Using informal education – Chapter 1: using informal education

using informal education

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contents: informal education and other educational forms · characteristics of informal education · formal and informal · the problem of curricula · content, direction and process · identity, personality and role · conclusion · return to main contents


[page 1] Informal education has been an element of practice within casework, schooling, youth work, residential care and the Probation Service for some time. It has been an important part of the activity of community organizations. Yet it has rarely been given sustained attention, though this has changed somewhat in recent years, as the contributors to this book show. Within the criminal justice area, for example, as Debbie Saddington suggests, there has been a shift towards crime prevention and reduction, increased community participation and some form of education which reflects a move from pathological to interactionist perspectives. This has produced an increased readiness in some quarters to look at informal approaches. David Burley argues that the pressure to inject more ‘relevance’ into secondary school provision has led to a growing interest in informal approaches. Forms of work, complementary to the formal, have emerged which allow teachers to establish different relationships with their students. Within residential work the shift to community care and changes in the way people with severe learning difficulties are viewed has had a similar impact, as Don Blackburn and Mal Blackburn report. Finally, in youth work dissatisfaction with the largely rhetorical notion of social education has led to a reawakening of interest in informal education. With such changes taking place it is important to examine how informal education is actually understood and practised within different arenas and to explore some of the central questions and issues that arise for practitioners.

Informal education and other educational forms

Informal education tends to be defined by its relationship to formal education. While this is important, it is too easy to characterize [page 2] informal education negatively as the bit left over. It is better to identify the positive attributes and compare these with more formal approaches. This allows us to assess the claims made for the ‘improving qualities’ of informal education rather than merely presenting it as a blanket alternative to, say, casework or classroom work.

In the chapters which follow a number of elements are emphasized. There is the focus on the everyday. On the one hand Don Blackburn and Mal Blackburn explore the process of dealing with, and learning from, the apparently trivial tasks of day-to-day living. On the other, Glynis Francis examines the possibilities of connecting with fundamental aspects of people’s lives. She also stresses the crucial importance of social relations in informal education. Debbie Saddington talks about its largely relaxed atmosphere and the way in which it connects with, and feeds off, other tasks such as those associated with community groups. Elizabeth Afua Sinclair underlines the centrality of addressing and working with the culture of the learners. Anne Foreman highlights the personality and role of the practitioner. Both David Burley and Pauline Gertig examine the way in which informal education may be approached from more formal contexts. John Ellis brings out the conversational, story­telling dimension. Above all he, along with the other contributors, stresses the need to ensure that learning is seen as the responsibility of the learner. Much of the educator’s task is concerned with enabling people to take that responsibility.

All this indicates that there is something distinctive about informal education. It is a useful starting point to consider it as a set of ideas and processes which pay particular attention to, and make use of, the fabric of daily life. Workers have their professional identity significantly moulded by that fabric. Familiar relationships and institutions provide much of the material and context for intervention. At the same time practitioners also draw upon those traditions of thinking and acting which we define as education. They do so in a way which allows processes and institutions to develop which make sense in, and of, the context in which they are applied. These do not necessarily conform to the regular or prescribed forms of the educational system. One way of catching part of the flavour of the approach is to describe it as ‘using the familiar critically in order to further learning’.

We can see in this the importance of informal education for practitioners At one level there is the potential of informality: the concern to connect with familiar cultural forms, the flexibility of [page 3] response, and the desire to make interventions which make sense in people’s lives all hold promise, as the contributors to this book demonstrate. At another level there are the possibilities of education, which are particularly attractive to those practitioners who feel constrained by what they perceive as ‘policing’ or ‘conditioning’ forms of practice.

At this point several things need saying. What we are describing here is primarily an approach to educating: a form of pedagogy. As such, informal education emphasizes certain values and concerns: the worth placed on the person of the learner, the importance of critical thinking, and the need to examine the taken for granted. At the same time, informal education need not imply particular content, other than that arising directly from the processes adopted and the values they express. This is an important point to grasp. Informal education is a special set of processes which involves the adoption of certain broad ways of thinking and acting so that people can engage with what is going on. It cannot be simplistically defined by a set of curricular aims.

Further, it is not an approach to educating confined to those who define themselves first and foremost as educators. It goes beyond a simple concern with setting or organizational sponsorship. In this we differ from those writers who focus on situations and often use a threefold typology, referring to formal, informal and non-formal settings or environments.

Formal situations are bureaucratic, non—formal are organised but not necessarily in a bureaucratic environment and informal situations are ones where there are no pre—specified, although there are always covert, procedures of interaction. (Jarvis 1987: 70)

Here the school and the classroom may be seen as offering the paradigm for a formal setting. Within it people play clear roles within a bureaucratic or ‘official’ organization. Non—formal education may thus be defined as:

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 and Ahmed 1973, quoted in Fordham et al 1979: 210-11)

Informal situations are defined as occurring in social interaction between family members, friends, acquaintances and so on.

