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Title Informal Education & Youth Work
Author Sean Harte
Key Concepts Youth Work, Education, Definitions and Models, Curriculum, Anti-oppressive practice



“Critically examine the view that informal education is based around conversation and formal education on curriculum. Is there a role for curriculum within informal education?”

This essay will explore and critically assess the philosophical notions of formal and informal education. It will be shown that historically and politically formal education has been, and continues to be, tied to the notion of curriculum. It will be argued that curriculum work in formal educational settings has created methods which are discriminatory and oppressive in their conception, and importantly in the testing which is inextricably linked with curricular process. It will thus be shown that by design rather than inadvertent consequence of curricular development, formal education is a controlling mechanism reinforcing and reproducing oppressive social hegemony.

Conversely it will be shown that informal education, through the use of conversation or dialogue can be seen as a democratic tool and one which is capable of challenging the status quo, and may aid in the emancipation of the oppressed.

It will thus be argued that informal education, if it is to continue to be a libertarian and democratic mechanism, cannot and must not accept curriculum. Indeed it will be shown that if informal education was to accept curriculum it would, by definition, no longer be informal education. However, it will also be discussed that pure informal education is a very rare experience, particularly when discussed in the context of the youth worker. Therefore a synopsis of the amalgamation of curricular work and informal education will be briefly discussed. It is emphasised that this discussion is based on the use of a curriculum alongside conversation and dialogue and that curriculum is not seen to be within the remit of informal education.

Formal Education: Tied to Curriculum?

A plethora of conflicting academic text exists which attempts to define, analyse and evaluate the `keyword` (Goodson, 1995) of curriculum within formal education. As such, it is difficult to provide an absolute definition of what is understood by this complex and problematic notion.

Beauchamp describes three crucial meanings for the word curriculum within education and these provide a sound foundation of understanding for further discussion. Curriculum may be seen as a plan consisting of learning experiences for school pupils, here it may be described as an elaborate document including objectives, activities, instructional materials and schedules. A second use of curriculum is as a system or dynamic framework existing in order to implement, appraise and modify learning experiences. The third use of curriculum is described as a synonym for an area of professional study (Beauchamp, 1968).

Common to these, and other descriptions of curriculum, the importance of the relationship between goals and subject matter can be observed. It is thus distinguishable that these descriptions give rise to understanding knowledge as a commodity which is external to the learner, and which is to be consumed towards the ultimate aim of mastery. Furthermore this fundamentally positivist epistemological basis for the construction of curriculum gives rise to the powerful notion that learning can be, and will be, measured.

There is an inherent danger in indulging in this measurable curriculum model. The danger lies in the potential that outcomes may lead process and thus content and the learner become secondary to delivery and testing processes. As Barnes and Seed explain;

`Examination papers … offer to teacher and taught the most persuasive arguments about what model of the subject is appropriate, what should go on in lessons, what knowledge, skills and activities should be emphasised and what can safely be ignored` (Barnes and Seed, 1984: 263).

Current policy indeed advocates rigorous and frequent testing;

`Pupils are assessed by national tests at the ages of 7, 11, and 14, at the end of key stages 1, 2 and 3. These tests are designed to help teachers assess pupils’ strengths and weaknesses and to determine what pupils understand about a subject` (DFEE, 2000).

Through a measured curriculum, the institutions of formal education control not only the methods of education, but also what is and what is not learned. For if a curriculum is to be devised and delivered then the question must be asked “what is relevant, useful, etc?” (Homan, 1985). It is here perhaps, that formal educationalists can be seen falling into the trap of rating examination over process. Examinations now dictate the curriculum, rather than underpinning understanding, as Broadfoot describes, whether we like it or not assessment drives learning (Broadfoot, 1996). Testing of knowledge has become the absolute supremacy within formal education, the reason for this is the use of curriculum.

Other models of curriculum have been offered. Grundy (1987) discusses the juxtaposition of subject oriented practice curriculum, building on the ideas of Habermas (1979). Here `learning, not teaching, will be the central concern of the teacher` (Grundy, 1987: 69). This practice based curriculum is devoted to creativity and understanding in the learner and the teacher rather than an obsession with right or wrong answers. This curriculum would be more in line with the vision of many `deschoolers` as they too advocate the importance of creativity and understanding (Holt, 1969, 1970, 1971; Illich, 1973). This reinterpretation of curriculum does not alleviate the problems associated with testing and measurement.

