Using informal education – Chapter 10: educating informal educators

using informal education

infed archives

Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith explore the context for professional education and some of the implications for the development of informal educators.  Reprinted from T. Jeffs and M. Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

contents: introduction ·avoiding informal education · training for failure · educating for informal education: approaching cultures – informal and everyday social situations – developing an understanding of what makes for the good – critical thinking – autonomy and a disposition to the good – building a repertoire – identity and role – enabling dialogue – handling the thinking and action of others – evaluating processes and outcomes · conclusion


[page 124] Within informal education there is a tendency for personality, individual skills and motivation to be emphasized and for other elements to be overlooked. The belief is often encountered that informal educators are born rather than made. Such development as is needed concerns the drawing out of what is there and the enhancement of certain skills. This cult of the natural and the emphasis on the charismatic are understandable but need to be questioned and contained. As the preceding chapters have demonstrated, the thinking and behaviour associated with informal education are, for the most part, learnt. Practice is developed through sustained and critical reflection upon intervention. This, in turn, contributes to the building and maintenance of a body of theory consistent with informed action and analysis of practice. What we label as ‘natural’ or ‘intuitive’ is frequently nothing of the sort; rather, it is the interaction, at a largely non-conscious level, of our critical faculties with the environments and behaviours we encounter. In this chapter we take the view that those faculties can be educated and, as a result, practice developed. More specifically, we focus on the process of making professional informal educators.

If this form of pedagogy is to be a key element of welfare practice it cannot be unduly dependent upon the supply of those who by background or birth resemble the chosen stereotype. Nor must it simply be equated with a superior form of ’Redcoating’, whereby an educational dimension is grafted on to leisure provision (Foreman 1987). Within specific areas questions of personality, background and attitude may be crucial but they are rarely fixed. This flexibility arises either from an ability to develop performance or from the possibility that others’ perceptions of workers can alter. Certainly [page 124] the observation and accumulation of ‘good practice’ has limited application in this respect. It would be fruitless to extrapolate from these in order to construct a genotype of the ideal informal educator. This is not to argue in some vague liberal way that it is within the capacity of all to be competent informal educators, any more than it would be rational to suggest that all have the ability to work in residential homes or in care teams. What we are saying is that all those engaged in face-to-face welfare practice should possess the potential to undertake effective informal educational work. Whether that potential is currently being developed, or is effectively harnessed, is another matter.

At this stage we would like to address three questions. Why do so many welfare practitioners avoid or fail to exploit informal education? What is the nature of the dominant, training orientation within the process of preparing professional welfare practitioners, and how does this orientation impede the development of informal education, and, more generally, reflective practice? How might welfare practitioners be better prepared and educated so that they may use informal education?

Avoiding informal education

Traditional welfare structures, incremental growth and professional boundaries have combined to restrict the usage of informal education. Education has become associated with particular organizational forms and modes of intervention. These can be evoked by the mere mention of schools, classrooms, teaching and college. They are popularly, and often professionally, perceived as both the sites and modes of educational practice. Education is consequently viewed as an unnatural interloper when transposed to other areas of welfare — a diversion from the ‘real’ task in hand, an indulgence. For social workers to approach informal education requires them to transcend layers of accumulated occupational wisdom and practice; that they cease to behave like ‘social workers’. Unfortunately it cannot be assumed that informal education is axiomatically acceptable to ‘educationalists’ either. Indeed, it no more comfortably resides with them than elsewhere. While the different elements of practice discussed in Chapter 1 may find some acceptability within, say, schools, taken together they can constitute a form of pedagogy which many teachers find strange or threatening. Where the term ‘informal education’ has been used on a sustained basis in primary [page 126] education it has generally taken on a rather different set of meanings from those suggested here.

The very fabric of existing professionalized practice is impregnated with a disposition towards established forms and a range of taken-for-granted understandings. These contribute to the unique character and identity of the various professional areas. They cannot be wished away. Lacking a ‘natural’ base, informal education has to reach some form of accommodation with existing strands of practice. Advancement has been further impeded by the general lack of an adequate cross-professional literature. Practice has tended to develop within specialisms without reference to other arenas. The great strength of informal education — applicability to variable settings — is turned against it.

