Using informal education – Chapter 9: where practice enlightens theory and theory enriches practice

using informal education

infed archives

Elizabeth Afua Sinclair reflects on being a student in an institution committed to informal education. Reprinted from T. Jeffs and M. Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

contents: introduction ·historical influences · expectations · choosing informal learning · the process · informal networks · return to main contents page


[page 113] In this piece I will explore what it is to be a student in an institution which is committed to informal education. What expectations were held of this mode of study? How did students marry theory to practice? How did they manage the freedom to direct their learning? In considering these experiences I will look at the informal networks created by students themselves, at how and why these came about and whether they were useful in acquiring the skills needed to create informal learning situations in their work with young people. Throughout I have made particular reference to African and Afro-Caribbean experiences because of the historical link between having a British education and settling in Britain.

It is my view that when the skills of informal learning — self-motivation, self-direction, the ability to assess and evaluate, participation in dialogue, the ability to manage time, freedom and change — have been acquired and practised, the student is better able to use them in other settings.

Historical influences

The tradition of African and Afro-Caribbean students coming to Britain certainly dates back to the sixteenth century. In more recent times the attraction to a formal hierarchical system of education has been its offer of an opportunity to hold prestigious and powerful positions in society. No matter whether that society was in Ghana or Barbados, a formal meritocratic system assisted in maintaining colonial rule by providing its administrators. This system closely [page 114] followed Plato’s treatise on education in that each individual would receive schooling to primary level; beyond that only those who were deemed to have the capacity to govern proceeded.

The rise of church or mission schools increased the demand for education, which followed Platonic and British traditions. Children would enter the system at the age of six where they remained until the age of twelve; those who did not attain the required standard year by year were not promoted to the next class. At twelve there was a further examination to enter middle school followed by the Common Entrance examination for transfer to secondary school. Throughout, competition was of great importance and examination success was rewarded with scholarships to study in Britain. Some of the attitudes promoted by this system were: that being educated was a privilege to be earned; that one had to be competitive to succeed; that those who reached the highest goals would be the leaders of society; and that those who had failed to do so would be led.

It is the transition from a formal meritocratic system to an informal cooperative system that is the kernel of this study. I recall my own experience when I began school in Britain. I remember feeling very privileged, as the oldest of five children, at being given the opportunity to be at an English school. However, the reality of my schooling in Ladbroke Grove did not match my expectations. I was not forced to work and I was promoted regardless of how well I did in my end of year tests.

John Dewey, who may be considered a pioneer in informal education, influenced British educators from the 1920s onwards. Dewey argued that traditional formal methods of learning were largely barren. He believed that it was everyday human interactions that provided learning situations, rather than the formal tradition of learning by rote and passing examinations. He proposed four reforms which he felt were essential for a sound educational system. These were to make school life more relevant to the home environment and neighbourhood; to ensure that subjects such as history and science had a positive significance to the student’s life; that instruction in the three Rs was to be carried out with everyday experience as the background; and that individual needs and abilities should be given adequate attention.

For Africans and Afro-Caribbeans the purpose of introducing a British education system was contrary to the above. It was intended as an imposition of one culture on another and did little to make learning relevant to the participants. I believe it also engendered the notion of being given something that belonged to someone else. A [page 115] comment that comes to mind is of a student’s mother saying, ‘you na wake op an go to the people them school?’ This, of course, is true wherever learning fails to relate to life.


We can compare a young African or Afro-Caribbean entering a liberal British school in the 1950s and a mature student embarking on a course of further education with a commitment to informal learning. There would, for example, be a shared feeling of being given a great opportunity, a second chance. The mature student would feel some pressure to succeed, perhaps feeling it was a last chance or, as some students say, not wanting to let the side down. Going back to the home community without successfully finishing the course was not to be contemplated. Anna Craven (1968) in her book West Africans in London includes several case studies where students could not return to their families or countries because they had not been successful in their chosen careers.

The parents of young people coming to Britain would have expected their children to gain some form of higher education without the burden of pass by merit or cost of schooling. In the same way, mature students were attracted to assessment which did not include a written examination which they felt would lessen their chances of passing.

The ‘once in a life time’ feeling would have been present not only for young people coming to Britain, but also for the mature student whose life chances would be greatly increased by attaining a professional qualification.

