Informal (free choice) education is an important component
of our overall educational system. This fact is recognized
by many schools and communities. It is also recognized at a
national level. For example, quoting from National Science
Informal (Free Choice)
" Free-choice learning [is] that
learning which most typically occurs while people
visit museums or other cultural institutions, watch
television, read a newspaper, talk with friends,
attend a play, or surf the Internet." http://www.ilinet.org/index.html.
The NSF invests $36 million annually in a
variety of informal education activities--museums, print,
broadcast, and community-based organizations--to increase
appreciation and understanding of science and technology.
Projects focus on preK-12 students, their parents, and
other adults with the intent of promoting life-long
learning, and with the vision that formal and informal
learning reinforce and complement each other. Skills are
built through classroom instruction, but "science
literacy" grows out of experiences with, and cultural
sensitivity to, the natural and human worlds. Therefore,
out-of-school activities cultivate public interest and
heighten awareness to the science and technology in our
The Web can be considered to be a Global Library. Thus,
it is an excellent aid to informal education.
Many Distance Learning materials are designed for
informal (free choice) education.
Eisenhower National Clearinghouse: Informal Education
[Online]. Accessed 1/24/02: http://www.enc.org/topics/informal/.
Quoting from the Website:
[This Webpage] Highlights resources and
articles about the math and science learning that can be
done in informal environments, such as zoos, museums,
national parks, and amusement parks. Much of this
material was published in the Informal Education issue of
Exploratorium [Online]. Accessed 1/24/02:
The Exploratorium is one of the world's leading
educationally oriented museums. It recently received a
large grant from the National science Foundation. Quoting
from the Website:
Housed within the walls of San Francisco's
Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium is a collage of
over 650 science, art, and human perception exhibits.
The Exploratorium is a leader in the movement to
promote the museum as an educational center.
This unique museum was founded in 1969 by noted
physicist and educator Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, who was
director until his death in 1985.
The Exploratorium's mission is to create a culture
of learning through innovative environments, programs,
and tools that help people to nurture their curiosity
about the world around them.
Informal Education [Online]. Accessed 1/24/02:
Informal Education is a non-profit organization
focussing on informal education. It provides a large
number of links to informal education resources. Quoting
from the Website:
Some see informal education as the learning
that goes on in daily life. As friends, for example,
we may well encourage others to talk about things that
have happened in their lives so that they can handle
their feelings and to think about what to do next. As
parents or carers we may show children how to write
different words or tie their laces. As situations
arise we respond.
Others may view informal education as the learning
projects that we undertake for ourselves. We may take
up quilting, for example, and then start reading
around the subject, buying magazines and searching out
other quilters (perhaps through joining a Quilters
Many view informal education as the learning that
comes as part of being involved in youth and community
organizations. In these settings there are specialist
workers / educators whose job it is to encourage
people to think about experiences and situations. Like
friends or parents they may respond to what is going
on but, as professionals, these workers are able to
bring special insights and ways of working.
Informal education can be all of these things. It
is a process - a way of helping people to learn.
So what is informal education?
In the examples above we can see that whether we
are parents or specialist educators, we teach. When we
are engaged in learning projects we teach ourselves.
In all of these roles we are also likely to talk and
join in activities with others (children, young people
and adults). Some of the time we work with a clear
objective in mind - perhaps linked to some broader
plan e.g. around the development of reading. At other
times we may go with the flow - adding to the
conversation when it seems right or picking up on an
These ways of working all entail learning - but
informal education tends to be unpredictable - we do
not know where it might lead. In conversation we have
to catch the moment where we can say or do something
to deepen people's thinking or to put themselves in
touch with their feelings.
'Going with the flow' opens up all sorts of
possibilities for us as educators. On one hand we may
not be prepared for what comes, on the other we may
get into rewarding areas. There is the chance, for
example, to connect with the questions, issues and
feelings that are important to people, rather than
what we think might be significant.
Picking our moment in the flow is also likely to
take us into the world of people's feelings,
experiences and relationships. While all educators
should attend to experience and encourage people to
reflect, informal educators are thrown into this. For
the most part, we do not have lesson plans to follow;
we respond to situations, to experiences.
Such conversations and activities can take place
anywhere. This contrasts with formal education which
tends to take place in special settings such as
schools. However, we should not get too tied up with
the physical setting for the work. Formal education
can also take place in almost any other location -
such as teaching someone to add up while shopping in
the market. Here it is the special sort of social
setting we have to create that is important. We build
an atmosphere or grab an opportunity, so that we may
Obviously, informal educators work informally - but
we also do more formal things. We spend time with
people in everyday settings - but we also create
opportunities for people to study experiences and
questions in a more focused way. This could mean
picking up on something that is said in a conversation
and inviting those involved to take it further. For
example, we may be drinking tea with a couple of women
in a family or health centre who are asking questions
about cervical cancer. We may suggest they look at
some materials that we have and talk about they see.
Alternatively, it could mean we set up a special
session, or organize a course. We may also do some
individual tutoring, for example, around reading and
writing. Just as school teachers may work informally
for part of their time, so informal educators may run
classes or teach subjects. The difference between them
lies in the emphasis they put on each.
Institute for Innovative Learning [Online].
Accessed 5/7/01: http://www.ilinet.org/index.html.
Quoting from the Website:
Established in 1986, the Institute for Learning
Innovation is a non-profit organization committed to
understanding, facilitating, and communicating about
We define free-choice learning as that learning which
most typically occurs while people visit museums or other
cultural institutions, watch television, read a
newspaper, talk with friends, attend a play, or surf the
Internet. Although this form of learning is frequently
referred to as informal learning, we at the Institute for
Learning Innovation prefer to use the term free-choice
learning to describe learning experiences which are
non-sequential, self-paced, and voluntary. In other
words, rather than defining learning by what it is not
(non-formal), or where it occurs (informal), free-choice
learning focuses on the characteristics of such
learning--non-linear, personally motivated and most
importantly, involving considerable choice on the part of
the learner as to when, where, with whom, and what to
Regional Alliance for Mathematics and Science Education:
Informal Education [Online]. Accessed 5/7/01:
This site contains links to a wealth of informal
education materials. The site is maintained by:
TERC [Online]. Accessed 5/7/01: http://www.terc.edu/.
Quoting from the TERC Website:
Founded in 1965, TERC is a not-for-profit
education research and development organization in
TERC's mission is to improve mathematics, science,
and technology teaching and learning. TERC works at
the edges of current theory and practice to:
- contribute to understanding of learning and
- foster professional development
- develop applications of new technologies
- create curricula and other products support
We imagine a future in which learners from diverse
communities engage in creative, rigorous, and
reflective inquiry as an integral part of their
Space Science Access: Bringing the Best [Online].
Accessed 1/24/02: http://mo-www.harvard.edu/
NASA's office of Space Administration recognizes
that planetariums, science centers, and museums are vital
venues for astronomy and space science education. This
web site aims to support the efforts of these informal
science education organizations.