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living with values

The basis for our work lies in our ability to build, and hold onto, moral authority. Informal educators need a clear set of values that are respected by others - and, crucially, that they practice what they preach. Support page for chapter 7 of Informal Education
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photo: skylight circusInformal education is a moral craft. Because we are concerned with fostering learning in life as it is lived, we often have to make difficult choices. The people we are, and the values we hold, are fundamental to how we deal with these. The complex personal and social choices others, and we, make are not external to our work but sit at the very heart of it. But what are those values?

The basis for our work lies in our ability to build, and hold onto, moral authority. By this we mean that as informal educators we need a clear set of values that are respected by others - and, crucially, that we practice what we preach.

Our first concern should be to do what is good and right, not what is ‘correct’. We need the courage to break rules and be ready to be called to account for this. How do we go about making difficult choices?

Check out the Informal Education forum and discussion page.

Some questions to consider

At the end of chapter 7 in Informal Education we give you some questions to think about - and we want to look briefly at each.

In what ways may we indicate disapproval towards say racist or sexist language without being seen as prigs or killjoys?

Each of us develops his or her own style and there will be no set pattern as to the way we respond to, say racist name calling. However, five things stand out for us.

First, we need to be clear about the values we bring to the work as educators. As we saw in Chapter 1, education entails respect for people, a commitment to fairness and equality, and a belief in democracy. If we have not reflected on our values and those of education then when faced with difficult choices we may find it hard to go forward.

Second, we need to be able to work out what those values mean for our behaviour and the situations we face. The two classic responses to racist-name calling are to condemn (those doing it are not respecting others) or to ignore it, perhaps in the hope that it will go away (or at least not trouble us). In terms of the values of education, both have their difficulties. In condemnation we may well not respect the racist as a person - we may attack the sinner rather than the sin. In not responding we may be condoning racism. This brings us back to the early themes of the chapter. How are we to act in a way that stays true to the values of education, that helps us to retain moral authority.

Third, to act in situations such as this requires that we also gain knowledge. In this case we need to learn about the ways in which 'race' (or gender, sexuality, dis/ability or class) enter the lives of the young people involved. How do they see the world? What experiences have led them to the understandings they have?

Fourth, such knowledge may, in part, be gained from courses or from reading, but the major source will be reflection on our conversations with those concerned.

Last, while it is important for us to react to situations as they occur in ways that help people to think about their behaviour and its impact, that is not enough. We need to work so that people can explore such questions in less tense situations. This may take the form of introducing the subject into our conversations or running sessions - say on a residential. If we follow what has been said already, then the tone is likely to be exploratory.

Consider your face-to-face work. Does the way you work, the way you treat yourself and others, reflect the values central to informal education? Have you retained moral authority?

Do you practice what you preach? Here it may be helpful to turn back to page 30 of Informal Education and to think about the qualities of conversation listed there. Do you think people experience you as bringing these things into your dealings with them?

Reflect on a situation where you have had to make a difficult choice about who to work with - on what basis did you make your decision?

This may be something that you have already spent time on with your manager, mentor or supervisor. Sometimes we make choices about who to work with without really being aware of what we are doing. We may work with a group, for example, simply because they come to the centre or project - rather than as a positive choice. However, there are a lot of times when we do have to weigh things up. A classic example here is when in youth work or in a community project we have to exclude or discourage someone from coming to a group or session. We may say that we are unable to deal with their behaviour in the context of that group. For example, we may exclude someone from a youth group because their behaviour is experienced as very threatening by younger members. In this situation we may have put the welfare of the bulk of the group above giving time to work with the person who has challenging behaviour. Sometimes, a way round it for us to try and work with the person in another setting - perhaps one to one so that the problem can be worked at. Unfortunately, though this can't be in many cases. Either we do not have the time or the resources, for example, to work outside the centre or project sessions - or the person does not want to work on the issues.

In cases like this it is worth reviewing how you took your decisions - and what you took into account. Looking back it is pretty inevitable that you will feel that you did this or that wrong, or that there were other avenues or possibilities that you did not consider. But that it is the nature of the work. We have to make decisions fairly quickly, so there will always be things that are not quite as we would have wanted them. Furthermore, there often no wrong or right answers. In the example we use in the chapter of making a choice between the musician and the person involved in petty crime, we can see that there are reasons for working with both. In this sense making a choice involves someone losing out.

Do you think that a code of practice would be a help or a hindrance to developing good practice?

Codes of practice do provide a reference point - something for us to use to judge situations. But they are also a source of argument - how do we interpret this statement or that, how does it apply to the situation we are looking at? It may be that it is less the code of practice that is significant - the words on paper - but the fact that we talk about what they mean. In other words, a code of practice can be used to stimulate reflection and conversation about the right way to work; they don't necessarily 'tell' us what to do.


Making difficult choices sometimes involves us acting as individuals, sometimes as a team. However, whether we act as a team or as an individual, we have to be able to explain and justify our actions to others such as colleagues or managers. In this sense, when making decisions we have to think about what may make for the good, and also about what others think. A key element here will be the thinking of our colleagues. Our actions may impact on them (especially if we are part of team). Further; if we call ourselves informal educators (or youth workers or community workers or community educators) then our actions should connect with ideas held within the work about what is right.

As an activity - we would suggest that you try to raise questions about the value base of the work, and how it connects with the actions of workers, in your work team.

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published August 7, 1997.