featured articles: informal education, lifelong learning and social action


being an informal educator

What does being an educator entail? The difference between informal and formal education. A support page for Chapter 1 of Informal Education
what is learning?
what is education?
follow up
carl rogers and informal education
john ellis - christian informal education


illustration: happiness - copyright (c) 2005 and its licensors. All rights reserved.To begin to approach what being an informal educator might mean we need first to ask two questions:

What is learning? - we can think of it either as some knowledge we have gained (a memory) or as the process of searching for understanding.

What is education? - a lot of people get confused around learning and education. Education involves consciously setting out to learn. It also involves certain values and commitments.

Once we have got a grip on these we can begin to explore the nature of informal education.

Check out the Informal Education forum and discussion page

Also worth looking at:

david halpin on hope, utopianism and educational renewal

julius nyerere, lifelong learning and informal education

Some questions to consider

At the end of the chapter we gave you some questions to think about - and we want to look briefly at each.

Education involves setting out with the intention of fostering learning. It entails influencing the environment; and is based on a commitment to certain values such as a respect for persons. Think about your work with people - are these things that you look to?

Here it may be worth your while looking to the one or two specific encounters or conversations that you have had recently. A good way of approaching this is to write down what happened and what you were thinking and feeling as a recording.

Once you have done that go back over it - what values were in play (expressed in the actions and words of those involved - including you as the educator)?

To what extent did you think about the environment:

We can separate informal from formal education using the amount of control over the environment; and the way the educational encounter is 'planned'. How much control do you have over the environments in which you work? To what extent are your work encounters with people planned?

This question is here to bring out the contrasts between informal and formal education. In the book we suggest that control over the environment and whether the encounter is curriculum or conversation-based are the main ways of separating the two. Part of our interest in asking the question is to encourage you to look at the sorts of encounters you have in your work. You will probably find a mix of informal and formal. But you may find something more - that what you think is informal is really quiet formal in terms of education (and vice versa).

What mix of informal and formal education do you use? Where would you place yourself between X and Y in the diagram?

XY ContinuumClearly, there is a link between this and the last question. One way of approaching this question is to list the different pieces of work or sessions that you are involved in. Then try to place each on the diagram. You then may begin to get an idea of the balance involved in your work. However, you may experience a bit of a problem here. A session or piece of work may involve a number of different situations - some formal, some informal. Whatever, it may help to get a fix on your activities.

Education involves facilitating and teaching. How do you feel about describing yourself as a: facilitator; and teacher?

This is a favourite of ours. Many informal educators such as youth workers, community workers and community educators are not that happy with calling themselves teachers. For some of us it may reminds us of schooling - and that may well be something that we want to forget, or not be associated with. However, this is something that we need to come to terms with. Part of the problem here is the way in which education is seen as schooling rather than something much wider. Teaching is not confined to schools - it goes on in everyday life such as when a parent shows a young child how to use a fork and spoon; or a neighbour explains how tune the engine on the car.

Some people may also be put off by the idea of facilitation. Here we might simply view it as working to build an environment in which people can engage with each other and some topic. It involves looking to process.

Our point is that educators have to both work on process and on the focus for the exploration. There will be times when they need to give information or design an environment for learning.


Why not put a note on your diary for four or five weeks time to review the work you have done over that period.

  • are you engaged in as much educational activity as you want?
  • has your approach to your work changed?
  • has the balance between formal and informal changed?


© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published May 8, 1997. Last update: July 08, 2014