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practicing informal education

How does informal education work out in practice? We explore work in a range of settings

Mural: Keighley Asian Women's and Children's Centre banner from a Rank Foundation eventWe can find specialist informal educators working in a surprising range of settings - often not usually linked to 'education'. On this page we look at practice in:

Developing the work of schools and colleges

Within formal education are various spaces for other ways of working. It is too easy to dismiss schools and colleges as not offering much to informal educators - but for youth workers, for example, they are full of possibility. If we follow the old youth work maxim that you need to start where young people are at - where they are at, for the most part, is school and college. One significant tradition of work has been the school-based youth club - but in recent years there has been developments in other approaches. For example:

Picture: Manchester Youth and Community Service

Community development and community participation

Many informal educators are employed in local community groups and in churches. They can have very different job titles and foci. For example in one nearby church we can find a youth worker, a community worker, a children's worker, a family support worker and a community health worker. All are working in a similar way, but each has a different target group and different emphases. Community groups may also employ a similar range of workers (or just one). Some examples of the sorts of work they may be undertaking include working with local people to:

Social work

We can also see informal educators at work in settings usually linked to social work. This can come as a bit of shock in places such as the UK, but in many countries there is not the same sharp divide between social and education work. For example in Germany many informal educators would train alongside social workers as social pedagogues. Common examples of work include:

Street, club and youth project work

Street, club and project work are classic settings for informal educators, The idea of meeting children and young people in the settings where they congregate rather than setting up special provision has a long history. From that club and project work can develop. Some examples include working with children and young people around:

Animation, formation and education in the arts and the outdoors

Many informal educators come into the work with, or develop, specialist knowledge and skills. They can then use these to open up new interests and opportunities for people and to create environments in which people can grow and learn. Common examples here involve the arts and outdoor pursuits. Classically, these involve informal educators in encouraging people to try new things (animation), to develop some new skills (formation) and to reflect on their experiences (education). Examples here include working with people to:

Picture: Paddington Arts

Some themes

These examples just scrape the surface. The thing that joins them together is the way in which the workers approach their task.

First, and foremost, they see themselves as educators, Their job is to work with people so that they may explore their experiences and learn.

Second, they seek to work with people, rather than to organize or provide for them.

Third, while they may be involved in very different activities these educators look to conversation as a central means by which people can reflect and learn.

Fourth, they are concerned with the whole person. The task is not to develop a narrow area of knowledge or skill but to encourage people to value and engage with themselves and the world. This means attending to the body, mind and spirit (to use an old YMCA phrase).

Fifth, there is a central interest in working so that all may share in a common life. There is a stress on fostering democratic ways of working, equal opportunity and justice for all.

Sixth, a lot of the work is undertaken in and with groups. For quite a lot of the time informal educators are involved in forming and developing groups. Sometimes the group is just for a single event such as a trip, sometimes for something more permanent such as a tenants association.

© Mark K. Smith 1997
First published May 1997. Last update: 29 May 2012