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Informal education refers to intentional educational encounters occurring beyond the classroom. Many learning experiences are random and accidental; however, informal education, although it may flow from chance encounters or fortuitous events, embodies an element of premeditation. Certainly informal educators, like their compatriots operating in schools and colleges, consciously set out to promote learning and impart skills. They are teachers and like all teachers will plan, evaluate, and reflect upon their teaching. Clearly some overlap exists with experiential learning, since informal educators may also create opportunities for learning. However, the key difference between the two is that informal educators predominately work via the conversation that emerges from reflection on the daily experiences of the individuals and groups rather than the analysis of experiences initiated by the facilitator and educator (see Warner Weil and McGill 1989).
The first text to deliberately employ the term was Informal Education (1946) by Josephine Macalister Brew (1904–1957). However, such essentially unstructured education, characterized by spontaneity and built upon the interplay inherent in dialogue and conversation, clearly has a long history. Possibly predating the formal variety, unstructured education flourished in ancient Athenian society (Jeffs 2001). There it stood apart from rote learning and instruction as the accepted way whereby individuals acquired social skills, an understanding of the arts, and appreciation of matters philosophical and spiritual.
Although it is important to avoid minimizing the commonalties between teaching in the formal and informal sectors, crucial differences do exist. First, informal educators predominately operate via the mediums of conversation and dialogue. Unlike the formal sector, where the curriculum and syllabus mold the educational encounter, here content emerges from conversational encounters. Informal educators consciously engage in conversation with the purpose of fostering learning, intentionally encouraging others to clarify their thinking, formulate their ideas, and articulate learning needs. The objective is to cultivate dialogue that will enable both parties to learn from and better understand each other (Jeffs and Smith 2005).
Second, informal education is based upon a voluntary relationship. Even within such institutions as prisons or schools, where attendance for one party is compulsory, informal educators strive to ensure those engaging with them do so freely.
Third, informal education requires the practitioner to operate where people are. They need to be “around” and “accessible.” Therefore they must either work in settings they do not control, such as schools and the “street,” or establish sites, such as settlement houses, youth clubs, and community centers, that provide services, programs, or activities that individuals and groups will seek out. For example, those operating in schools work the public spaces, such as hallways and canteens, in ways that enable students and staff to engage them in conversation (see Hazler 1998). In the clubs, community centers, and settlements, informal educators make time between and in activities for users to engage with them (see Hirsch 2005). They also create social spaces in these buildings where conversation will naturally occur. Those operating on the “street” usually target “hot spots” where, for example, young people or the homeless gather. Irrespective of the environment, informal educators draw upon a repertoire of skills to enable them to make contact and develop relationships. This means they must improvise and think for themselves. To be successful, practitioners must, as Brew (1946) stressed, be interesting and trustworthy people with whom others will freely spend time. Also they must be sensitive to the social and cultural environment they operate within if those they work for are to respect their judgment and opinions. Simply being “around” is never enough.
Overall, what distinguishes informal education is not its role and purpose, as generally these approximate those encountered elsewhere. Rather, it is the location and modus operandi of the educator. Although largely associated with youth work, settlement houses, and community work, informal education has noticeably been adopted as a means of intervention by a wide range of agencies since the 1980s (Smith 1988; Jeffs and Smith 1999). Notably health and criminal justice agencies have looked to informal education as a means of reaching groups and individuals resistant to their message. Sadly, the repertoire of skills developed by informal educators is often employed merely to deliver a packaged message, and the underlying commitment to dialogue and shared learning is set aside. This incorporation of elements of formal practice, notably in the United Kingdom and United States, has led to attempts to create an informal education curriculum and undertake the assessment of learning outcomes from “informal education” encounters (see Ord 2004). Unfortunately such accreditation is based on a profound misunderstanding of the informal education process: a naive assumption that because curriculum-led learning is taking place in clubs and centers, it is not formal education. This view overlooks the reality that formal and informal education can operate side by side yet remain discrete entities. Venue is not the defining characteristic; rather, it is whether or not the intervention is curriculum or dialogically led.
In parts of Europe aspects of informal education are frequently designated social pedagogy. The two are not synonymous but share many characteristics and historical antecedents.
- Brew, Josephine Macalister. 1946. Informal Education: Adventures and Reflections. London: Faber and Faber.
- Hazler, Richard J. 1998. Helping in the Hallways: Advanced Strategies for Enhancing School Relationships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
- Hirsch, Barton J. 2005. A Place to Call Home: After-School Programs for Urban Youth. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Jeffs, Tony. 2001. First Lessons: Historical Perspectives on Informal Education. In Principles and Practice of Informal Education: Learning through Life, ed. Linda Deer Richardson and Mary Wolfe, 34–51. London: Routledge.
- Jeffs, Tony, and Mark K. Smith, eds. 1990. Using Informal Education: An Alternative to Casework, Teaching, and Control? Philadelphia and Buckingham, U.K.: Open University Press.
- Jeffs, Tony, and Mark K. Smith. 1999. Informal Education and Health Promotion. In Evidenced-Based Health Promotion, eds. Elizabeth R. Perkins, Ina Simmett, and Linda Wright, 206–215. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley.
- Jeffs, Tony, and Mark K. Smith. 2005. Informal Education: Conversation, Democracy, and Learning. Nottingham, U.K.: Education Now.
- Ord, Jon. 2004. The Youth Work Curriculum and the Transforming Youth Work Agenda. Youth and Policy 83: 43–59.
- Smith, Mark. 1988. Developing Youth Work. Milton Keynes, U.K.: Open University Press.
- Warner Weil, Susan, and Ian McGill. 1989. A Framework for Making Sense of Experiential Learning. In Making Sense of Experiential Learning: Diversity in Theory and Practice, eds. Susan Warner Weil and Ian McGill, 3–24. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
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