However it is used, the notion of curriculum and its implementation implies a beginning and an end point for education, indeed the original use of the word was as a circuit which was to be completed by charioteers. In curriculum the end point must be measured in order that it may become the new beginning and further learning may be administered and assessed. Thus curriculum ties learners to a linear model of learning and inhibits individuality, imposing rather than eliciting relevance. Moreover curriculum must always be measured, and as long as this is so the danger of measurement usurping process and content remains. Marx protested that `examinations were nothing but a bureaucratic form of christening knowledge and endowing it with sacred characteristics` (cited in Clignet, 1974). It is also argued that examinations are as much a test of learners understanding of language as they are a test of knowledge in a given subject area (Hannan, 1985; Clignet, 1974). Lee Smith (1991) provides a more comprehensive discussion on the flaws of testing and examination. With the value, validity and fairness of testing and examination being challenged, alongside inflexibility and linear learning enforcement, the validity, fairness and relevance of curriculum is challenged.

We have discussed the power curriculum may hold over the teacher, learner and the learning process through linear learning and a process of examination and assessment. This institutionalised control of learning has been much contested in history between those who teach and the more central running of government (Lawton, 1980). Why is the power of the curriculum such a sought after commodity and why is the learner not empowered to decide upon the relevance and importance of learning?

Recent and current government policy advocates that curriculum is adaptable and flexible and adequately meets all pupils’ needs stating that;

`Head teachers have considerable scope to develop their own curriculum … They can introduce other experiences and subjects to meet the needs and interests of their pupils … the school curriculum, secures for all pupils, irrespective of social background, culture, race, gender, differences in ability and disabilities, an entitlement to a number of areas of learning and to develop knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes necessary for their self-fulfilment and development as active and responsible citizens` (DFEE, 2000).

An alternative view can be taken that adopting a curriculum indulges in the principle that young people and other learners are a homogenous group, whose educational and cultural needs have little or no diversity. Indeed the school curriculum can be said to `correspond to academic and to middle class interests, and hence exclude[s] by its nature enormous numbers (Hannan, 1985:  36). Dewey too, was dubious of the history and tradition of the curriculum asserting that it needed continuous critique as it is `loaded down with purely inherited traditional matter … which represent mainly the energy of some influential person or … persons` and `represents the values of adults rather than those of children and youth, or those of pupils of a generation ago rather than those of the present day` (Dewey, 1997: 241).

Thus it is argued that curriculum is discriminatory and oppressive, and this is at odds with the ideology of informal education and of youth work, as we will discuss. Moreover the oppression and discrimination which curriculum produces is not an unwanted but necessary by-product of education, it is in fact a creation intended to maintain hegemony and power for the rich elite at the expense of the learners liberty. As Illich discusses, `curriculum has always been used to assign social rank` (Illich, 1973: 19), this social rank has changed little in the past centuries, where the majority of education is controlled by curriculum.

Informal Education: Trusting in Conversation?

Certain educational philosophers offer a mutual stance that education should promote freedom, activity and the centrality of the position of the learner, in short education is an important democratic process (Rousseau, 1961; Froebel (cited in Cohen, 1969); Dewey, 1997). Whilst many theorists discuss democratic education in formal settings, this discussion will offer an alternative methodological view, that of informal education.

The philosophy of informal education proposes that the world is full of potential educational opportunities, indeed `The greater part of one’s education is acquired, not at school, but in life` (Tolstoy, 1967: 24). The informal educator acts as a facilitator or gatekeeper to these opportunities. That is, they are an assistant in the learning process of individuals, rather than the masters of other’s learning (Holt, 1970; Illich, 1974). Furthermore Holt asserts that in every individual exists a drive or disposition towards learning, whilst formal educational process acts to reduce or remove this drive (Holt, 1969).

Conversation is central to the work of the informal educator (Jeffs and Smith, 1999), but why is this so? Firstly it must be understood that the conversation of the informal educator is a distinctive form of conversation, it is a dialogical and is an attempt to seek understanding (Smith, 2000; Freire, 1970, 1985). Dialogue must be a two-way conversation in which both parties have a degree of equality. The conversational or dialogical approach to education also requires certain characteristics to be present in both parties. Burbules discusses these characteristics namely; concern, trust, respect, appreciation, affection and hope (Burbules, 1993, cited by Smith, 2000). Thus the conversation of the informal educator is a social relationship that engages its participants, and informal education occurs spontaneously when teaching does not take place (Burbules ibid.). This method of education is not a contemporary phenomenon, dialogical conversation was the favoured method of teaching for the Greek philosopher Socrates, although the exact understanding of the `Socratic Method` is heavily contested (Rud, 1997).

