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In P. R. Dasen & A. Akkari (Eds.), Educational theories and
practices from the majority world (pp. 27-48). New Delhi: Sage
INFORMAL EDUCATION AND LEARNING PROCESSES1
PIERRE R. DASEN
The term `education' often refers only to schooling, both in common
parlance and in the documents of international organizations and
NGOs, as well as in the academic world of educational sciences. In
this chapter, however, we will deal with education in a much wider
acceptation, namely all aspects of cultural transmission. Schooling is
of course part of that, but education also includes informal learning,
resulting from enculturation and socialization, that is, it proceeds
informally in everyday situations, either through observation and
imitation or active inculcation. As Bruner (1996: ix) remarks: `...
schooling is only one small part of how a culture inducts the young
into its canonical ways. Indeed, schooling may even be at odds with
a culture's other ways of inducting the young into the requirements
of communal living.'
On the dimension of formal to informal, Ahmed (1983) distin-
guished the following categories of education:
1. Formal education or schooling.
2. Non-formal, or out-of-school education, which includes all educa-
tional programs aimed at those left out of formal education (very
young children, the discards of the school system, young people in
post-primary education, non-literates, and so on).
3. Informal education, which may also be called `traditional' education.
In contrast with the first two, it is neither provided nor directed by
governmental or non-governmental institutions.
: 26 PIERRE R. DASEN
This chapter deals with the third category, referring to the other
two only as a contrast. Note that we first have to dispose of a problem
of vocabulary: `traditional' education may wrongly suggest that
this type of education is linked to the past, that it is no longer being
practiced, or then only in traditional, for example, rural, sectors of
society. This is not at all what is intended, and hence I prefer to speak
of `informal' education. But that label may also be misunderstood:
it may wrongly suggest that this education does not have any
form, that it is unstructured and haphazard. As we will shortly see,
that is not at all the case: there is distinctly an informal pedagogy,
although it often remains implicit and even those who practice it
are not conscious of it. To describe this informal pedagogy, detailed
ethnographic (observational) research is needed.
These problems of definitions have lead Montandon (2005) to
suggest that the distinction formal/non-formal/informal should be
abandoned, if only because it implies that schooling is the norm
with which the other forms are compared. She proposes much more
complex theoretical schemes, such as a profile of each type of edu-
cation on a list of 28 variables, which is not all that different from
the schemes of D?salmand (1983) or Greenfield and Lave (1982)
presented below, or a typology derived from the cross-table of con-
texts and contents. While acknowledging the complexity of the
issue, I will nevertheless continue to use the term `informal' for the
remainder of this chapter.
There is an abundant literature on traditional education in nu-
merous societies, often dating back to the middle of the 20th century,
as part of ethnographic monographs, and in particular in the `culture
and personality' school of American cultural anthropology. It would
be beyond the reach of this chapter to review this extensive literature.
As good examples, I think of Jomo Kenyatta (1965) who studied
anthropology with Malinowski long before becoming the first
president of Kenya, or Myer Fortes (1938) in Nigeria, and, among
more recent publications, Lancy (1996) about the Kpelle of Liberia,
Chamoux (1981, 1986) among the Nahua of Mexico, or Delbos
and Jorion (1984) in France2. Traditional education also includes
institutions that are quite formalized, such as initiation ceremonies,
and instruction provided in age-grade societies and secret societies.
Erny (1981) has provided an excellent overview of the various
strands of ethnography dealing with traditional education. One way
to summarize this material might be to conclude that traditional
INFORMAL EDUCATION AND LEARNING PROCESSES 27 :
education, in contrast to schooling, is in essence adapted to the local
cultural system, which it tends to perpetuate.
D?salmand (1983) pointed out the major characteristics of trad-
itional African education as compared to schooling. Traditional
education is provided everywhere, all the time, and by everyone
(in contrast to occurring in a specialized place, at a specific time, with
specialized personnel), it is closely tied to the environment, integrated
with productive work, and addresses the needs of the society. It
emphasizes cooperation rather than individual competition, and
everyone is allowed to be successful at it (as opposed to the elitism
of schools, with their selection and streaming roles). In traditional
education, parents and elders play an important role; relations
among participants are personalized and occur in the local language.
Traditional education has a broad character, and includes moral
and spiritual aspects as well as physical education and manual labour.
A similar typology was elaborated by Greenfield and Lave (1982):
Informal education is embedded in daily life, with teachers being
relatives, but the responsibility for learning lies with the learners,
their motivation stemming from the social contribution they are able
to make and their participation in the adult community of practice.
Observation and imitation are the main learning processes, and
demonstration (without verbal exchange or questioning) the pre-
dominant teaching procedure. The maintenance of continuity and
traditions is the primary goal of informal education.
Greenfield and Lave point out that in instances where informal
education transmits specific, economically-useful knowledge, par-
ticularly knowledge tied to crafts and occupations, it can include a
very structured, albeit implicit, pedagogy. This was demonstrated
in a study of weaving apprenticeship among Zinacanteco girls in
Mexico (Greenfield and Childs, 1977; Childs and Greenfield, 1980).
The mothers, although claiming in interviews that they did not do
anything to teach their daughters, employed mainly scaffolding,
which implies quite a sophisticated even if unconscious pedagogy:
the mother has to constantly assess the learner's level of skills, so as
to adapt her intervention.
Greenfield and Lave (1982) distinguish three types of processes: (a)
trial and error, (b) shaping, and (c) scaffolding. In the trial and error
process, learners are confronted by a new situation constituting a con-
flict with what they already know. They have to try different approaches,
and usually succeed only after making successive adjustments.
What are the aims of informal education?What are the strengths of informal education?It’s a form of training. Given access to the right resources, an informal learner can often be left to figure some things out on their own.It’s cheap.It’s empowering.It’s practical.It’s immediate.It satisfies (and rewards) curiosity.It offers a more productive break.It encourages lateral thinking.
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