[page 4] We find this particular focus on, and view of, the setting unhelpful and suspect. It is difficult to see what it adds to our understanding and, indeed, it can confuse (Smith 1988: 127—8). Most definitions of the formal and non-formal appear to apply to professional interventions, to educators sponsored by bureaucratic organizations. However, non-professionals often facilitate learning in both formal and ‘non—formal’ educational situations. We can also see professionals engaging with informal environments as Jarvis conceives them. It is our contention that the question of sponsorship should be separated from that of setting: we can think of informal and formal settings in which professionalized or non-professionalizcd interventions may occur.

Giving too much attention to setting may mean we miss the point. Practitioners who are engaged in what they call ‘informal education’ are largely concerned with processes and interactions: they are interested in the way in which different dimensions combine and connect to make a distinctive form of pedagogy. By focusing on the setting we might not only miss the significance of pedagogy also of the practitioner. There certainly has been a tendency within some discussions of informal primary education, and within youth work, to almost apologize for the interventions that practitioners make. In some way the process is seen as having to be natural and spontaneous. Planned interventions by practitioners are considered something of an aberration, to be apologized for. This is not a view we hold.

Informal education is clearly something different from paying attention to the so—called ‘hidden curriculum’. The latter may be taken to mean those things which students learn, ‘because of the way in which the work of the school is planned and organized but which are not in themselves overtly included in the planning or even in the consciousness of those responsible for the school arrangements’ (Kelly 1982: 8). Such a concept need not be restricted to the school. The organization and planning of residential work, social work, youth work and community work also convey similarly powerful messages. Having recognized this, practitioners may then use the informal education approach in order to create an environment in which certain things enter the ‘overt curriculum’. However, they could equally use more formal means.

We must recognize that informal education and community education are often confused. It is difficult to argue a concrete case for differences between the two ideas as community education is a Will-o-the-wisp which defies comparative analysis. There are obvious [page 5] difficulties in attempting to define it (see, for example, Martin 1987; Fletcher 1987; and Clark 1987) and it is often used to include all forms of educational (and many non-educational) intervention. It is pointless to attempt to clarify such rhetoric. However, we do need to note that informal educators have been subject to a number of the same intellectual and political influences as many of those who call themselves community educators. For example, Lovett (1988) singles out the writings of Bernstein, Illich and Freire. Bernstein (1971), he suggests, reinforced the belief that language and culture were major barriers in attracting working class people to education:

Consequently, more attention was paid to working-class and popular culture. Freire confirmed this approach with his concept of cultural invasion and the importance of using everyday life and experience as cultural material in an educational dialogue about concrete issues and problems, linking reflection and action in a continuing praxis. (Lovett 1988: 145-6)

Illich (1973) focused on the de-institutionalization of education. The need was to think anew in terms of learning networks which utilized ‘a variety of educational resources, formal and informal, including the skills and talents of people themselves’ (Lovett 1988: 146).

We should note the way in which the notion of informality has been used within primary schooling in Britain. As Alexander (1988: 148) has commented:

Certain words have acquired a peculiar potency in primary education, and few more so than ‘informal’. Never properly defined, yet ever suggestive of ideas and practices which were indisputably right, ‘informal’ was the flagship of the semantic armada of 1960s Primaryspeak . . . spontaneity, flexibility, naturalness, growth, needs, interests, freedom . . . self—expression, discovery and many more.

Important thinkers can be invoked as contributing to the significance of the informal — Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel and Dewey to name but a few (see, for example, Blyth 1988: 7-24). However, since the 1960s the terms of educational debate have altered somewhat and ideas have had to be reformed or redressed in the rhetoric of the moment. It is now less common to hear informal approaches to primary education being advanced as a blanket alternative to formal [page 6] ones. When we look at usage within discussions of primary schooling, the most consistent form now appears to be the noun informality’, rather than the adjective ‘informal’: instead of informal education, we might examine informality in pedagogy, in curriculum, in organization, in evaluation and in personal style (Blyth 1988). What is being examined is a tendency. This development is helpful. Much that has been described as informal primary education would not fit the definition of informal education advanced here: it would either be seen as formal, but containing significant elements of flexibility and openness, or as an informal interlude in a formal programme (more of this later). More recently, and helpfully, certain strands of what was known as informal primary education, for example, person—centredness and a process—orientation, have been reworked within the organizing notion of the ‘organic curriculum’ (Hunter and Scheirer 1988).

There is often an automatic assumption that informal education means working with small groups. For practitioners who have been used to individualized interventions or structured large groups such as classes, one of the distinctive experiences of informal education may be the use of group work. This is certainly a key medium but it is not the only one. Practitioners may equally be committed to working with individuals, whether directly or through the production of materials and so on; they may also have to intervene in large formal settings such as public meetings and in complex contexts such as youth clubs.

Characteristics of informal education

A number of elements appear to combine in a distinctive form which can be labelled informal education. Here we want to note seven which are drawn from Smith (1988: 126—33) and are illustrated with reference to material in the rest of this book.