Resilience of professional boundaries alone cannot explain the resistance to informal education. Innate conservatism does play a part but that is a far too one-dimensional explanation. We have to recognize that the social and economic environment in which occupational groupings and their ideologies are formed reflects concerns and interests which run counter to much that informal education stands for. The focus upon learners taking responsibility for their own learning, and the associated emphasis upon process, are not phenomenon likely to recommend themselves to those currently in control of the central state and other leading institutions. Indeed, the liberal or critical disposition of those often associated with informal education, if not seen as a threat, is certainly viewed with some derision by apologists for the New Right. In a market economy it is product that is important, rather than the human process of production. The prevailing measure of activity, profitability, is a purely material element. It says nothing about the experiences of those whose labours generate it. Inevitably, given the dominance of such an ideology, approaches which value process and human well-being either have difficulties in being understood or are dismissed as having scant economic worth. In the end it is not simply informality which presents a problem but the very values at the heart of the educational enterprise itself.

While the emphasis upon product and upon minimal investment in order to generate gain may hinder critical thinking, the romantic imagination has been a further handicap. A large number of informal educators display a contempt for theory and glorify the natural and the spontaneous. The idea that the best practice somehow springs from within goes very deep. Theory about informal education is therefore inadequate, and the literature scarce. Practitioners have [page 127] rarely been offered a coherent alternative to the dominant modes. Where thinking does emerge it often has a bureaucratic focus. An example here is the stress upon setting in many academic considerations of informal education rather than on the totality of the pedagogic enterprise (see, for example, Jarvis 1987). The cult of the natural and the concern with activity are particularly strong in those arenas where informal education can be said to have assumed some significance — youth work and community work. Thus not only has practice theory remained underdeveloped, other forms of intervention have been seen as attractive. In the case of community work, those with a stronger theoretical perspective tended to turn away from informal education in the 1970s towards more direct interventions in local struggles (Thomas 1983: 32). Others focused more closely on the development or extension of services into particular neighbourhoods, rather than on enabling learning.

Rejection by practitioners of this form of pedagogy is also often explained in terms of workload rather than theory. It is a form of intervention that is attractive; but time and pressure allow scant space for it to be developed. This is difficult to counter. Workers may well have the rhythm and content of their day determined by management and presented crises. It is essential to differentiate between the extent to which this is a genuine explanation or merely a shroud to obscure a resistance to change. It must further be asked to what degree informal education might restructure working patterns in such a way as to overcome the pressures that seemingly restrict its applicability. Finally, it should be acknowledged that in many respects informal education and linked methodologies may not engender the smooth operation of bureaucracies and units. In the process of engaging in dialogue and education, previously passive clients and service recipients may become active in their demands of practitioners and agencies.

Informality may worry some practitioners, who perceive it as a threat to their status, sense of professional self and mode of working. These concerns may be familiar; they are certainly more confidently articulated. Less vocalized, but probably more widespread, is the unspoken fear on the part of many professionals that they lack the requisite knowledge and expertise to engage in the educational process. Inadequate levels of training, both initial and post-qualifying; an anti-intellectual ethos and an alarming absence of theory within almost all welfare settings, not least schools; structures and traditions which impede sustained reflection upon practice; and cultures which reward apparent activity and output, all combine to produce workforces which have difficulty in handling ideas and educational processes. Given that so many avoid engaging in educational activity, both formal and informal, themselves and perceive the reflective analysis of practice as threatening, it is hardly surprising that they recoil from generating such critical activity among those over whom they may exercise power. This percolates through the totality of welfare organization. It helps to shape the ways in which management manages and face-to-face workers interact with clients and contributes to an emphasis on skills training and the fetishization of management as the routes to service enhancement and individual advancement.

Training for failure

It is a truism that professional training courses, according to employers, validating bodies, academics and not least students, fail to address key issues adequately. Essential skills are not taught and topics skimped. Overload is the term often applied, both in the defence of training courses and as a justification for the rejection of additions to the curriculum. Introducing informal education into training courses, whether for social workers, teachers, youth workers, community health workers or priests, therefore requires substantive justification. Unless the parameters of the debate itself are restructured any case for the interjection of informal education into a given programme entails arguing for the removal of some existing areas of study.

Making space is not the problem, at least as presently debated. The problem, we believe, it is the prevailing orientation towards training (and skills) rather than education. The concern with profit and market inevitably entails an orientation towards product. Training, dedicated as it is to the inculcation of a limited range of competences, generally appears to be a more efficient route to creating an ‘appropriate’ workforce than does the more discursive and critical process of education. The concern with skill has been strengthened by the way in which policy makers, academics and practitioners have become beguiled by ‘practice’. As Alexander (1988: 152) has argued in respect of primary school teaching:

Despite the profession’s ritualistic use of the words ‘practice’ and ‘practical’ in ways which suggest that teaching is little more than a simple manual activity, the job does in fact require a high degree of cognitive engagement.

