calling and informal education

The notion of calling, once rather unfashionable, has re-emerged as an organizing idea within education.  Michele Erina Doyle examines calling and vocation, and sets them in particular within Christian discourse. She argues that fulfilling our calling as informal educators means we work with others for the processes of knowing, testing, naming, being, doing and becoming. Our hope is that both we and others prosper.  

contents: introduction · calling · god, holiness, group life and tasks · conclusion · references

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Vocation and calling have been under attack within education. We have seen it pushed to the edges by a too heavy reliance on technical expertise (Collins, 1991), and marginalised by the drive within the associated professions to specialise (Perkins, 1989). This process of under-powering calling and vocation has been aided and abetted by links with religion, and in particular, Christianity. As we shall see, Christian texts offer rich pickings for informing our understandings of vocation and call. However, our learning can be hampered by their somewhat fundamental approach. Arguments are often framed around one path, one destination and focus more on what Christianity has to give, rather than receive, from others. This means the richness of these traditions may be lost to other groupings, and consequently lack the vibrancy of wider debate.

Yet, this once unfashionable idea has been re-emerging as an organising concept. Collins (1991) has argued for approaching adult education as vocation; Breen (1993) looks to calling and youth work; and Smith (1994) has begun to use the notion in relation to informal education. Vocation and calling hold some hope for informal educators. They honour the ethical base for practice, individual and group life, and emphasise what we are, what we do and what we are to become.

In much of the literature of education, however, the idea is used in a loose, taken for granted manner that betrays a weak knowledge base in relation to practice. The absence of an adequately thought-out, theoretically based understanding of call and vocation is at best misguided. In common usage, these words are bandied around by professionals, politicians and practitioners - each with their own under­standing, but not necessarily related. If we are going to start using theses terms within informal education we need a firm basis of understanding on which to ground our explorations. At this stage what is needed is a ground clearing exercise. As a result, this article is centred around an exploration of the literature available and has necessarily drawn from philosophy and Christian traditions of thinking. As an exercise in pre-fieldwork ground-clearing, the article aims not to define notions of vocation and call, nor to identify traits and attributes. Rather it attempts to draw from, and explore beyond, Christian understandings, and to reveal the hope these hold for informal educators.


The Latin stem of vocation is vocare, meaning to call. As a result, calling and vocation are often used interchangeably. The term vocation has a wide usage in particular referring to specific jobs or professions. Calling, on the other hand is linked to religion and more often a relationship with God. Here, we are concerned with moving these terms beyond the confines of occupational and particular religious discourses, focusing more on the way that we are called to live or be in the world. Belonging to a particular profession or religion may spring from or to this, but not necessarily, nor to the exclusivity of others. Drawing from primarily Christian understandings, we will necessarily focus more on calling.

Knowing. Within Christian traditions calling is often tied to spiritual prompting and the relationship between a person and God. Biblical examples include the call of Amos as he was tending his sheep in the Judean hills, and Isiah during the temple ceremonial (Melinsky 1992:244). Here God plays a central role in revealing calling to people.

Within Islam the public call to prayer (adhan) invites people daily, to perform salats and weekly, to Mosque. The mu’adhdhin calls and Muslims are expected to listen and answer. So calling involves invitation and response. When called, we need to know what is being asked in order to shape the appropriate response. From this example we also know who calls and who responds. It is not only God that calls - but also people.

People talk about calls from God, inner calls and gut feelings. These may be expressions of spiritual prompting, but this is only half the story. Calling can also be understood in lay terms. Home tells us that calling can be ‘a discovery of, and assent to, one’s abilities, circumstances and tendencies’ (1996: 2). We may experience flashes of inspiration and gradual growths in certainty. So within Muslim, Christian and lay understandings there is agreement that calling involves people experiencing some kind of revelation or knowing-ness, and responding accordingly.

Testing. An interesting feature of these revelations is that they happen in a variety of ways, some shared between people, others seem individual or personal. What is striking is that individuals are central in naming their calling. This poses problems for us as informal educators. How do we know the calling is genuine? It is a gamble to take claims at face value, but without taking risks we may never find truth. Home says we should take notice of happenings that are difficult to describe (1996:2). However, we need to tread carefully. People may be misguided or misled. We must test the calling. It is not valid unless experienced and recognised by both ourselves and others.

Some time ago I was talking with a newly appointed youth worker who described himself as ‘having a heart for young people’. I was puzzled and asked him what he meant. At this point the conversation reached a standstill. Beyond saying he had been called by God, and that God talked directly to him, he was unable to articulate what this meant, particularly in relation to his practice, or why I should believe him. He expected me to accept his claims at face value. My experience of working within Christian youth and community work agencies tells a similar story. Interview panels crumbling into sentimental gatherings when faced with the enthusiastic worker ‘called by God’, a lack of inquiry and an almost tangible fear of questioning the communication between Saviour and Saved. Later, recrimina­tions and damage control exercises when the ‘called’ worker and God turn out to have their wires crossed.