Young people who came from Africa and the Caribbean would have found the system of education in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s ‘liberal’ compared with the formal competitive system which they would have experienced before. Similarly, the previous experiences of mature students would predominately have been those of the secondary modern school. This would have been equally formal and teacher directed. Some students thought of the liberal approach as a soft option since their learning was not policed. Changing this attitude to learning is the most important factor. If informal learning is seen as an easy or soft option, which of course it is not, then it is difficult for students to be motivated.

It is true that most students who embark on youth and community and many other professional courses will not have experienced anything like the strict formal schooling of African and Afro-Caribbean [page 116] students. Their experience may have been a little more progressive but their expectations of being told what to learn by an all-knowing authority would have been thwarted by having to adjust to informal ways of learning, to being asked to take responsibility and authority for their own learning.

Choosing informal learning

Why, then, do students choose institutions committed to informal learning methods? As for students of other modes of study, the experience is rarely what had been expected. They have many reasons for embarking on a course of further education. The social rewards of more money and status are of importance as many students have been in part-time employment, unemployed or in work which offered little job satisfaction. In many instances the course offers a personal challenge either to establish independence or to prove to parents, teachers or friends the ability to cope with two or more years of study. Students are attracted to the practical emphasis of, for example, youth and community courses. This often links to the practical experience or part-time training which many students had before they joined a course. Even by making the decision to do a course students were often conforming to attitudes and the socialization of their families, schools and work. They wanted to achieve recognition as professionals and in order to do so they needed some form of training which would confer professional status and in turn would bring economic rewards. For some, their concern that young people should play an active part in society without conforming to a hierarchical social system provoked the decision to apply to institutions which were non-hierarchical in their approach. For yet others their choice was determined by geographical considerations and successful interviews.

A great deal of importance is normally placed on the practical element of youth and community courses. This gives credit to what Dewey termed ‘practical intelligence’. Students begin the course knowing they have some skill or knowledge to share. As was said earlier, the absence of an examination may have played an important part in their choice of course. Many students may have had negative experiences of both school and examinations or be worried about their writing skills or lack of paper qualifications. [page 117]

The process

So what are colleges which use informal methods of learning offering students? The response to this question will be largely couched with reference to training for youth and community work. Having said that it is important to stress that the preparation for this area of work is in many respects not dissimilar to that offered students engaged in professional training for, say, teaching, social work and health visiting. First and foremost such a course offers the opportunity to practise the skills needed for a chosen area of work. This practise takes the form of practical placements. Practical experience is also gained by the structure of sessions: small seminar groups provide students with the face-to-face group participation that is central to youth work. Being part of large lecture groups, year groups or tutorial groups provides an experience which can be analysed in terms of their own and others’ behaviour with reference to theories of group dynamics. Induction into theory may take place in the lecture, seminar or via reading. The opportunity to participate in a dialogical process of learning is present in group setting and in a more focused way during supervision of placements and individual tutorials, where knowledge, skills and attitudes are evaluated through discussion. Finally, students are encouraged to determine and direct their own learning needs. They can do this by participating in the formulation of course content, as in Aberdeen College of Education (Scottish Education Department 1987) or being responsible for programming some part of the courses as at Goldsmith’s College (DES 1 988b) and YMCA National College (DES 1986). But more fundamentally than that, students use the vehicle of tutorial supervision and self-assessment to determine their individual programme of learning, while feeding back their experiences to other students and staff.

In examining the process from the students’ point of view I have drawn largely from my experience and conversations with other students. Because participation in the process is voluntary it is essential that students become, if they are not already, highly motivated. The HMI report for Aberdeen (1987) noted that ’… because they had been involved in negotiating both content and approach students were highly motivated’. This involvement at Goldsmith’s begins with the selection procedure, which often leads to a feeling of unease on the part of applicants about being assessed by students. My initial feeling about this approach was that students would not be objective, perhaps looking [page 118] for personalities which would fit in with the existing student group.

Once on the course students are faced with the concept of self-direction. The majority of students will have been part of an education system based upon the formal tradition, even where practice was liberal. So it is little wonder that many view their role in the learning process as the passive receiver of information. This makes informal learning a new and difficult experience to come to terms with. In the first instance it gives the student greater freedom. Initially this is generally attractive, as students are able to set their own pace and eschew competition with one another. Some are excited about making choices and decisions about their learning; among others it provokes feelings of being cheated: ‘I thought they would just tell me and I’d get on with it’. Being told what to do every step of the way can be extremely comforting. To remain in a position of relative powerlessness means that you do not have to take responsibility for what goes on; power is given to some outside authority which can be blamed at a later date.