Conversation offers a situation `where each individual has an effective equality of chances to take part in dialogue; where dialogue is unconstrained and not distorted` (Smith, 2000). We see then that mutual trust, respect, a willingness to listen and to risk one’s opinions are fundamental in dialogical conversation and are thus key to the work of informal education. Moreover we can see that informal education is `a powerful regulative ideal that can orient our practical and political lives` (Bernstein 1983: 163). Informal education has thus been described as education for social change and liberation (Freire, 1970, 1985). The Woodcraft Folk, for example have described this process as `educating children to think for themselves. To examine and research the world in which they find themselves and when they grow up to find ways of changing it` (Salt and Wilson, 1985: 42).

Immediately a potential conflict between the traditions of informal and formal education can be observed. A conflict based upon the notion of power. Conversation is central to the work of informal education because it fosters democracy and enables individuals and groups to challenge social hegemony and address their own oppression, conversation can therefore be seen as empowering. Curriculum on the other hand controls power and limits individual freedom, as Freire states formal or `banked` education, i.e. that which `deposits` information into the leaner `does not engender curiosity, creativity, or an inquisitive spirit, but assists in the creation of indoctrinated clones, accepting rather than challenging the current social hegemony (Freire, 1970).

Finally, informal education proposes that measurement is unnecessary, harmful and counter-productive. True measurement cannot be achieved as the informal educator will have only `limited insight into the impact of the experiences [they] are involved with` (Jeffs and Smith, 1996: 51). For this reason measurement is not accepted or practised by the informal educator, instead they must trust in the educational potential of conversation. `Conversation is an activity to be valued in itself – not just for where it may lead` (ibid.  23).

Mixing Formal and Informal Education

Although it has been proposed that an almost dichotomous line of diametric opposition exists between theories of formal and informal education, in practice the gap is less defined. Informal education exists, for the most part, in a world dominated by curricular formal education and often the methods of the informal educator must adapt and dilute in order to survive. This dilution is particularly evident within the realm of youth work.

Numerous attempts have been made to provide local and national frameworks for a youth work curriculum (Newman and Ingram, 1989; Middlesbrough Council, 1998; Durham Council, 2000). Youth work has been offered a process curriculum, similar to the practice curriculum discussed by Grundy (1987). Rhetoric is often supplied as justification or appeasement for the necessity of curriculum in youth work. For example suggesting that the curriculum is `an organic process … not just a list of subject areas, a syllabus or a statement of aims or objectives` (Newman and Ingram, 1989: 1). Ultimately the curriculum serves one purpose in youth work, that is to enable measurement of process and of outputs. In doing this, youth work becomes as controlling as formal education, limited in usefulness and indeed shifts away from being informal education at all. Moreover, curricular based youth work falls into the same trap as formal education in treating young people as homogenous, when diversity and difference should be acknowledged and celebrated. Contemporary youth work is becoming engulfed in an obsession for measurable outputs.

However, youth work is youth work. Youth work is primarily educational (Rosseter, 1987) yet often it is not informal education, this is but one element of a complex and many faceted role. Whether statutory and funded by LEA, or voluntary sector receiving funding from grants and service level agreements, measurement of process and outputs are often required, if continued existence is to be achieved. Whilst this is unavoidable to some degree, it is possible to attempt to minimise the harmful effects the curriculum may impose. Certainly a curriculum can assist the inexperienced part-time, sessional or voluntary youth worker in planning for creating worthwhile opportunities for young people. These opportunities should be embraced and used as occasions where informal education can take place. Care must be taken though, that measurement does not lead this process, for when youth workers become entirely governed by quantifying young people as consumers and by measuring outputs, meaningful education will cease to take place.


From the discussion presented it is clear that, for the moment at least, formal education is indeed tied to curriculum. That is to say, not only is formal education a curricular process it is also an undemocratic mechanism of social control which maintains current hegemony.  Referring back to the apparently abstract lyrics at the beginning of this essay. `We don’t need no education`; this is not an anti educational stance, this double-negative statement enlightens us to the notion that current curricular teaching is here not seen as education. The next line elucidates a view of what formal education may be seen as; `we don’t need no thought control’!

Freire (1985) argues that education cannot be a neutral process, it either assists in the emancipation of the oppressed, or is a tool for reinforcing and maintaining current hegemony. It has been shown that through curriculum, formal education exists as a means of social control, whilst the conversation and dialogue of the informal educator promulgates democracy and enables empowerment of the oppressed.