[page 129] The extent of the failure, deliberate or otherwise, to recognize the necessity of cognitive engagement obviously varies between institutions and professional groupings. A litmus test of the gravity of the problem is the extent to which talk of overload percolates any discussion about curriculum reform. One shortcut to such reform has been the energetic pursuit of minimalist training programmes. These seek to accredit practitioners and enhance their skills to meet a limited range of approved tasks. The methodology for achieving this is not fixed. It can entail the retrospective accreditation of experience, the adoption of low-level apprenticeship style training and part-time employer-led programmes. Programmes are often dressed in the progressive clothing of openness, access and flexibility. Yet underpinning many of them is a desire to limit critical thought and to undermine the autonomy of practitioners. The current situation in youth and community work is a good example of this (Jeffs and Smith 1987; 1989). The confused and confusing debate about social work training demonstrates another. Exchanges about the desirable length of training and essential competences often amounting to an unspoken conflict between parties seeking training at the expense of education and vice versa (C. Jones 1989).

Within the present climate, created by a government that sees itself as the herald of free enterprise, the gathering pace of commitment to skill enhancement and the measurement of product is hardly surprising. Yet when agencies operate from the basis that programmes can be more efficiently run if they ape Marks and Spencer’s, they expose the superficiality of their analysis and the inadequacy of their understanding of both the nature of welfare intervention and the needs of user groups. Seeking to meet the spiritual needs of a diverse group of parishioners, as Ellis has already shown, is a far more complex undertaking than selling socks. Effectiveness cannot be measured by some crass reference to profit margins and turnover.

The training orientation ensures that preparation for welfare work corresponds to perpetually shopping on a limited budget, where the decision is continuously between meat or potatoes. Whatever the choice, all parties remain dissatisfied. Nobody is ever publicly content with professional welfare training. The gaps all seem unbridgeable; the emphasis misplaced; the content inadequate to the needs; and the trainers, like generals, are always accused of fighting the current war with the tactics and weapons of the last. Before readers rush to accuse us of adding to the clamour for the reform of training it is essential to state that we are not advocating reform but root and branch replacement by education.

[page 130] Such a transformation would entail the construction of a mode and curriculum that sought to develop in practitioners an ability to reflect upon, and make theory, about practice. However, such activity would have to be contextualized, linked to and integrated with the elaboration of a more general philosophical and social analysis. Possessing an understanding of what makes for good in human relationships; a disposition to undertake actions which promote the good rather than the correct; the ability to think critically; a repertoire of images and experiences; and the capacity and commitment to engage in dialogue — these, we argue, are the central requirements for all who wish to engage in socially just welfare work. The problem with skills-led training is that it is incrementally bolted on to a partial analysis of practice and purpose. Faulty and restricted perceptions of essential role, purpose and practice ensure that the skills taught must be inadequate to the task. Sustained analysis and theory making become superfluous within this model, being perceived as ‘obscuring reality’ and ‘getting in the way of action’. In the end, it is only by luck that any contribution to the good can be made. Overwhelmingly, skills-led training obscures the development of understanding about what exists, what is good and what is to be done.

At this juncture a number of questions arise that cannot be ignored. If skills training is so bad, why is it so popular? Why, for example, after a century of teacher training, eighty years of social work and fifty years of youth work training, do the bulk of managers, practitioners, trainees and trainers possess such touching faith in it, holding firm to a belief that with a little more time, a little more effort and a little more cash they will produce a winning formula?

Inevitably no single answer exists to explain so much wasted effort and misplaced faith. Among those that compete for attention the following must be included. Training offers the apparent potential of minimizing overheads: only that knowledge and skill deemed to be self-evidently applicable need be taught or leant. For management this is clearly attractive — a point we will return to. However, it needs to be stressed that the training orientation also appeals to many practitioners and trainees. For a number, training is a purely utilitarian process that provides a conduit to higher status and/or income, entry to a profession or progress up the greasy pole once inducted. Quality of service delivery, let alone improvement in the life chances of the client group, becomes important only insofar as it might enhance their careers. Indeed, social and economic equality, [page 131] insofar as they erode the differentials acquired as a consequence of training or ‘education’, need to be opposed or marginalized.