So how may we test the calling of an informal educator? One would have thought the discussion within the interview would have been an ideal setting, but if we have a limited view of calling, this is not always possible. Often claims of calling within informal education are taken at face value. Given the lack of adequate theory to inform our practice, this is not surprising, but nonetheless reprehensible. We need to explore what is happening with the individual and include others in the process. Moving a private experience into a public arena for scrutiny allows us to gather evidence that the calling is genuine. Whatever the outcome, people are in a better position to take informed action. This avoids gambling with our own and others’ future. Even if we have experienced a calling from God or within ourselves, other people will still need to recognise us as educators and call us into conversation with them. We need to check we have the blessing of others.

This is by no means a new idea. Schillebeeckx (1981) plots the central role of local Christian communities in the choice of their leader. For the first ten years of the Christian Church’s history, ordination was linked with the person’s function within their community. No-one could be ordained unless requested by the community. Ordination was not absolute. If a person stopped being seen as a leader, they immediately became a layman (Dewar 1991:1).

Naming. Mirroring the early days of ordination, our authority as an informal educator is a gift from others (Jeffs and Smith 1996: 52-4). Accepting that people call others, much as the mu’adhdhin calls Muslims to prayer, means that we can test and name the calling to be an informal educator. We should come to the field by hav­ing our qualities recognised and named by others (and ourselves). The giving and receiving of the name ‘informal educator’ depends on these processes.

We might hear people say, ‘you help me think about things’, or ‘you’d make a good youth worker’. On the other hand, this may be expressed by their behaviour; they may pose a question, hang around, or ask for help or advice. Conversation is central to our practice; we work through it. This means we and others need to be called to, and engage in, conversation. We then have the space to take on an educative role to which people respond. If we are to be informal educators people must call us into conversation, or at the very least respond to our call. They engage with us through choice and as such they may reclaim their gift if we are not deserving. So the role of others, (not just our colleagues), in initially and continually calling us to be informal educators is central. They earmark us for this special purpose, naming as well as testing our claims of calling.

So, in naming calling (of both ourselves and others) we must look to the behaviour of people in relationship and conversation. Our private experiences become known by how we act and what we say. We show intentional and unintentional signs of our private experiences (Home 1996:57-58). A revelation here is that naming our calling involves initially and continually reflecting on, and exploring, practice. Calling then, is not a one-off, private experience, it is a public process. We are called to be and become informal educators. So far we can see that this process involves coming to know, test, and name our calling. It also involves being, doing and becoming.

Being, doing and becoming. Establishing our calling means being someone in particular. This is more about the kind of people we are in the world, and less about being something, like an electrician or nurse, although these may be linked. Master Eckhart puts this elo­quently, ‘people should not consider so much what they are to do, as what they are’ (Fromm 1979:8).

Following Benvenistes (1996) study, Fromm argues for the meaning of ‘to be’ as a verb. Being, then, is about a kind of existence; a way of living. This is about orientation to the self and the world, rather than our personality or temperament and is named our disposition (Smith 1994: 77). It also involves doing. In order to be, one must do, and in order to do, one must be. Put simply, being (existing in the world), involves us as beings (humans), doing (acting). Since being and doing are tied, what we do expresses what we are.

Dewar (1991: 2, 31) describes calling as ‘a task or activity...that expresses the unique essence of yourself’. He goes on to say, that through such an enactment, people may discover a little more of who they are. In other words, shaping our identity needs to happen with others in everyday life, as well as privately through reflection and introspection. Linked to Dewar’s ideas is the assertion of George Simmel (1970) that being is becoming. Fromm takes this on arguing that living things can only be, if they become. Change and growth are qualities of life process (1978:34). So what are we called to do, be and become?

God, holiness, group life and tasks

From a Christian perspective, calling involves certain commitments. Aided by Walton (1994:1 3-26) and Dewar (1991:2), we can identity four. The call to:

     belong to God


     the body of Christ with a commitment to people

     take on particular tasks or roles (Walton 1994:13-26)

God and our ideals. It is difficult to pin down what is meant by God, and in turn what God means, if anything, to people. Some argue that God is beyond human comprehension, so words are inadequate in trying to describe its nature. For example, with Sikhism, Akal Purakh; the timeless being, is beyond our understanding and can only be known by gracious self-revelation (Cole, 1997: 328). Attempts have been made to understand God via negative approaches. These focus on what God is not, for example, God is not evil. Others have tried a positive approach, describing nature and characteristics, for example, God is omnipotent. From Christian, Jewish and Islamic perspectives God is the supreme reality (Swinburne, 1995: 314-5). This belief in a supreme being is also shared by African classical religions and can be described as theism (Stuart 1997: 703). However the existence of God is questioned and there are different understandings of what God might mean. Most philosophical theologians have regarded God as:

a personal being, bodiless, omnipresent creator and sustainer of any universe there may be, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good and a source of moral obligation; who exists eternally and has the divine properties listed (Swinburne 1985: 314).

