). In this sense educators can be as much ‘in the community’ when teaching the second year German, as when they are engaged in a heated discussion about the local authority spending in the tenants association. Learning or educating in the community, I would want to argue is not simply work which takes place beyond the school or college fence. It involves a particular way of making sense of practice and location.

To be fair to Brookfield – at this point he is considering something called ‘learning in the community’. Later on in his book he looks at community adult education in its various UK and North American manifestations. However, I think that these points still stand.

Lastly, Brookfield’s focus derives more from the tradition of individual learning projects (after Tough) than from the associational and social concerns (see social pedagogy) linked to other European models. (Central to his research was a detailed study of a number of adult learners). This means that on the one hand it becomes rather more embracing – the range of activities covered is wider. On the other hand it loses, to some extent, its social and political edge. It is education in the community rather than education for community.

Community learning

In the United States the notion of community learning tends to be utilized with regard to extension of opportunities to children. For example, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CLC) program enables schools to stay open longer, “providing a safe place for homework centers, intensive mentoring in basic skills, drug and violence prevention counseling, helping middle school students to prepare to take college prep courses in high school, enrichment in the core academic subjects as well as opportunities to participate in recreational activities, chorus, band and the arts, technology education programs and services for children and youth with disabilities” (www.ed.gov/21stcclc/). Currently around 1600 rural and inner-city public schools in 471 communities–in collaboration with other public and non-profit agencies, organizations, local businesses, post-secondary institutions, scientific/cultural and other community entities – are participating as community learning centres.

Community learning centres have also begun to appear in a one or two countries as a result of USAID activites (see learnlink). The Ghanian centres, for example, have been set up to ‘to enhance basic education, train teachers, develop local businesses, strengthen municipal administration and civil society organizations, and provide health care information’. They make use of the notion of a ‘telecenter’ – particularly exploiting the use of the internet

In Scotland we have seen the growing replacement of the notion of community education with that of community learning (this is very similar to the shift from adult education to lifelong learningelsewhere). In part this is an aspect of political rhetoric masking a movement into more individualistic approaches to learning. However, the notion of ‘community learning’ does hold the possibility of more associational and collective endeavours (and here the link to the strong tradition of community development in Scotland is apparent).

Exhibit 2: Communities: Change through learning

The Scottish Executive (1999) Communities: Change Through Learning. Report of a Working Group on the Future of Community Education, Edinburgh: The Scottish Office.

Our vision for Scotland is of a dynamic learning society. A democratic and socially just society should enable all of its citizens, in particular those who are socially excluded, to develop their potential to the full and to have the capacity, individually and collectively, to meet the challenge of change. The learning society will provide an active and informed citizenship.

Community education is a key contributor to lifelong learning and plays a significant part in combating social exclusion. Through its commitment to learning as an agent for change, it supports the Scottish people to improve personal, community, social and economic well-being. Primarily community education is more a way of working than a sector of education. Its unique contribution is to create learning opportunities within and for communities.

Community based learning opportunities for all ages are as important to the realisation of our vision as schools, colleges and universities. The whole of the education system, other public services and the voluntary and private sectors require to collaborate to realise it.

The capacity of individuals and groups of all ages to participate in developing their own learning is crucial to improving their quality of life. Through learning, people can come to make a real contribution to their own communities and participate in local and national democratic processes. Through learning, people can build the confidence and capacity to tackle wider social and economic issues, such as health or community safety. Skills can be acquired at many levels which are applicable in any walk of life. Sometimes these are essential skills, such as literacy or basic life management, which those who have benefited most from the formal education system take for granted. Without them, social exclusion is much more likely. With them, people can increase the opportunities for moving into further and higher education and into employment. Through them, local people can develop productive partnerships with other agencies relating to a wide range of social, economic and health as well as educational needs.

For both individuals and communities, the results of community education can be tangible and lasting. That is what makes it a subject of critical national importance.

(Executive summary)

Part of the problem is that ‘community learning’ is used in a rather loose way and there does not appear to have been much overt conceptualization. However, from this statement we can see that it is the role of community educators to foster both learning in the community and community learning (people engaging with each other to bring about changes that enhance local life).


Bell, C. and Newby, H. (1971) Community Studies, London: Unwin.

Boud, D. et al (eds.) (1985) Reflection. Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan Page.

Brookfield, S. D. (1983) Adult Learners, Adult Education and the Community, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. An investigation of adult education in the community with sections on individualised approaches, group approaches (including community adult education) and themes around supporting adult learners in the community.

CeVe (1990) Pre-Servicing Training for Community Education Work, Edinburgh: Scottish Community Education Council.

Jensen, G. Et. al. (eds.) (1964) Adult Education: Outlines of an Emerging Field of University Study, Washington DC: Adult Education Association of America.

Kenyatta, J. (1961) Facing Mount Kenya, London: Mercury Books.

Lovett, T. (1975) Adult Education, Community Development and the Working Class, London: Ward Lock.

Sargant, N. (1991) ‘Learning and ‘Leisure’. A study of adult participation in learning and its policy implications, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Smith, M. (1988) Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton Keynes: Open Uinversity Press.

Tough, A. (1967) Learning Without a Teacher. A study of tasks and assistance during adult self-teaching projects, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Tough, A. (1976) ‘Self-planned learning and major personal change’ reprinted in R. Edwards, S. Sieminski and D. Zeldin (eds.) (1993) Adult Learners, Education and Training, London: Routledge.

Acknowledgement: Picture: Modern learning by Tony Hall. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/anotherphotograph/582897120/.

How to cite this piece: Smith, Mark K. (1996, 2001) ‘Learning in the community and community learning’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/learning-in-the-community-and-community-learning/. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith. First published July 1996. 2001