Substantive numbers of students will be as crudely committed as managers to a minimalization of training, be it expressed in terms of time, the range of knowledge to be learnt or the monetary cost. However, given that they are being inducted into a caring, person-centred career, such students must actively seek to obscure their crude affiliation to the utilitarian model. Learning the public persona of the profession will entail for some, possibly many, the marshalling of generous helpings of humbug and cant. Seeing this as an aberration would be simplistically naïve. Rather it should be counted as a key ingredient within their induction. Deceiving the trainers is essential practice for deceiving clients, colleagues, the public and, in some cases, themselves. Given that such a skill is one usually learnt early on in both school and working life only the most ‘immature’ or incompetent fail in this respect and deservedly so, not least because they, by their very naivety, stupidity or crass ignorance, would come to threaten the survival of the whole edifice. Demanding skills and training, rather than reflective education, these students, wittingly or unwittingly, make this deception all the easier. For in the end what is assessed is overwhelmingly that which can be most accessible to measurement and testing. Accordingly unless legal standards of competence are demanded, or there exist real risks to the employer of incurring penalties for incompetence, standards, whether of practice or theoretical competence, will remain low, partly because the whole notion of training is predicated on the principle that if the tasks are broken down to their constituent elements, and the instruction programme constructed to meet the ‘needs’ of the students, then all must graduate. Failure on the part of the student thus becomes transposed into a failure on the part of the tutor or course.

Not surprisingly, a minimalist training model is also appealing to those who, often correctly, assume that they would fail a more demanding and intellectually rigorous programme. In narrowly fixing the parameters of learning, as well as the input, it becomes more feasible to calculate the outcome. Wonderful, except that the outcome is guaranteed to be substantially irrelevant to the real tasks that face practitioners.

Trainers, both within and without the education system, have shown considerable sympathy towards the adoption and development of a skills-led orientation. Educators are as other welfare workers likely to reject those approaches that place a primary [page 132] emphasis upon the critical and reflective engagement with practice. A number of explanations need to be considered. At a basic level, money talks. Resources are increasingly available for targeted forms of skill training. In the context of welfare, the skills identified are frequently associated with attempts to do something about some current moral panic. Examples are legion: dealing with AIDS; controlling disruptive behaviour; spotting the abused child; handling violence; countering burn-out; managing prejudice. While undoubtedly practitioners may require information in these areas, they hardly constitute a coherent programme for the development of practice or policy. Incremental and pragmatic training of this kind largely operates upon a deficit model of the practitioner, frequently transposing what are failures of policy and structure into the training arena. Rather than throwing money at problems, the tendency is now to throw training. In this way the state or agency demonstrates its concern without necessarily having to do much or threaten entrenched positions.

Another attraction has been that the pedagogic and curricular styles linked to the skills approach appear to offer solutions to a number of long-standing educational problems. At last ways can be found to measure teacher and lecturer input, student outcome, practitioner performance and cost effectiveness, all within the framework of tight behavioural objectives. The skills and talents of the entrepreneur, the Freddie Lakers and Clive Sinclairs, have found a renewed route into education. Beyond the comfort of measurability lies the nirvana of relevance. Instead of grappling with abstract concepts and imponderables, educationalists and students are offered the gratifying prospect of encountering the concrete and the immediate. ‘Tricks of the trade’ could be learnt in the morning and exercised in the afternoon: doubly exciting and rewarding for all parties when applied to the heady issue of the moment.

Skill-led training provides a ready means of dividing academic labour. Lecturers and tutors can specialize in discrete competences such as counselling, group work, family therapy, prejudice management, time management, stress abatement. As the openings grow, so the list expands. These and others can then be modulized, compartmentalized and packaged ready for consumption. Learning clusters can, with a flick of the Filofax, be painlessly cobbled together. Advocates of the student-centred approach can be assuaged by the provision of a spurious notion of student and/or employer choice. Satisfaction is guaranteed for all parties with options which allow students to avoid difficult, uncomfortable and [page 133] subversive areas of knowledge. At the same time the growing influence of employer-led curricular design and funding allow the problems to be addressed in a technicist fashion. Structural questions can be side-stepped, the inadequacies of the learners emphasized and the commitment of employers signalled merely via the ‘laying on’ of a course. All of which neatly reinforces the centrality of management.

The training model neatly dovetails with key managerial assumptions. We can illustrate this in a number of ways. Particular difficulties surround the management of many professional welfare workers. These frequently arise because workers enjoy a relative freedom to organize their own programme and initiate work; their activities can often be undertaken independently of others; and there are considerable physical and occupational obstacles to direct supervision (Smith 1979). In these circumstances training, particularly that provided in-service, becomes an attractive option. Rather than attempting to instruct workers to operate in a particular way or to conform to a particular style, managers can call upon trainers and consultants. Through the medium of training sessions and courses, the desired disposition to exercise certain skills and to operate identified working practices can be inculcated or encouraged (Jeffs and Smith 1988: 230-51).