To begin with, we can see that informal education can take place in a variety of physical and social settings: there is no regular or prescribed form. Many locales will be primarily for other, non-educational, purposes. For example, in welfare rights work, people are, first and foremost, concerned with finding a way out of some concrete financial problem. Anne Foreman examines the processes in a youth club where the primary focus may be on the pursuit of leisure activities. However, as David Burley demonstrates, informal education can also take place in contexts associated with schooling, like school clubs, visits and residential trips.

[page 7] The nature of the setting has an impact upon what can be done —and not just at a physical level. Educators (and participants) need to explore how a setting is experienced and how this influences who takes part and how they function. They also have to appreciate the ways in which the setting may relate to the needs of the ‘client group’. These considerations can be seen clearly at work in Glynis Francis’s discussion of working with community groups. The classic tension is between the work required by a particular activity, such as planning a play scheme or organizing a handball club, and what the group or individual can learn from the process. The primary task for the group or individual is the achievement of some concrete activity or object, rather than learning. Not only can this lead to frustration on the part of educators, it also requires the making of some fine judgements and sensitive interventions. Educators are not there to hijack what groups are trying to do. Yet their interventions have to be primarily directed towards promoting understanding rather than the success of the particular project in hand.

While much of the learning that occurs may initially appear to be incidental, it is not necessarily accidental. We are concerned here with purposeful and conscious actions. The specific goals may not be clear at any one time either to the educator or to the learner. Yet the process is deliberate, in that the people concerned are seeking to acquire knowledge, skills and/or attitudes, even if the goals are not specific (Brookfield 1983: 15). What educators do is contribute to the development of the context and conditions which allow the desired ‘internal’ change we know as learning to occur. When we look at much youth work practice, for example, it can be seen that the learning cited as evidence of youth workers’ educational activities is often, in fact, accidental: the context for learning is frequently not the focus for intervention. The particular activity involved cannot, therefore, be labelled education.

The timescales involved are likely to be highly variable and are often influenced by the dynamics of the institution(s) in which the work is taking place. Practitioners can become dependent upon a range of factors over which they have little control, such as pub opening hours, or the times when people go to the shops. There are also questions of pace and of the relative open-endedness of much informal practice. As Debbie Saddington comments, the process is often slow, with all sorts of apparent cul-de-sacs and diversions. However, when we examine the scale of what is often attempted, and what it actually means for the lives of those worked with, a feeling of slow progress is hardly surprising. This can be heightened [page 8] by the lack of access to appropriate means for testing progress. In other words, it is only when someone has to act that the extent of learning becomes clear. If that opportunity does not arise, or if educators are not clear about what they are looking for, then a sense of drift can set in. It is often the case that there is no clear end to the work. One thing can lead to another, as the examples in Anne Foreman’s chapter demonstrate.

One aspect of informal education noted by many here is the extent to which participants have control over the content of learning. The term ‘negotiated learning’ is used several times to describe the process. The idea of a contract between the educator and the participants is also underlined. Don Blackburn and Mal Blackburn suggest that such negotiability should apply to both content and method. However, most contributors go beyond negotiability and suggest that participation must also be voluntary and is often self-generated. This poses a fundamental question. To what extent is it possible to describe a process as informal if participation is forced —as is the case of many in probation day centres, residential settings and schools?

It is possible here to make a distinction between the general requirement, for example, of attending a day centre and participation in different activities. While people may have to be in the centre, they may well have a choice as to whether they take part in certain pursuits. Although those voluntary activities may be conditioned by their context there is at least some room for informal practice. This will not be without difficulties, as Blackburn and Blackburn’s discussion of the preparing and serving of food in residential settings shows. It may be that residents, perhaps as part of a group decision, have to take a share in these activities. However, being required to help with the cooking is quite separate from any educational work about how residents may feel about this requirement. The acid test is whether people freely choose to engage in such reflection.

With the voluntary nature of informal education goes a ‘romantic’ view of the relationship between educators and learners. It is without a doubt significant that people can choose whether to engage in the process or not. Similarly, the nature of the relationship may be affected by the fact that much of the activity is mounted ‘on the participant’s ground’ (see below). However, this should not be taken as meaning that power differentials disappear or that the roles of enabler and learner are somehow collapsed into one. The statement ‘we are all learners here’ may well be true at one, highly generalized, level; but it also confuses the real situation. As we have seen, the [page 9] primary task of educators is to ‘manage’ the external conditions that facilitate the internal change called learning (Brookfield 1986: 46). This distinguishes them from the learners, who are primarily concerned with the internal act of learning. Where learners take on educational responsibilities, where they set their own learning goals, locate resources, devise learning strategies and are responsible for evaluating the progress made towards the attainment of those goals they have become educators: they are engaged in self-education self-directed education (Brookfield 1986: 47). This may well be a goal for some informal educators. However, confused usage of the word ‘learning’ should not be allowed to cloud fundament differences.

Many of the following chapters focus on the dialogical nature of informal education and on the mutual respect involved. It is not simply that informal educators engage in conversations but that they give careful attention to words, the ideas that they express and the actions that follow. ‘Dialogue should be considered as a form of action aimed at the transformation of our normal communication patterns combined with continuing reflective evaluation of that action’ (Allman 1987: 221). Allman goes on (222) to make a useful distinction between discussion and dialogue.

