the process of informal education

At the centre of our work as informal educators is interaction or conversation - and in conversation everything is so unpredictable.

Informal education is not curriculum-based. It is driven by conversation and informed by certain values and commitments. This means that informal educators have constantly to be thinking about their actions and the situations they encounter. They have to balance meeting competing demands and learn to allow conversation to develop and to engage in such ways that express the values that underpin their work.

So what elements make up the informal education process? In the figure below we set out some key dimensions to begin our exploration.

process.jpg (18182 bytes)

As the figure above shows, rather than using a curriculum we are guided in our actions by an understanding of our role as educators and certain commitments. These commitments should be related to our ideas about what may make for human flourishing. In earlier chapters, which looked at conversation and fostering democracy, we noted some of these. They include having a concern for, and respecting others; being committed to the search for truth and wisdom; and working to extend democracy.

Three crucial aspects are implicit in the figure. Each of the dimensions involves action, reflection and learning. They are present throughout. If we return to the example of the residents in the community lounge, we as educators have to make an initial assessment of what might be going on and our role. This means making decisions about how to act in a way that is appropriate. It might include thinking about where to sit, who to make eye contact with, and what to (or not) say. In other words, we have to reflect as we act. We may well be walking towards the group as we make these decisions. From the onset we will be seeking to learn – about them, the setting and our role. As we learn we will, at the same time, be looking to foster the learning of others. Our role as educator does not begin here when open our mouths. The people we appear to be – our dress, demeanour and deeds will ‘speak’ before we do.

The sorts of questions that may be raised in encounters will vary - but some at least will relate to our impression of what may be going on for the other people involved. In this sense, informal educators are concerned with outcomes. We will be on the look out for changes in others (as well as ourselves). However, this is not our prime orientation - we look for change, but do so knowing that it can be very difficult to recognize; and that the results of informal education often take some time to surface. Sometimes the result may be inaction rather than action. For example, a conversation with an informal educator about the demands of studying may persuade a person to embark on a course of study. Equally it may convince a third person listening to abandon a part-time course and concentrate on their job. It may make you, the educator, reflect on your attitude towards your own child who is studying for their final school examinations, and change your behaviour as a parent. Such outcomes could be neither predicted at the start of the conversation; nor can they be measured properly as outputs.

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 November 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014