While the contemporary rhetoric of managerialism may laud such characteristics as flexibility and transferable skills, such assertions require careful interrogation. The labour market continues to require workers ready and willing to undertake routinized tasks. Flexibility, therefore, is often directed towards deskilling. For example, the integration of physical with emotional care in the residential setting results not in the elevation of the manual aspects of care but in the routinization of relationships and the marginalization of the theoretical insights that flow from the social sciences. Further, the lower the level of skill required for a job, the easier it is to train someone to undertake such work and the possibilities for more ‘flexible’ staffing are enhanced. Transferable skills are seen overwhelmingly in horizontal terms. This is not predicated upon a desire to integrate manual and mental labour in order to erode the role of management. Rather the predominant concern is to enhance management. Management, within this enterprise, becomes a transferable skill like other welfare functions. What is important here is that an over-archingly hierarchical delineation is retained; indeed the intention, if not the end result, is that it is strengthened.

Although many ‘customers’ find the training approach attractive [page 134] and user-friendly, in the end it is flawed. The reasons for this, we have argued, are varied but fundamental to the enterprise. We therefore wish to argue for an alternative that places critical thinking at its core. Some practitioners, and certainly many employers, will find this uncomfortable. We make no apologies for that. Indeed, if the interests of the client groups are placed at the centre of the welfare enterprise then we have no choice but to begin discomforting substantial numbers of both groupings.

Educating for informal education

It is a well-trodden pathway within the training of welfare workers to teach by doing. Caseworkers are taught casework by being caseworked; teachers by being taught; and group workers via group work. This approach can be extremely restrictive, particularly if insufficient attention is paid to the cognitive and to interrogating practice. There are likewise problems in using informal education in this way. The arguments developed in our opening chapter regarding the limitations of this form of pedagogy should encourage a certain reluctance to proceed along that route. While practitioners will need informal educational experiences, a range of more formal methods will be required in order that the material generated can be reflected upon and theorized (see Chapter 9 in this volume).

In order to explore what some of the key elements of a programme of education for informal educators may be, it is necessary to revisit our understanding of the processes involved. These are set out in Figure 1.1. From this a number of themes are soon apparent.

Approaching cultures

Central to the informal educational process is the ability to develop an appreciation of the cultures encountered and the ways in which interventions may be understood. In particular, practitioners have to make the familiar strange; to stand aside from taken-for-granted assumptions about the ideas and behaviours they encounter within different cultures, including their own. What is of importance here is not prepackaged knowledge about specific cultures, but the enhancement of the general ability to engage with cultures, to learn about them, to recognize the dynamics and tensions within them and to identify appropriate points of intervention. This engagement can easily float free of the circumstances in which it develops. It is thus necessary within educational programmes to explore the ways in [page 135] which culture is activated by the relations between different classes and groups, bounded by structural forces and material conditions and ‘informed by a range of experiences mediated, in part, by the power exercised by a dominant society’ (Giroux 1983: 163). In other words, seeking to know what the different cultural forms are and how they are experienced, is not enough. We also have to bring into active consideration the various forces and ideologies which influence people as they make and remake the cultures of which they are a part.

All this provides a considerable agenda for the education of welfare practitioners. Taken as a discrete element, the size of just this educative task might seem huge. For example, students would have to be asked to examine their own biography, cultivate their ability to engage with ethnographic processes and be able to locate this within an understanding of the dynamics of subordination and dominance in society. For many, if not most, such a process would be dependent upon a significant change in their own perspectives and modes of thinking. It is obvious, therefore, that learning about how to approach other cultures cannot be satisfactorily handled within skills-led training. Nor can it be confined to some ‘special’ module. It can only really be managed in educational situations where people’s perspectives, and modes of thinking and acting, are seen as the central and comprehensive problematic, where the concern is to generate critical thinking and to mesh that process with action. When seen in this way, the concern with culture is an integral part of a complex whole, as indeed is our interest in the other elements that follow. Many of the processes and arenas for reflection, theory making and action thus cut across the traditional competence boundaries.