Discussion focuses primarily on allowing each person to express or communicate and thus clarify in their own minds what they think. By contrast, dialogue involves an exploration of why we think what we do and how this thinking has arisen historically.

In other words, it is an invitation to critical thinking: to identify and challenge assumptions and explore and imagine alternatives (Brookfield 1987: 15). Beyond that it is an opening to action. It is here that the scale of the task that many informal educators are engaged in becomes clear. What is involved is often nothing less than transforming perspectives: the process by which people ‘come to recognize their cultural induced dependency roles and relationships and the reasons for them and take action to overcome them’ (Mezirow 1983: 125). As John Ellis later comments, such a change is necessary to avoid new ideas being colonized by the old viewpoint. A central aspect of dialogue in this respect is an emphasis upon collaborative forms of working. This entails:

a conscious challenge to and transformation of the relations and rituals of our normal form of group communication, discussion, wherein, though socially gathered, people operate as separate [page 10] individuals verbally expressing, sometimes exchanging, what they already know. (Allman 1988: 97)

One of the important features of this process is that it is often initiated by an external circumstance or stimulus. ‘Only rarely does a change in thinking patterns happen because of a person’s self-willed decision to become more critically reflective’ (Brookfield 1987: 24). Such events, and the dialogue that is necessary to make sense of them, can be, and often needs to be, handled within formal structures. Yet the location, orientation and relative ability of informal educators to use such events means they have a special contribution to make.

Dialogue is not value-free. It involves a certain view of the world and of women’s and men’s place within it. As Freire notes (1985: 43), ‘All educational practice implies a theoretical stance on the educator’s part. This stance in turn implies — sometimes more, sometimes less explicitly — an interpretation of man and the world’. We have to accept, and make a commitment to, the philosophy that infuses this notion. This can be seen at work in the process. The educator focuses upon the thinking and actions of the other person. The task is to enable that other to make sense and build theory. This is not done by trying to impose a way of thinking but by asking questions and making statements which enable the other to clarify and problematize his or her own thinking. The same process will often occur when working in groups where there can be a group focus on one individual’s thought and action, with the other group members working to help that person clarify and refine his or her understanding. In so doing they also enhance their own learning and enlarge their abilities to participate in dialogue. At other times educators will be alone in the group in their concern to clarify and problematize the thinking of another.

A respect for persons is a precondition for productive dialogue: degrading circumstances and treatment must be opposed. ‘The snobbery and patronizing attitudes of the privileged, and the feelings of deference which they foster— the status hierarchy by which people are appreciated not for their personal qualities but for their social position’ (Baker 1987: 4) must also be rejected. A respect for truth and for justice, a commitment to collaborative working and a belief in reflectiveness and theory making are all necessary. Crucially, this last belief must connect with action: there has to be some promise of the dialogue resulting in changed or better informed behaviour.

[page 11] Informal educators must have an active appreciation of, and engagement with, the social systems through which people operate and the cultural forms they use. As Brew put it ‘one should use the language of the people’ (1946:40). Rather than creating an institution largely separated from, or beyond the day-to-day context in which people operate, informal educators will attempt to work with or within forms and structures familiar to, and owned by, the participants (Smith 1988: 130). Debbie Saddington, Anne Foreman and John Ellis, for example, look at clubs as sites for informal education and Don Blackburn and Mal Blackburn examine some of the daily rhythms of residential life. One of the important features of this process is that educators pay careful attention to the way in which notions of informality are understood by the people they work with. A particular educator’s understanding of ‘informality’, may not be shared by other participants. A concern for staying with the developing understandings of the participants is central to informal education and this can take on a particular meaning where practitioners are operating across class, ethnic and gender divides.

The identity of informal educators is bound up with a commitment to a dialogue with the social systems and cultures through which learners operate. This involves constantly looking for the learning which can be generated within everyday life. The result can be an enhanced appreciation of the main areas of ‘need’, the generation of more relevant educational forms and the possibility of better informed work, as John Ellis suggests. It should also allow an awareness of crucial political and cultural questions such as those raised by Elizabeth Afua Sinclair. Above all, it should give a measure of protection against the cultural imperialism of some forms of education. The whole purpose of informal education is to develop forms of thinking and acting that fit the situations that people find themselves in. In the end this can only be done by the participants, which makes their analysis and view of the world a central reference point.

Lastly, and contrary to much received opinion, informal education is not only concerned with the pattern of learning usually known as ‘experiential’. There is a sense, as Dewey suggests, in which all genuine learning comes about through experience. However, that ‘does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educational. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other’ (1938: 25). Problems appear as soon as we begin to ask what we mean by ‘experience’. Some writers have tended to use experience in a concrete rather than cognitive sense. As [page 12] a result it is possible to argue that there are at least two broad, but separate, patterns of learning: the experiential and the information— assimilational (see, for example, Coleman 1976). The classic expression of the former is Kolb’s learning cycle. This begins with concrete experience, proceeds to observation and reflection, then to generalization and abstract conceptualization, then to active experimentation which in turn produces concrete experience. The whole cycle then repeats itself (Kolb 1976). This circular process can then be compared with the supposedly linear process of information assimilation. This begins with the educator transmitting information through some symbolic medium such as a lecture. Some of that information is then received by the learner, assimilated, organized, made into a general principle, applied and action taken. These patterns, as outlined, have different strengths and weaknesses. One pattern may be more usefully applied to a particular situation than the other (Coleman 1976).