Whether we believe in God as a being or not, is beside the point here. What we need to look at is what this means in relation to calling. Here, it means that calling involves committing to something. Freeman (1993), a Christian priest, suggests that God is not objectively real but rather a name for our ideals. So, even within the confines of a belief in God we can argue that it means belonging to a set of ideals. If we whip God out of the equation the argument remains - calling involves a com­mitment or sense of belonging to sets of ideals.

Ideals, morals and values are paradigms of what makes for good and evil, right and wrong. They are words used to describe ideas people have about religious, moral political and ideological principles, beliefs and attitudes. These ideas are called upon by people informing and guiding their action for the good (Banks, 1995: 3-4). What does this mean for informal educators?

As informal educators we generate and appeal to sets of ideals, morals and values with purpose and deliberation. We must focus on ethics: the study of what is regarded good and evil, with a concern for what ought to be (Banks 1995: 3-4). These ideals shape our action for human flourishing. Jeffs and Smith suggest that informal educators are ‘ their understanding of what makes for the good; of what makes for human well being’ (1990: 1 7-1 8). It follows that informal educators are called to the study and generation of, as well as the commitment to, sets of ideals.

Holiness and us as individual. Calling involves holiness. Within Christian traditions, the word holy was first used of God and meant to describe the nature of being separate, distinct and special. It stems from Greek meaning set apart, carrying notions of being earmarked for a special purpose. Holiness is linked with conduct and is used to describe particular ways of being in the world. The bible refers to the call to live distinctively, reflecting the character of God; ‘be holy, for I am holy’ (Leviticus 11 .44). Being holy can mean people are called to walk their path worthily; reflecting the nature of their ideals. Melinsky (1992: 168) describes the character of this;

a priest may be ordained to preside over the sacraments; he is also called to be, in a manner of speaking a walking sacrament, that is to say, someone through whom the reality of God discloses itself in unmistakable terms.

Being called as an informal educator involves being someone in particular. Part and parcel of this disposition is that we work with and for sets of ideals. These include respect, truth, justice and democracy (Jeffs and Smith 1996:10, 1990:10-11 and Smith 1994: 24-6). This means, for example, that informal educators work with respect for others, for respect with others. Working with expresses something of partnership. We work with others as participants.

If calling involves reflecting the nature of our ideals, informal educators need to become good. In deciding to work for human flourishing, we too must flourish. If working for justice, we must be just. Anything else is hypocrisy, and denies our calling.

The body of Christ and us as group As we have already established, being called is a process that happens between people. It is experienced individually, in pairs and groups. We now find it involves a commitment to others. The ‘body of Christ’ may refer to the church: groups of people and their lives together. Teaming this with a commitment to people looks to us like sharing interests and forming attachments. Calling, then, involves a commit­ment to group life.

Group life - the sharing of interests and forming attachments - is to do with building communities. Interest communities are people linked by factors like ethnic origin, religion and occupation. Attachment communities describe people having a shared sense of identity and interaction with others. These may interconnect and overlap (Willmott 1986).

Community expresses notions of similarity and difference, inclusion and exclusion. The word itself implies, ‘a group of people that have something in common with each other that distinguishes them in a significant way from members of other punitive groups’ (Cohen 1985:1 2). This is a relational idea, posing the opposition of one group of people to others and often in the service of making such distinctions (op. cit.). ‘Where there is belonging, there is also not belonging and where there is inclusion, there is also exclusion’ (Cornwell 1984: 53). Calling also involves, then, learning that our groupings may encourage and discourage people to participate. This is not necessarily a negative aspect of community, but we are called to pay attention to what is shared by people as well as their differences. We therefore need to take into account how participation happens and what part this plays in our lives.

All people have a hand in building communities. They ‘construct community symbolically, making it a resource and repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity’ (Cohen 1985: 118). The idea of a community where non-intentional, non directional social order and integration naturally emerge, is dismissed as romanticism by Suttles (1972: 9). He argues this neglects the active role of the builders, developers and government agencies in the process of the social construction of communities (see also Crow and Allan 1994:5-6). Here the call to community means acknowledging the hand we and others have in their construction. Part of this commitment involves being aware of the economic and social factors that determine how communities are born, live and die. Calling is also about appreciating the perception people have of the communities in which they live and participate, and how this determines their fate.