Informal and everyday social situations

Many practitioners are used to working only in situations where they have a significant degree of control, where the exchanges are fairly formalized or with groups which have a fixed membership. We only have to think of the casework relationship, the therapy group or the classroom to recognize this. The dynamics of the friendship group, the movement and diversity of the youth club, and the discursive nature of ‘drop ins’, can present the unsuspecting worker with all sorts of difficulties. A significant feature here is the basic level of understanding about informal and everyday social situations. Comprehending the patterns and behaviours that occur in [page 136] different situations usually takes a considerable amount of time. Approaching the everyday involves a degree of sophistication that is rarely appreciated. It can also involve some role discomfort. Handling anxieties, being able to join in with what is happening and being adept at picking up on alternative routes into situations involves a sizeable investment in reflection and theory making, as well as sustained exposure to appropriate settings. The scale of this task can be easily underestimated, as it frequently entails a major reconceptualization on the part of students. As we will see, it also requires the cultivation of a deep sense of one’s own identity as a practitioner.

Developing an understanding of what makes for the good

The question of what makes for human well-being is rarely approached holistically in the training of welfare practitioners. In a number of areas the tendency has been to conceive of this enterprise in almost exclusively psychological terms. In contrast, we see the good as a combination of aesthetic, intellectual and moral meanings which are in a state of movement and formation. Inevitably subjective and personal, such meanings can, nevertheless, be shared with others. As Brown has demonstrated, it is possible to construct a list of basic human goods and to refine them through experience and analysis (1986: 159). While controversy will always surround what constitutes a particular good, or over interpretation, the application of practical reasoning does allow debate and some level of agreement.

Developing and refining understandings of what makes for the good must be a key element in appropriate professional education for this area. Possession of a reasoned sense of what makes for human flourishing, and a commitment to continue to work at such understandings, is essential for emancipatory engagement in welfare. Without it practitioners are at sea. They have only surface considerations upon which to base their decisions and can end up floundering like fish left by the tide or clinging to established procedures and conventions. Developing such an understanding is inevitably complex, drawing upon a range of disciplines and sources. The nature and scale of this investment is made all the more complicated by the fact that what makes for good will alter from situation to situation. It is not something which can be looked up in a handbook and then applied. Rather, practitioners have to engage in a process of continuous reasoning and testing. [page 137]

Critical thinking

Being a critical thinker:

involves more than cognitive activities such as logical reasoning or scrutinizing arguments for assertions unsupported by empirical evidence. Thinking critically involves our recognizing the assumptions underlying our beliefs and behaviours. It means we can give justifications for our ideas and actions. Most important, perhaps, it means we try to judge the rationality of these justifications. (Brookfield 1987: 13)

While it may be claimed that many courses and training programmes enable their participants to enhance their abilities in this respect, it is only a minority, in our judgement, which provide the context and stimulus that allow such modes of thinking become a lived activity, rather than an ‘abstract academic pastime’ (ibid: 14). That context must include a framework which enables dialogue to take place; the opportunity to engage in the extended study of practice, and the intellectual traditions and material conditions which help shape our understanding of it; and the development of the sort of critical community which allows both theory and practice to be interrogated and related. In this it is necessary to transcend the sharp differentiation between the supposedly particular and everyday sphere of practice and the timeless, universal world of theory. In Chapter 1 we argued for praxis, in which action and thought (or practice and theory) are dialectically related.

They are to be understood as mutually constitutive, as in a process of interaction which is a continual reconstruction of thought and action in the living historical process which evidences itself in every real social situation. Neither thought nor action is pre-eminent. (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 34, emphasis as in original)

As Carr and Kemmis go on to argue, in praxis the ideas which guide action are just as subject to change as action is. The only ‘fixed’ element is the disposition to act for the good, that is to say, to act truly and rightly.

Autonomy and a disposition to the good

Genuinely emancipatory practice embraces a disposition to the good rather than the ‘correct’. It embodies a degree of moral consciousness [page 138] unknown to those concerned with the application of the technical (see Chapter 1). Acting in this way involves positive liberty or authority over one’s self (autonomy). That state requires that we have a developed self — the choices made have to be conscious and informed. In addition, it would entail being able to do what we have chosen. Thus, an autonomous person ‘has a will of her or his own, and is able to act in pursuit of self-chosen goals’ (Lindley 1986: 6).