Informal education may, as Glynis Francis and Anne Foreman suggest, put people’s experiences at the centre. It may also be person-centred. However, this does not mean that informal educators forego information giving as a technique. In fact, in a number of the accounts that follow (see, for example, Gertig) we see informal educators at certain points offering information rather than attending to concrete experiences. A community worker working with a tenants’ group may be asked to provide information about the local authority or about, say, the Housing Action Trust programme. This assists and informs dialogue.

We may conclude that informal educators are not tied to the use of one pattern or style of learning. The adoption by some of so called ‘experiential learning’ as a central element is perhaps best seen as an aspect of informal educators’ search for a professional identity. This parallels the eagerness of some adult educators to construct an empirically verifiable theory of adult learning.

If we could discover certain empirically verifiable differences in learning styles between children (as a generic category) and adults (as a generic category), then we could lay claim to a substantive area for research that would be unchallengeably the property of educators and trainers of adults. Such a claim would provide us with a professional identity. It would ease the sense of insecurity and defensiveness that frequently assails educators and trainers of adults in all settings when faced with the accusation that they are practising a non-discipline . . . Such a revelation is unlikely to [page 13] transpire for some considerable time, and it may be that the most empirically attestable claim that can be made on behalf of adult learning styles concerns their range and diversity. (Brookfield 1986: 33)

Informal educators who fail to be sensitive to the possible range of learning styles are also likely to be paying insufficient attention to the cultures with which they are working.

The formal and the informal

Some contrasts with formal education are clear. Formal education will tend to take place in a ‘sole-use’ setting; have a more explicit and codified curriculum; show 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 people’s cultures and social networks (Smith 1988: 132). The institutions and practices associated with the paradigms of organization —the school, college and classroom — will tend to mould the identity of formal educators. However, as Ellis demonstrates, there are marked pitfalls to thinking of informal and formal education as mutually exclusive. They are more akin to traditions of thinking: a programme of informal work may well have formal interludes and the formal programme may gradually change its character. The latter is clearly shown in the work Pauline Gertig describes in relation to carers. The former can be seen where, for example, the practitioner works with individuals in order that they may reflect upon their experiences and begin to build theories. Similarly, formal programmes, as Elizabeth Afua Sinclair shows, can be structured so as to encourage the development of informal learning networks and contain within them a parallel concern to enable dialogue.

It is in this area that the limits of purely informal approaches become clear. Where people are seeking to make sense of their experiences and insights it is quite likely that more formal means will be needed. As John Ellis points out, informal approaches have their shortcomings for dealing with complex questions. Earlier we used the example of the group which focuses upon the learning of one member. That group has to work out and agree certain rules and procedures in order to function. Those sessions where the group consciously uses these ‘rules’ are to some extent formalized. They may entail some explicit agreements concerning objectives, setting and procedures. It is in this sense that we have talked of informal education having formal interludes.

[page 14] Educators can find that as soon as they appear the situation alters and the group or individual starts functioning in a different mode. Some practitioners, uncomfortable with the sporadic and ‘unfinished’ nature of informal work, seek comfort in order and activity; their intervention, perhaps unconsciously, is directed at formalizing the informal. At certain times formalization is appropriate. There will be periods when educators will be involved in more structured work with groups and individuals. As needs change so will the form of intervention. Indeed, it may no longer be appropriate for informal educators to devote much time to working with certain people. Workers commonly find themselves, as Glynis Francis comments, helping people to identify or construct courses and study programmes that meet their own learning needs — A process sometimes described as ‘hatching and despatching’. Whether we define an activity as formal or informal is largely a question of balance and time. For work to remain informal the formal was to remain an ‘interlude’.

The movement between the formal and informal may not simply take place within education: it may for example, be a movement from education to more structured forms of casework. The social worker may choose to use different forms of intervention in order to approach varying areas of concern. The central point here is that if practitioners operate in only one mode they are likely to be less than effective. There is a need to examine the process of blending the informal and formal and to pay attention to the means by which practitioners switch between modes. This creates many problems.

The problem of curricula

We have already noted that a detailed curriculum is one of the things that demarcates formal from informal education. At the same time a number of schemes have sought to introduce curriculum elements into informal practice often in order to control it. David Burley notes the use of informal education within schools in connection with the profiling of students. Within youth work, as Anne Foreman remarks, there has been a growing emphasis on curriculum by key agencies such as the National Youth Bureau and HM Inspectorate. Don Blackburn and Mal Blackburn discuss the use of Individual Programme Plans (IPPs) by some residential agencies. The central question here is the extent to which the introduction of curriculum thinking alters the educational form. There are dangers in inserting a notion formed in one context into another.

