We start our reflections on practice by considering some of the similarities that tend to occur within settings where work with young people takes place. So far in this course we have identified some of the places where young people spend time. We have also differentiated the settings that we are concerned with – such as youth centres – from those whose principal aim is to provide formal education – such as the classroom. The places and spaces that we are concerned with in this course are often places and spaces where young people choose to attend or where they have some time that is relatively free of ‘obligations’. A great deal of learning can happen within these environments, and this type of practice is often known as ‘informal education’. Informal education has been characterised by Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith as ‘the learning that flows from the conversations and activities involved in being members of youth and community groups and the like’ (Jeffs and Smith, 2005, p. 5).
Janet Batsleer describes it more fully as follows:
‘Informal Education’ is an educational practice which can occur in a number of settings, both institutional and non-institutional. It is a practice undertaken by committed practitioners. It may also be engaged in – at the margins of their activities – by other professionals, such as teachers, nurses and social workers. Most professional informal educators are not described in this way in job titles or job descriptions. Instead, job titles are associated with a particular client group. Common terms include: community education; community learning; lifelong learning; mentoring; social pedagogy; popular education; youth and community work; project work and youth engagement.
The idea of ‘informal’ education as a practice is not meant to imply that ‘anything goes’ – it can be equally as purposeful as formal education. However, formal education (such as in school) is usually linked clearly with a ‘curriculum’ – a set of material that students are expected to cover in order to meet certain ‘learning outcomes’. This course is itself an example of such an approach with learning outcomes explicitly set out at the start.
All in all, it is how workers spend their time with young people that is important – having conversations, organising activities, celebrating achievements, listening to problems, sharing disappointments and offering supported challenges. Jean Spence suggests that a ‘particular type of commitment, and a personal ethic of service motivates many practitioners in their work with young people’ (Spence, 2007, p. 300). So whilst ‘doing things’ is important, there is a sense in which ‘being with’ young people is just as or more significant – the practitioner using their personality, interests, skills and moral sensibilities to engage with young people in meaningful relationships.
Through participation in such processes and activities, young people (and adults) learn about themselves, each other and the wider world. Here we note that these approaches emphasise learning within the context of a positive relationship and suggest that genuine relationships in which people are valued can, in themselves, support personal development and emotional discovery. This is not necessarily bound by setting; it does not need to take place in a particular type of organisation or building and is appropriate within a wide variety of contexts where practitioners or other adults spend time with young people. Whether informal education is the prime purpose of a job role or takes place, as Batsleer says, ‘at the margins of … activities’, it is always an important element of the time that is spent with young people.