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Informal (Free Choice) Education

" 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.

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 Foundation materials:

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 midst.

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 ENC Focus.

Exploratorium [Online]. Accessed 1/24/02: http://www.exploratorium.edu/ http://www.exploratorium.edu/.

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: http://www.infed.org/.

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 Guild).

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 interest.

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 teach.

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 free-choice learning.

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 learn.

Regional Alliance for Mathematics and Science Education: Informal Education [Online]. Accessed 5/7/01: http://ra.terc.edu/alliance/TEMPLATE/

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 Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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 teaching
  • foster professional development
  • develop applications of new technologies
  • create curricula and other products support school reform

We imagine a future in which learners from diverse communities engage in creative, rigorous, and reflective inquiry as an integral part of their lives.

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.

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