[page 15] The IPP approach is a useful example of what can happen. It has often included an assessment framework, based upon behavioural objectives. As Blackburn and Blackburn comment, although people with learning difficulties may be involved in a choice of goals when constructing an IPP, the choice is effectively limited by the menu of skills provided in the assessment. A strong focus on curriculum content can easily lead to a type of prescription that undercuts the opportunity for dialogue. The same problem faces those informal educators who, while not having a thorough set of curriculum objectives, do have a specific remit: They may be sent out with, say, a brief to tackle alcohol abuse among young people. The expectations of their managers may conflict with the fact that their interactions with young people are not easily contained within the suggested framework. Pauline Gertig shows how practitioners with precisely detailed objectives often move away from these as their relationship with a group or individual deepens. In other words, there is a shift in emphasis from the objectives of educators, to participants’ concerns and interests: a sign that dialogue is possibly occurring.

The adoption of curriculum thinking by some informal educators appears to have largely arisen from a desire to be clear about content. Yet there are crucial difficulties with the notion of curriculum in this context (Smith 1988: 136-9). These centre around the extent to which it is possible to have a clear idea, in advance (and even during the process), of the activities and topics that a particular piece of work will include. At any one time, outcomes may not be highly specific; similarly, the nature of the activities to be used often cannot be predicted. We may be able to say something about how the informal educator will work. However, knowing in advance about broad processes and ethos is not the same as having a knowledge of the programme. We must therefore conclude that approaches to the curriculum which focus on objectives and detailed programmes cannot be accommodated within informal education.

Against such ‘curriculum as product’ approaches may be set those which focus on process. Stenhouse defines a curriculum as an ‘attempt to communicate the essential principles and features of an educational proposal in such a form that it is open to critical scrutiny and capable of effective translation into practice’ (1975: 4). Involving both content and method, at a minimum it should ‘provide a basis for planning a course, studying it empirically and considering the grounds of its justification’ (ibid: 5). Such approaches put deliberation, judgement and meaning making at the centre. They:

[page 16]place the emphasis upon action or practice, rather than upon some product. Furthermore a practical interest initiates the sort of action which is taken as a consequence of deliberation and a striving to understand or make meaning of the situation on the part of the practitioner rather than action taken as a consequence of a directive or in keeping with some pre-specified objective. (Grundy 1987: 65)

While there are still problems regarding prescription many of the elements discussed under the heading of curriculum by those interested in process and practice resonate with the concerns of informal educators. Yet this is to extend the domain of the curriculum. As Barrow comments, there are problems with this. ‘By this stage the field of curriculum has become enormous. In fact it is more or less coextensive with the domain of educational studies, of which it is usually presumed to be an offshoot’ (Barrow 1984: 6). If we take a fairly narrow definition of curriculum then it quickly becomes clear that it cannot accommodate the sort of ideas and processes discussed in this book. For example, Barrow defines a 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’ (1984: 11). It is this understanding of curriculum which broadly informs many of the attempts to introduce the concept into the work of informal educators. Such a product orientation is incompatible with our model.

On the other hand major problems remain if we take a broader understanding of curriculum, even setting aside the conceptual difficulties in extending usage. Many of those investigating process-orientated curricula are doing so in a particular context — that of the formal educational institution. Concepts like ‘course’ remain central to their model. For example, in discussing their concept of the ‘organic curriculum’, Hunter and Scheirer describe it as (1988: 95):

a multifaceted, multilevel amalgam of process, subject, problem (or issue) and experience made available to the children . . . The school will have a list of objectives which, while remaining flexible to match the differing needs of individuals, will help the teachers in arriving at appropriate expectations of children’s achievements.

Again, we can see here ideas which are alien to the sort of informal education discussed in this book. Informal educational processes do not sit happily with notions such as ‘subject’. The objectives of informal educators are more to do with the delivery of a service rather [page 17] than outcomes for individuals. While it is still possible to talk of learning objectives such objectives are the property of the learner rather than the educator. The more detailed such objectives become the more likely it will be that formal forms of intervention are required.

It seems probable that the application of the term ‘curriculum’ marks off the formal from the informal educator. This is not a conclusion that all our contributors would agree with. Anne Foreman still uses the concept. However, it should be noted that many of the activities she discusses in relation to the ‘youth work curriculum’ are in fact formal. She also makes use of the idea of ‘programme’, a notion which has a long history of usage within youth work and which, when used with caution, could be used alongside process-orientated work. However, those wanting to bring meaning-making and process fully into focus have to look for other words to describe their thinking and practice.

Content, direction and process

John Ellis argues that an all-embracing vagueness will not do. There is a deep need for practitioners to be clear on purpose, on the reason why something is done, created or exists. Many of the writers here talk about the direction of specific pieces of work. Such thinking is necessary for making decisions about practice. The idea of direction is a useful starting point. It is far broader than the idea of curriculum objectives and carries with it the possibility that the specific topic for study and reflection may vary. Looked at in more detail, we can see that this involves having a personal but shared idea of the ‘good’: some notion of what makes for human flourishing or well-being (see Brown 1986: 130—63). In other words, our orientation as educators will be informed by having what Dewey describes as an intelligent sense of human interests (1916: 230).