Students very quickly realized that along with freedom came responsibility. Most engaged in a tug-of-war in the first few months, if not for the entire course. After all, the course was trying to change attitudes which had been with them for 25 years or more. An example of the tug-of-war between responsibility and powerlessness could be seen when students talked of lectures which ‘didn’t offer much’. This might be interpreted as meaning that the onus should be on the lecturer to provide the goods, whereas the onus was on the student to analyse why the session was unproductive. It may be that the student will decide to opt out; but the responsibility must be theirs. There is no option to ‘pass the buck’ in self-directed learning. Some students recalled being confused, wondering if they had made the right decision and questioning their ability to take charge of their learning. Others found it new and exciting to be able to follow up areas of study not in the college curriculum.

As a student the most difficult thing to grapple with is that you are not in competition with other students and that at the end of the course you would not be assessed in a competitive way. One student put it this way: ‘sometimes you think that some people haven’t worked as hard as you but you still get the same certificate but it’s all to do with how far they have got for themselves’. Informal education is about personal growth and development. As students gained the ability to play a full part in their learning so they began to question some of the administrative boundaries. Choice of placements and [page 119] supervisors came up several times; the contention was that if students could determine their learning needs they should be able to select a placement which afforded them the opportunity to meet those needs.

On the question of supervision, black students queried not having the choice of a black supervisor, feeling that this would have enabled them to open up about their work sooner in both the tutorial and supervision sessions. If colleges do not have black members of staff they maintain the illusion of an all-knowing white authority, which reflects a society where power resides within white-peopled institutions. A black tutor or supervisor not only provides a visible role model with whom the student can identify, but may contribute a wealth of experience and understanding of African and Afro-Caribbean culture to the course content. Students of social work and youth work are vociferous in demanding that the work of black academics and practitioners is a part of course content.

I believe that this lack of representation raises the question ‘how will what I’m learning relate to black youth?’ This argument regarding authority and identity also relates to the question of gender. Professional courses in social and youth work attract a high percentage of women, for some of whom it will be the first time they have attended to their own needs and identity as people. It is feasible that they may find themselves adopting a submissive role during tutorial or supervision because of previously socialized attitudes. All this opens up an area of investigation about whether it is necessary to have the personal experience of being black to facilitate African and Afro-Caribbean students in a tutorial or supervision setting. What is important here is to note that some students can feel that they are unable to make maximum use of the tutorial or supervision session because of the gender or race of the supervisor.

Tutorial and supervision are central to informal learning within professional training. They provide the means of evaluating work methods and linking practice to theory. For most students these unfamiliar experiences brought confusion and anxiety. One response was to find a more familiar experience with which to compare tutorials and supervision. These ranged from the confessional where students could confess ‘bad’ work practice, to the oral examination of ‘the course so far’. It is interesting that tutors and supervisors were often seen as having all the answers, at least at the start of the relationship. Students recalled long silences, wanting to change tutors or supervisors or skipping sessions. However, practice tends to increase skill which in turn lessens fears and anxiety. One [page 120] student poignantly described tutorials as ‘having your brain picked at with knitting needles’ and then ‘having them pulled through your nose’.

Yet the tutorial is important because, for the first time, attention is focused intensely on practice. Tutorials gave me the opportunity to develop the skill of thinking aloud and of opening out about my work. The other side of the coin, as one student agreed, is a risk of becoming dependent on the supervisor and being worried that in a professional work situation you may not be able to cope alone. Supervisors and tutors with differing styles of work, were compared and if you ‘enjoyed’ a session others suspected you had not learnt much — a very Calvinistic attitude.

Practical placements are one area where students generally feel comfortable because, in the main they have had considerable experience of it. During placements students were learning to look objectively at work, questioning their approaches and preferences. Placements also served to throw light on areas of work which were not in the student’s repertoire: work with girls, work without a club base and so on. In this way students were able to determine their strengths and weaknesses in practice. A great deal of time at placements seemed to have been spent in the negotiation or explanation of the student role. A common complaint seemed to be that the college provided insufficient information. One student recalled that the centre worker had contacted her tutor to check up on what she had been assigned to do. This was in fact a placement of the student’s own choice; any conversation about her work programme should therefore have been with her. The difficulty with informal learning within an institution is that outside contacts may not always value the methods of work or appreciate the student’s part in the learning process.