The process of enabling people to act autonomously is surrounded by rhetoric, particularly in the education and training arena. Talk of the autonomous student, student-centred learning and open learning is difficult to translate into practice, especially when it is adopted by those with a disposition to technical reasoning and to skills-led training. Autonomy is not a thing to be bequeathed by others but is a way of behaving. In that sense it is not something which can be ‘taught’, though it has to be learnt. As Kitto (1986) has argued, it has to be demonstrated and held within course structures and organization and in the actions of staff. This requires constant vigilance, and a degree of professional openness and cooperation rare within the higher education field. It also involves containing the rescuing instincts of many staff. So-called ‘caring’ for students can easily increase dependence. Programmes which seriously seek to enhance autonomy will also have to look to making self-assessment the pivot around which other forms of assessment operate. Autonomy ‘does not sit easily with the learning objectives approach, which implies a more dependent relationship on the part of the student, with a teacher who knows what should be learnt’ (Kitto 1986: 70).

Building a repertoire

Schön (1983: 138) argues that the building up of a repertoire of examples, images, understandings and actions is one of the central ingredients of professional reflection-in-action (emphasis in the original).

When a practitioner makes sense of a situation he perceives to be unique, he sees it as something already present in his repertoire. To see this site as that one is not to subsume the first under a familiar category or rule. It is, rather, to see the unfamiliar, unique situation as both similar to and different from the familiar one, without at first being able to say similar or different with respect to what. The familiar situation functions as a precedent, or a metaphor, or. . . an exemplar for the unfamiliar one.

[page 139] When thinking about something that has arisen, practitioners may draw on material from widely different contexts. Here, two dimensions are of particular significance — the accessibility of the material and the ability to engage in a dialogue with the situation: experience is only useful insofar as it is accessible. The way in which we organize and think about our experiences is therefore of some importance. Recognizing patterns or retrieving ideas is enhanced by practice and reflection. This process involves practitioners in a dialogue with situations in which they reframe them in relation to what has gone before. These they then test and remake so as to fit more closely the particular. This structure of reflection-in-action requires close attention within the education of welfare professionals. It means that there has to be a substantive emphasis upon enabling practitioners to address their experiences, to think ‘metaphorically’, to construct and test models and to reframe situations in the light of these activities.

Identity and role

Practice for the good requires deep attention to the way in which practitioners understand and name themselves (Smith 1988: 142-3). In informal education such concern is especially important, given that it frequently forms just one part of practitioners’ inventory. For example, social workers have to switch between several roles in the course of a normal working day. At one moment they may be acting as a ‘representative of the authority’, when exploring a possible example of non-accidental injury; at another they will, perhaps, be counselling an individual who has asked for their services. In between, they could have spent two hours in a drop-in, engaged in informal education. Throughout this process they need to know who they are, what their purpose is and how to employ their thinking and competence in each situation. Crucially, they must have the capacity to switch between the various roles and to communicate this change.

As we saw in the opening chapter, all this cannot be established in isolation. If they are to function effectively, practitioners must have their role accepted by those with whom they wish or need to work. Preparing people for this switching, and enabling them to establish a professional identity which allows them to make sense of the various strands, calls for a high degree of integration and coherence in any educative programme. They are not likely to be well served by off-the-shelf modules. If there are to be various skill specialisms then they must flow out form a firm grasp of the ways in which different [page 140] modes of thinking and acting interact and connect with, for example, ‘the social work task’. That in itself is no mean effort. For, as Howe has argued, the turbulent nature of the social substructure has generated a range of social work, and other welfare, theory (1987: 168). Practitioners have ‘to make sense of the whole, dense spread of relationships, some which “blend”, some of which “clash”’ (ibid: 168). Thus, within the education programmes of each of the professional groupings, there has to be an extensive exploration of the nature of the whole and its relationship to its parts. At one level this is obvious; but it is a task from which many in professional welfare training shy away.

Enabling dialogue

We have already dealt with a number of the key dimensions of the process of engaging in dialogue and developing critical thinking. Here the focus is on the educative processes demanded by the task of enabling practitioners to adopt the dispositions, thinking and behaviours associated with critical dialogue. It is our contention that such dialogue should be occurring within professional education programmes if they are fulfilling their promise. Participants should be giving careful attention to words, the ideas they express and the actions that follow. There will be a commitment to collaborative working and to critical engagement with each others’ thinking and actions. In this sense college or student sessions can provide a great deal of material for reflection, theory making and action. However, this of itself is not enough. Dialogue should also be manifested in the face-to-face work that practitioners undertake as part of such programmes.