The second element of direction is a disposition towards ‘good’ rather than ‘correct’ action. This frame of mind:

would encourage a person acting in a certain situation to break a rule or convention if he/she judged that to act in accordance with it would not promote ‘the good’, either generally, or of the person involved in specific situations. (Grundy 1987: 62)

At this point we can see a number of ideas coalescing. Informal educators have to ‘think on their feet’. Not having predefined [page 18] learning objectives they reason their way through to what might be appropriate. They are guided in this by their understanding of what makes for the ‘good’, and a disposition towards good rather than correct action. They can draw upon a repertoire of experiences, theories and ideas to help them make sense of what is happening. In this way they engage in dialogue.

Such dialogue takes place in specific circumstances which will also affect what is happening. The social workers in Pauline Gertig’s chapter will be known to have some expertise concerning dementia, carers and the resources available to them. The people they are working with have an interest in that expertise. They also have a wealth of experience and knowledge of their own to contribute. We can see how the dialogue that occurs is likely to be orientated towards particular areas. Out of this interaction, action is generated. However, this is not action for action’s sake. It is activity based on a thorough understanding of the situation. From this it can be seen that a necessary element in informal educators’ practice is the encouragement and enabling of people to think critically about the situations that face them so that they may take action. Informal educators do not appear with a list of curriculum objectives: the areas for learning arise out of dialogue, the direction being shaped by the situation, an evolving reading of what makes for the good and a disposition towards it. To this must also be added the educator’s interest in critical thinking and action. This process is summarized in Figure 1.1; the different elements are discussed at greater length in Chapter 10.

We can see how the notion of direction fits into the dialogical process. Much of the work described in the following chapters is aimed at encouraging and developing critical thinking and the disposition and ability to act. This is further infused by a concern to develop a fully social understanding. To quote Freire again (1972: 58):

The pursuit of full humanity. . . cannot be carried out in isolation or in individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity. . . No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so.

These purposes may well be mediated through specific concerns. Nevertheless, the central question that underpins the purpose of any informal education in respect of welfare rights, caring or any of the examples explored here, is to what extent practitioners’ interventions are directed towards critical reflectiveness and action.

[page 19]


Figure 1.1: Elements of the informal education process
Informal educators enter
particular social and cultural situations
personal but shared ideas of the good
an ability to think critically, and reflect-in-action
a disposition to choose the ‘good’ rather than the ‘correct’
a repertoire of examples, images, understandings and actions
an understanding of their identity and role.
They encourage
dialogue between, and with, people in the situation
out of which may come
thinking and action.
This affects
Those situations, the individuals concerned, significant others and the educators themselves


[page 20] To be effective, educators must remain informed by an understanding of the direction of their work and how this may have been amended by their dialogue with learners. It is similarly vital that participants reflect upon and clarify what they want from the enterprise and what they have gained.

This leads us on to the question of evaluation. As Grundy and others have argued in respect of process-based approaches to the curriculum, evaluation is an integral and not a separate part of the whole educative process. The central principle underlying evaluation in much that is written about the process within welfare (see, for example, Feek 1988) is the need to make an assessment of how closely the product matches the objectives in the guiding plan. It is the product which is the focus of evaluation. In the case of informal education, evaluation means ‘making judgments about the extent to which the processes and practices undertaken through the learning experience furthered the “good” of all participants’ (Grundy 1987: 77). In other words, the focus is on the process, how people experience it and what is revealed. This requires the construction of rather different criteria or indicators of success. A key area here is the nature of the dialogue that occurred and, as might be expected, the extent to which the discourse was critical.

Identity, personality and role

A major problem practitioners have with informal education is to do with their professional sense of themselves. For a social worker to operate in this way may entail switching from a casework orientation to an educational one. This can involve a substantial jump in terms of the ‘statutory’ basis of the work and in the circumstances under which a social worker works. As Hudson comments in respect of work with young women (1984: 48):

For teachers, their contact with teenagers is organised on the basis of their age rather than gender for most of the time, and their aim is to facilitate age—appropriate cognitive development in large numbers of young people. . . Social workers, on the other hand, are orientated to the help of the individual in trouble. Their contact is with young people who are distinguished by their differences from the normal. . . the ethos of social work is to individuate in the treatment of clients.

