informal education and democracy

Informal educators have a special role to play - what is it?

salmon.jpg (19677 bytes)The relationship between democracy and informal education takes a number of forms. First, democracy opens up greater possibilities for open and honest dialogue. At a national level it is impossible for honest debate to take place in a society where certain views are treated as 'dangerous' and where those who espouse them risk prison or worse. At the level of practice we know that in some settings and institutions where democracy is absent, or severely curtailed, dialogue between those with power and those 'below them' in the hierarchy is generally stilted and sometimes impossible.

Second, and following on from the previous point, democracie s provide frameworks and systems that enable dialogue to generate change and reform. The democratic school, like the democratic political party for example, creates forums for debate and most importantly an atmosphere that invites individuals to contribute. Those who fear democracy, by way of contrast, minimise such opportunities and focus attention on the 'leader', the 'head' and the common-sense way of doing things.

Third, democratic systems require an educational infrastructure – formal and informal. Their survival, in part, depends on the existence of an informed and committed electorate. It has to be competent to debate issues, make judgements and to choose the best possible representatives. As a general rule informal educators find it easier to work in open and democratic settings and societies. However, there are many examples where they have and do operate in undemocratic, even oppressive environments. At one level this has involved adapting practice to work in prisons and schoo ls. At another it has led to educators in directly challenging oppressive regimes by creating opportunities for dialogue in order to create social movements committed to democracy.

Informal educators can have a special role. First, our focus on conversation expresses and fosters values, and ways of being with each other, that are central to democracy. Second, the organizations in which we work for much of the time - clubs, groups, and associations – often have 'democratic' structures. These may not be open or used - but they are there. They provide a chance for learning, and for engaging in politics. In doing this, however, informal educators have to address the relations of power in which they are involved.

infedcov.jpg (18462 bytes)Taken from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.


© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published October 18, 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014