Learning at Not-School

March 1, 2014    learning non-formal-learning research

I have been reading a recent (2013) report on informal education by Julian Sefton-Green, Learning at Not-School: A Review of Study, Theory, and Advocacy for Education in Non-Formal Settings. It has been a great read so far, so I thought I would jot down some passages that have stood out to me.

To put things in context, some of what the author notes in his introduction is reminiscent of Nina Simon’s recent post, which I also responded to recently. In short, he characterizes much of the research surrounding out-of-school learning as focused on proving its value to those outside of the field (emphasis added):

[Interest in the field] has thus tended to focus on how many of these out-of-school centers work—what might be called a supplier-side perspective. […] While many studies of school and schooling are often critical and challenging, there is a tradition of many out-of-school providers employing academics to carry out this research to confer authority and status to findings, to facilitate successful advocacy, and to promote these initiatives. (10)

Sefton-Green does, however, clarify that “[m]aking a case for the value of after-school programs is important,” though the focus of his report remains analyzing research that attempts to show the ways in which out-of-school learning is unique (10-11).

In another passage that jumped out to me, the author describes something of a tricky position for researchers, stating that

it is acknowledged that as scholars research, describe, analyze, and categorize varieties of in-formal and non-formal learning, they in effect formalize that learning and thus run the risk of destroying the very quality of difference that distinguishes non- and in-formal learning from their inverse. This academic concern is mirrored in the administrative and policy uses of the not-school sector—the more we develop complex programs out of school, the more we have to face the challenge of not turning not-schools into schools. (18-19)

I wonder if this effect has anything to do with the nature of the research being done. For example, would a qualitative methodology have the same “formalizing” impact as a quantitative study? Or is the act of explicitly researching non-formal learning itself enough to change that which is being studied?

The report also delves into the kinds of knowledge that are learned in out-of-school contexts. In some ways, this reminds me of some of the points that Howard Gardner makes in his essay, “Assessment in Context: The Alternative to Standardized Testing,” though Gardner’s focus isn’t explictly non-formal learning. Sefton-Green writes,

A key insight from studies of work-based learning is that in practice, implicit and tacit forms of understanding are as central to the performance of many activities as the explicit demonstration of achievement we are used to from a test-based school system (Eraut 1994). What counts as knowledge is often hidden or embodied—it is enacted in the doing—rather than a question of the manipulation of symbolic languages, as is so often the case in school tests.

Not only is this kind of knowledge part of the non-formal repertoire of learning but also other less-sanctioned domains than the constrained school curriculum also find their place in not-school settings. […] Knowledge in our society is not, and should not be, restricted to formal education; the non-formal sector is full of activities that we value socially and that are structured in terms of mastery and knowledge but are rarely found in the school curriculum. The boundaries between socially sanctioned forms of knowledge and skills and schooled knowledge are constantly shifting, however, and practices such as graffiti or street dance, for instance, which once may have been the prserve of the non-formal are now found in well-respected art galleries and dance troupes. (25)

I haven’t finished reading the report just yet, but I look forward to it. It’s great to see the ways in which current research in the field of out-of-school learning is shaping theory and practice in the field.