While this may be a somewhat simplistic representation of the different modes of thinking, we must recognize that the broad body of knowledge underpinning each profession is different (for [page 21] example, developmental psychology as against psychoanalytical theory and abnormal psychology) Difficulties occur either in the process of switching or failing to switch from one mode to the other. Thus, for example, probation officers may approach their informal educational activities with a frame of reference which seriously undermines the enterprise, or teachers may bring in too much of the classroom, priests too much of the church, and youth workers too much activity organization. This slippage is understandable. In asking practitioners to function across practice areas we are demanding a sophisticated ability to handle and contain divergent ways of thinking. The location of much informal work at the periphery of, for example, teaching and casework, has meant that such thinking and practice has not often played a significant role in sustaining the identity of practitioners in those areas. Even where the worker is primarily engaged in informal education, as is the case with many community workers and youth workers, there are problems. Although there are long traditions of informal practice in these areas not much attention has been given to constructing theory around such educational interventions: one key plank in practitioners’ identity is ill—formed. Effective practice is dependent on practitioners paying attention to the way they understand and name their craft.

Both Anne Foreman and Debbie Saddington draw attention to the significance of the practitioner’s personality in the nature of the work. In part this reflects their pattern of interests. Workers will find it easier to respond to concerns and questions about which they themselves are also curious. Given the relative freedom that many informal educators enjoy in their work, there are dangers here. It becomes possible for workers to follow their own individual interests rather than those collectively determined or expressed by the learners. Other dimensions such as educators’ class, ethnicity, gender and physical make up are also important in the way other people may perceive them, as are disposition and values. How many times have we heard comments about practitioners being ‘miserable bastards’ or ‘nice people who really listen’. We have to recognize that the dialogical and intimate nature of informal education focuses attention on the person of the practitioner: certain personal characteristics are required. These include the ability to handle the unfinished nature of practice in this area and to go at a pace defined by the others; and the readiness to allow people to take responsibility for their own learning and lives. There is also a further, structural, pressure at work here. Informal educators frequently have to work on their [page 22] own, outside institutions which carry powerful professional character stereotypes: many cannot, unlike teachers in schools, draw on certain stock figures to help establish their authority. Attention is therefore focused even more strongly upon their personality.

We have to recognize that the role we are able to take as informal educators is not only dependent upon what we want it to be but also upon what others allow it to be. A number of factors come into play here. There is the degree of autonomy allowed practitioners by their employers and their colleagues and the way they are viewed. On the whole, informal educators have a degree of discretion as to how they practise and with whom. They may be considered as operating within ‘front-line’ organizations. Tasks are initiated at the front—line level. For example, it could be argued that social workers ‘do not think of casework practice as the application of general departmental rules’ (Smith 1979: 35). That position may have changed in the last ten years but some room for manoeuvre remains. Generally there are also major obstacles to the direct supervision of most informal educators’ activities. Of course, there are exceptions to this, particularly where the actions of the educator affect colleagues. This can arise within schools, where, for instance, other staff may feel their relationship with students is somehow being compromised by the informality and use of first names that occurs within, say, the youth wing. The question of status also comes into play. Informal educators are often employed within sectors that are non-statutory or possess a low status with ‘mainstream’ practitioners. Youth workers operating within a school or residential workers in the social services are often looked down upon or deemed ‘less important’. This is bound to have implications for the way in which any specialism they may have in informal education is viewed.

Beyond this there are also questions regarding the nature of the sponsoring agency and the direction of its practice. To what extent is it possible to locate work with a collective and collaborative ethos within an agency organized around individualized intervention? The tensions discussed in relation to practitioners’ identities can also arise at an organizational level. A lack of appreciation by managers of the timescales involved, the resources necessary and the character of informal work can lead to unrealistic expectations. All this can become reflected in poor job specifications, peculiar organizational structures and inappropriate management, as Burley suggests.

We must consider the way in which practitioners are viewed by the people they are attempting to work with. The question of personality has already been discussed. Overlaying and influencing [page 23] this are people’s perceptions of the employing or sponsoring organization. Informal educators employed by social service departments in order to work with groups of parents whose children are on the ‘at risk’ register may well be viewed differently from generic neighbourhood workers employed by local community organizations. There is the possibility, as Burley notes, of some forms of informal education being used or seen as punitive and control mechanisms.

It is critical that the educator is seen as an educator. Here it is necessary for practitioners to be open about their work and to explain what they do. They may take time to do this. If a group or individual does not accept this it will be difficult for the educator to function. For example, community workers may be seen as people who give out, or influence the giving out, of grants. If they then attempt to help a group focus on how it is working their intervention may be unwelcome. The educator’s understanding of what it is to be an educator is often formed in one culture while the understanding of what is to work with an educator is often formed in another. In the same way misunderstandings can easily arise about the precise meaning of formality and informality.

In conclusion

The characteristics and themes developed in this opening chapter can be seen at work in the contributions that follow. What they demonstrate is that informal education is a vibrant and somewhat undervalued form of practice. One of its significant features is the way in which it transcends professional boundaries. If it is to be fully utilized and developed then action will be required within and across the separate professional areas. This has a number of implications for training. As Don Blackburn and Mal Blackburn ask, how do you train or learn to be an informal educator? What we hope this book will make clear is the potential of informal education as a method in welfare work.

© T. Jeffs and Mark Smith 1990

Reproduced with permission from Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

First published on the informal education homepage: May 2000.

For details of references go to the bibliography

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© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith 1990
Reproduced with permission from Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

First published in the informal education archives: February 2002.