Communities are shaped by their boundaries. Cohen focuses on the nature of boundaries as the element that embodies a sense of discrimination and plots them as largely symbolic. The symbolic element refers to what the boundary means to people and the meaning they give it. Such boundaries are marked, yet may not be objectively apparent. The way they are marked is dependent on the community in question and may be perceived in different terms, or not at all, by people within and without (Cohen 1985:1 2-1 4). Calling alerts us to the boundaries between people and the significance these have in their lives. We are called to appreciate the factors that shape our own and others’ existence. It can therefore be understood to involve a commitment to; unite with others, finding and sharing areas of commonality and difference; and to build flourishing communities.

All of these elements are important within the practice of informal education. If called to be an informal educator we embrace a ‘commitment and concern to foster a sense of community’, and all that this implies (Smith 1994: 152). This entails working so that people may be together in the interests of human well-being. We work with people for community, taking care to honour difference and acknowledge ‘the extent to which it can act to marginalise and exclude voices of subordinate groups’ (Smith 1994: 1 54). We need to appreciate the significance of communities in the lives of people and how this impacts on their happiness.

Group life is also important for informal educators. The commitment to community does not end with those we work with, rather it is something we seek to foster within our field. Lave and Wenger call upon the notion of community of practice in exploring this phenomenon. ‘Community of practice implies participation in an activity system about which participants share understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means for their lives and their communities’ (1991:98).

Within our community of practice we are called to acknowledge our commitment to the generation and sharing of ideas about what makes for the good. Informal educators may be seen as a community of interest and attachment. In seeking to foster community between ourselves and others, we look to its social and symbolic construction. As a community of practice this is important in forming who we are and what we do. We create an identity. Given the exclusive element of community of practice, others may not understand our place as readily. The clues are given in our practice - through this people come to know us. By reflecting on our work with people and participating in our community of practice we come to know ourselves.

Task. So far we know that calling involves being someone, and that in turn, this means doing something. To do is about activity (the exertion of energy with diligence) and task (a piece of work undertaken as duty). In being called we actively undertake a task to succeed, answer or serve. We are not only expected to do, but to do well. Our calling is expressed by the action we take - what we do, and importantly, how we do it. In turn our actions shape us - we become different and change.

Informal educators are committed to doing a job. Essentially what informal educators do is act so that people may learn. To paraphrase Smith (1994: 78-9), we enter situations with others. Guided by our personal and shared idea of the good, a clear understanding of role, and an ability to think critically in-and-on action, we encourage conversation. Our hope is that people are then able to make sense of their situation and act accordingly. So our call to be an informal educator involves commitments to growth and change. This means we appreciate and work with who people are, and what they want to become. We are concerned with people taking informed, committed action. In a nutshell, we work with people so that they come to know, test, name, be, do and become someone that expresses their calling. This is an on-going process of development and change, by no means linear, nor synchronical. It is a life-long process of learning.

It follows that if we think this process is important for others, it is just as important for ourselves. This means as practitioners we should undertake the tasks called for. We should enter conversations, read, reflect, etc. so as to learn and grow.


All people are called to be someone and to do things - it is part and parcel of human existence. Discovering and becoming who we are supposed to be, and what we are meant to do in the world is a life-long process of growth and change. This process involves certain commitments and these become revealed to us along the way. Informal educators can play a special part in encouraging these processes. Their role is to work so that people may shape and follow their calling.

All informal educators are called and responded to. Deny this and we undermine the relationship in which the work takes place, and the ability of people to invite us into conversations. Informal educators also call. They ask people to join with them in conversation. If no-one calls us, or responds to our call, we cannot be informal educators. Experiencing spiritual prompting in our journey may be present, but it is only in relationship with others that this can be tested and verified. Recognising our calling means appreciating what it involves. We need to work with, and for particular values, act appropriately as individuals, and commit to group life, growth and learning. Fulfilling our calling as an informal educator means we work with others for the processes of knowing, testing, naming, being, doing and becoming. Our hope is that both we and others prosper.

Calling must be taken beyond particular religious discourses and shared widely. Anything less denies people the opportunity to explore calling and what it means in everyday life. As informal educators our focus now should be on fieldwork, discovering the meaning and processes of calling and how these come about.


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© Michele Erina Doyle 1999

Acknowledgements: First published as 'Called to be an informal educator' in Youth and Policy 65, Autumn 1999: 28-37. Reprinted with their permission

The picture 'Happy colors in the sky' is by rogilde and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic). flickr -

How to cite this article: Doyle, M. E. (1999) 'Calling and informal education', the encyclopaedia of informal education. [].