In designing and facilitating programmes that develop and sustain dialogical thinking and action there has been a tendency to focus on method. Small groups are seen as good, lectures are seen as bad. While it may be that a different quality of interaction is possible in the small group, its advancement as the means of enabling dialogue is suspect. What is of central importance is the ethos and direction of the enterprise. Small groups, especially very small groups, can be extraordinarily non-dialogical. The question to be addressed is the extent to which a spirit of critical enquiry is abroad. To what degree are people engaging with ideas and actions and enhancing the discourse? This might be happening in large groups, small groups, pairs or indeed within individuals as they read other’s work. What is essential is that the processes and values involved are not overlooked [page 141] because they are part of the daily round. In other words there should be dialogue about dialogue.

Handling the thinking and action of others

One of the things that practitioners find liberating, and very difficult, about informal education, is the extent to which it calls upon people to take responsibility for their own learning and actions. The process of enabling people to act autonomously can set up a range of frustrations in practitioners. We have to stand by as people decide to go up blind alleys or as things that they organize go ‘wrong’. It is all too easy to regress or to import forms of behaviour appropriate to other contexts where it might be our duty to intervene (for example, within certain schooling or social work scenarios). Not only that, the experience can be threatening as demands are placed upon us or as the actions taken might be interpreted by our employers as occurring as a result of our ‘leading the group on’. Yet the avoidance of rescuing behaviour and the promotion of autonomous thinking and action, remains central to positive practice.

While there may be workers whose arrogance, paternalism or lack of personal boundaries put them beyond the possibility of development, most have the potential to function as effective informal educators. For this to happen it is necessary to acknowledge feelings and to recognize that at particular moments they can be powerful indicators. Nevertheless, they do have to be channelled. It is here that sustained consideration of what makes for good, an appreciation of identity and role and an ability to think critically are of the utmost importance. Sound analysis and theory can curb rescuing and enable practitioners to function in situations of conflict and apparent uncertainty. However, that analysis does not arise in a vacuum. It is furthered by dialogue and the attempt to construct a critical community among practitioners and others. Where there is praxis, there is possibility.

Evaluating processes and outcomes

Intervention and dialogue produce outcomes in the people directly concerned, others they interact with and the contexts in which they operate. It is an extraordinarily complex matter to unravel just what action has contributed to a specific outcome. Indeed, in many cases it is impossible. Yet evaluation is an integral part of the informal education process. Without it critical practice is unsustainable. At [page 142] this point, however, it is necessary to place evaluation in context. As Armstrong and Key have demonstrated in respect of community work, evaluation cannot be treated as a neutral technique or method reflecting academic or professional ideas. Rather, it has to be viewed as ‘historically rooted in the political economic changes of a developing capitalist society’ (1979: 220). More particularly, it must be recognized that much of the growing demand for evaluation arises out of a desire to control rather than learn. It is a means employed by sponsors and managers in order to limit the activities of projects and practitioners.

Within the technical orientation, evaluation is predominantly concerned with the extent to which objectives have been met. In informal education, the interest is in the nature of the processes and in what people are learning. It is not something external to the workers and learners but grows out of the normal work of reflection and theory making. In this sense evaluation cannot be thought of as a one off event, something that is done every so often. Nor is it particularly sensible to hive off the function into a separate role — the evaluator. It is simply part of the process of educating. This has implications for programmes of professional education and brings us back to the necessity for holistic and integrated thinking and practice. Those programmes which actively seek to promote praxis, which endeavour to enable practitioners to engage critically with the world, will consistently require all participants (including staff) to reflect, analyze and judge performance. However, given the emphasis on product and objective within the dominant training ideology, considerable attention will have to be given to ways in which understandings of what makes for the good can be applied in the course of learning. Similarly, it will be necessary to cultivate ways of working and thinking which enhance people’s ability to make judgements about process.


In this chapter we have only been able to skim across the surface of what education for informal education might look like. It is something which must be integral to programmes of education for the various professional areas. To add it on as some extra module or as an aspect of post-qualifying training simply will not do in the majority of cases. The scale of the task would be as large as that involved in the original initial training. It involves enabling people to behave autonomously, [page 143] to handle uncertainty and to think. Moreover, it requires overcoming all sorts of bad and lazy practice.

Many practitioners, locked into a view of themselves as technical experts, find nothing in the world of practice to occasion reflection. They have become too skilful at techniques of selective inattention, junk categories, and situational control, techniques which they use to preserve the constancy of their knowledge-in-practice. For them uncertainty is a threat; its admission is a sign of weakness. (Schön 1983: 69)

For the critical informal educator uncertainty is hardly comfortable. However, the nature of the uncertainty they feel is different. Rather than simply being a weakness, it is an opportunity for reflection and action.

For details of references go to the bibliography

Return to Using Informal Education main page

© 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.