Unfortunately, this dichotomous relationship is not a straightforward one, for were it so many more educationalists and politicians would speak out in favour of the informal educator. As it is `The public is indoctrinated to believe that skills are valuable and reliable only if they are the result of formal schooling` (Illich, 1973: 91), and therefore measured and assessed. Restricted length has here prohibited a discussion of this `hidden curriculum` of consumption but essentially it sees that the informal educator is often relegated to the position of second-class citizen by the masses. The more this secondary position is reinforced, the greater the threat of curricular acceptance looms like a black cloud in the sky. If curriculum becomes enforced, as is more and more the case within youth work and other forms of informal education, informal education becomes eroded in favour of formal teaching. As a result many of the opportunities for true education through dialogical conversation will become lost.

© Student Youth Work Online 1999-2001 Please always reference the author of this page.

References & Recommended Reading

Barnes, D. and Seed, J. (1984) `Seals of Approval: An Analysis of English Examinations` in Goodson, I. F. and Ball, S. J. eds. Defining The Curriculum Histories and Ethnographies London: The Falmer Press

Beauchamp, G. A. (1968) Curriculum Theory 2nd Edition Wilmette, Illinois: The Kagg Press

Bernstein, R. J. (1983) Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Science, hermeneutics and praxis Oxford: Blackwell.

Broadfoot, P. (1996) `Liberating the learner through assessment` in Claxton, G., Atkinson, T., Osborn, M and Wallace, A. (eds) Liberating The Learner: Lessons for Professional Development in Education London: Routledge

Burbules, N. C. (1993) Dialogue In Teaching: Theory and Practice New York: Teachers College Press

Clignet, R. (1974) Liberty and Equality in the Educational Process London: Wiley-Interscience

Cohen, B. (1969) Educational Thought: an Introduction Basingstoke: Macmillan

Dewey, J. (1997) Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (reprint, first published 1916 Macmillan) New York: The Free Press

DFEE (2000) Department for Education and Employment Website

Durham Council (2000) Durham Youth Work Curriculum Durham: Durham Council

Freire, P. (1970) The Pedagogy of the Oppressed London: Penguin

Freire, P. (1985) The Politics of Education: Culture Power and Liberation translated by Donaldo Macedo London: Belgin and Garvey

Illich, I. (1973) Deschooling Society Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Goodson, I. (1995) The Making of Curriculum, Collected Essays 2nd Edition London: The Falmer Press

Grundy, S. (1987) Curriculum: Product or Praxis London: The Falmer Press

Habermas, J. (1972) Knowledge and Human Interests 2nd Edition London: Heinmann

Habermas, J. (1974) Theory and Practice London: Heinmann

Habermas, J. (1979) Communication and the Evolution of Society (translation by T. McCarthy) London: Heinemann

Hannan, B. (1985) Democratic Curriculum London: George Allen & Unwin

Holt, J. (1969) Why Children Fail Harmonsworth: Penguin Books

Holt, J. (1970) How Children Learn Harmonsworth: Penguin Books

Holt, J. (1971) The Underachieving School Harmondsworth: Penguin Books

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (1996, 1999) Informal Education – Conversation, Democracy and Learning (2nd Edition, 1999) Derbyshire: Education Now

Lawton, D. (1980) The Politics of the School Curriculum London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Lee Smith, M. (1991) `The meanings of test preparation` American Educational Research Journal Vol. 28, No. 3 pp. 521-42.

Middlesbrough Council (1998) `M` Power. A Way Forward for Young People in Middlesbrough Middlesbrough: Middlesbrough Council Youth Service

Newman, E. and Ingram, G. (1989) The Youth Work Curriculum London: Further Education Unit

Rosseter, B. (1987) `Youth Workers as Educators` in Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. eds Youth Work London: Macmillan

Rousseau, J. J. (1961) Emile: translated by Barbara Faxley from the French and introduction by Andre Boutet de Monvel (reprint, first published 1911) London : J. M. Dent

Rud, A. G. (1997) The Use and Abuse of Socrates in Present Day Teaching Educational Policy Analysis Archives at Vol. 5 No. 20 at

Salt, C and Wilson, M. (1985) We Are Of One Blood: Memories of the First 60 Years of the Woodcraft Folk 1925-1985 London: Co-operative Retail Services

Smith, M. (2000) The Informal Education Homepage

Tolstoy, L. (1967) Tolstoy on Education translated by Leo Weiner Chicago: University of Chicago Press

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