Full-time placements provided the student with an experience closely akin to post-college employment. Students spoke of gaining confidence, being clearer about the type of work they would do after college and convinced that they could take on a full-time commitment. This experience was a little different for students on courses where a link was maintained with the college throughout the placement, either by tutorials, or by full days session at college. This seemed to take away the feeling of being totally responsible for one’s own learning. For one student the experience was far wider than the work brief as it was the first time away from home.

Lectures and essays fitted more easily into the students’ expectation of learning. This raised the question of how students are [page 121] motivated. At the beginning of courses there has to be some positive feedback, which may come from tutorials and self- and or peer assessment. In order to move forward there needs to be an achievable goal. The timing of assignments, essays, placements and assessments provided these goals. One student remembered that each new task seemed more difficult than the last, but with each she gained more confidence.

Much youth and community work takes place in small groups or with individuals. Seminars and tutorials offer a way of learning about these situations while participating in them. It becomes easier to write an essay on ‘The purpose of a task in groups’ if you have observed and ‘lived it’. It becomes possible to link the practical placements to what is happening within year groups and sometimes to this or that theory. This can enhance learning, offering a feeling of living a fact as opposed to merely reading about it.

Informal networks

In many instances the informal learning networks created by students followed the course structure and came about as a result of students looking for ways of coping with the demands the course made on them. My observations here about informal networks, reflect my own experience. The cohesion of my year group was influenced quite directly by the loss, very early in the course, of a social facility. A coffee bar was replaced by sophisticated vending machines. This gave us an external authority to unite against. A student boycott created an alternative — the bringing of flasks and snacks. This evolved into a more structured fund—raising activity for about a year and aided the growth of the students’ informal support networks.

The small-group learning within the course was reflected in friendship and interest groups. Apart from general encouragement these groups allowed for a range of topics and issues to be discussed. One HMI report notes that the student interest groups reflected concerns which had arisen from field-work placements, that they provided a forum for exchange of information and experience and that participants were being encouraged to question their attitudes and values. Sometimes groups met informally as a result of a seminar or lecture where students wanted to explore a subject or draw on the experience and knowledge of other students. It was often in small informal groups that difficult attitudes to race and gender could be [page 122] faced; larger formal groups tended to provoke ‘fight or flight’ tensions.

More individual encouragement was gained by having one or two other students to maintain contact with. These were students who knew most about one’s own strengths and frustrations. Some students made use of the extra—curricular supervision which they had as practitioners in their previous working situations.

Friendship groups often serve as ‘cultural fixes’; any year group will be made up of students from a variety of cultural backgrounds. So, whether students had travelled many miles geographically or not there was the need to be with people who understood ‘where you were coming from’. Students often found that their own development took them away from their previous lifestyle and therefore away from friends, and occasionally family. Those who had partners often noticed the profound effect changes in them had on their partners and family. In friendship groups they were able to discuss these changes with other people who were going through a similar experience.

For black students it was important to explore the degree to which their learning might be separating them culturally from their communities. This gave them an opportunity to relate what they were learning to their past experience of working with black young people; to talk through how they might intervene in the future, knowing they would be operating in an environment where the young people they worked with might feel powerless, after years of alienation, to affect change in their lives. As professionals they would also need to counter institutional racism in a way the white workers would not. Many voiced a need to be together with other African/Afro-Caribbean students who would appreciate the opportunity to discuss these and other issues. This area has to be addressed when considering the question of the need for black workers to work with black communities and for women to work with girls and women. Such groups start by sharing a great deal of common ground.

Informal networks created by students themselves offer situations in which learning occurs outside the formal structure of the course. It engages students in dialogue, which is in the main evaluative, while providing encouragement and motivation when times are difficult. One student recalled how after several discussions and workshops on racism a friendship group gave her support to continue the course.

Informal learning requires the identification of appropriate learning [page 123] experiences and the creation of situations which will enable meaning to be derived from those experiences. The process has to be formally planned, with definite aims and clarity about the means of achieving them.
© Elizabeth Afua Sinclair 1990

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.