What is Informal Education ? Alex Dunedin Shares Ideas With Students at John Moores University

This is material which accompanies a presentation given at Liverpool John Moores University as a part of a module created by Craig Hammond and Angie Daly which focuses on informal education.  I was asked to give different perspectives on education outside and beyond formal educational settings and the session was recorded which you can listen to.  This articule is to accompany the discussion and provide some materials for reflection.

Dr Craig Hammond
Dr Craig Hammond


People: The knowledge and wisdom is held in the people….


“Kinship relations as the primary nucleus of institutionalised social relations” – Umberto Eco wrote this in his theory of semiotics as one of the four elementary phenomena which we find in all advanced cultures. I am going to be sharing with you today my thoughts on informal education, and drawing form my experience all learning stems from this.


The institutions of human beings are rooted in our relationships. When we look at the established and imposing buildings of our institutions it is hard not to imagine them as superhuman – something more than us rather than something of us. The universities, schools and colleges, the hospitals, the government agencies, the police force, the social work department and so on, are all built manifestations of our intrinsic relationships with each other and the world.


The recording of part one of the discussion session:


Angie Daly
Angie Daly

All that goes on in a university or any given institution has its origins and animating principle in what we find taking place between people. Formal education is the reified manifestation of a collection of apparatus which facilitate us doing one of the most fundamental of behaviours – the behaviour of education.


Formal education is a ritualized and codified construction of what we do naturally. Not only us but many species ranging from ants to primates. The formal is a small part of a massive interconnected whole. Formal education is the tip of an iceberg where the main body lies submerged.


Universities, schools and colleges are like the fruiting bodies of mushrooms appearing visibly above the ground but underneath and obscured from sight exists and extensive mycelium – a web of interconnections which are our relationships and the world obscured from view.


Thornton and Raihani (2010) who study teaching and learning throughout the animal world describe teaching as “a form of behaviour that functions to promote learning in others”. Caro and Hauser (1992) clarify three criteria for identifying the occurrence of teaching:

1. An individual A modifies its behaviour only in the presence of a naïve observer B

2. A incurs some cost or derives no immediate benefit

3. As a result of A’s behaviour, B acquires knowledge or skills more rapidly or efficiently than it would otherwise.


Caro, T. M., & Hauser, M. D. (1992). Is there teaching in nonhuman animals? Quarterly Review of Biology, 67, 151-174.


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This quote from Thornton and Raihani’s paper gives an example of teaching taking place in the animal world:

Temnothorax Albipennis - The Rock Ant
Temnothorax Albipennis – The Rock Ant

“In Temnothorax Albipennis, (the rock ant) ants that know the route to a food source modify their journeys when accompanied by a naive follower, allowing followers to investigate landmarks en route, and continue the run only when tapped by the follower’s antennae.


Although such tandem running causes a fourfold decrease in the leader’s speed, relative to its speed when traveling alone, followers find food considerably faster when tandem running than when alone and can subsequently become leaders themselves. Moreover, followers tend to take a return route to the nest that is more direct than the leader’s route on the outward journey, suggesting that the tandem run helps them learn the route.”


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Thornton, A. & Raihani, N.J. (2010) Identifying teaching in wild animals, Learning & Behavior 38: 297. https://doi.org/10.3758/LB.38.3.297


Caro and Hauser (1992) argue that “adherence to conventional, narrow definitions of teaching, generally derived from human-infant interactions, has caused many related but simpler phenomena in other species to go unstudied or unrecorded and severely limits further exploration of this topic”.


Highlighting transmission of information is an important evolutionary force Richerson and Boyd (2005) argue “culture is essential to human adaptation as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion”


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Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by genes alone: How culture transformed human evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


So it is with this context that I propose to you that education is human development a holistic and diffuse phenomena at the heart of the formation of our consciousness and wellbeing which extends far beyond the bounds of the university to all parts of our lives.


Informal education is education in the wild; it is a commons which already belongs to us all not the enclosure of a business. It exists beyond the power structures of finance and the status it creates. It is pre-political although being essential for the development of the functioning human being and citizen.


It is a process of discovery and coming to be in relation with other. On these bases I suggest covenants as the medium of education, a series of agreements – tacit or otherwise – between people.


Informal education is understandable as personal relationships and to structure such a behaviour with deliberation is to make a personal covenant with learning. It starts with the statement through action “I am going to learn X” where X is a given subject.


I am now going to use two excerpts to illustrate two representations of informal education. One is from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the other is from Sheilagh Graham’s College of One….


Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius

Book 1 of Meditations opens with Marcus Aurelius identifying what he has learned from his loved ones…


“From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper. From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character. From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.


From my great grandfather not to have frequented public schools and to have good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally. From my governor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.


From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of demons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, not to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy; and to have been a hearer, first of Bacchius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to have written dialogues in my youth; and to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline.


From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, not to delivering horatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practices much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display; and to abstain from rhetoric….


and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection…..”

Marcus, A., Long, G., & Marcus, A. (2018). The meditations. Page 1


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These thoughts were originally written as ‘Ta eis heauton’ translating literally as ‘things to one’s self’ where Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 common era wrote private notes to himself remembering he was just another human being, no more special than any other person.



Sheilagh Graham and F Scott Fitzgerald
Sheilagh Graham and F Scott Fitzgerald

The next artefact of learning in the wild is Sheilagh Graham’s College of One. F. Scott Fitzgerald was Sheilagh Graham’s lover….


“In telling the story of College of One, it was inevitable that I would have to retrace some of the incidents of Beloved Infidel, the first correct account of F Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood. The education devised for me by Scott took place during the same period. This new book, however, deals less with our relationship than with the courses of study he planned for me – the teacher and the pupil, our College of One.


Where it does become personal – how could I write about Scott without also revealing what I felt for him ? I have tried to be objective, to see the man as he was, viewing him as calmly as possible rather than as a woman in love with him so long ago… (Page vii)


A two year course or even four years cannot educate you in the complete sense of the word, but it gave me, as I said at the beginning of this book, a key. It widened my horizon. I know where to look. I know how to evaluate. I am curious. I am open for new ideas and facts. The politicians and biased historians cannot fool me any more. To understand the present and future, you must know something of the past. I can relate today to yesterday. I am involved. I make up my own mind. I ask questions.


I have discovered that the more people know, the more they enjoy telling you about it. Not long ago in Paris, for example, I had a fascinating discussion with Edmund Wilson on where you put the comma. I didn’t retain it all but I found the conversation exhilarating…. It isnt only what you learn as a student, it’s what you do with it in the unshepherded world where there are no familiar tracks, where there is no longer a teacher to pressure or to prod you into reading so many pages a day.


With the right groundwork, you can go on by yourself, receiving pleasure from books and ideas for the rest of your life, which was the case with Scott and which has been true for me…. “If you learn to like poetry, it will give you pleasure all your life” Scott promised me. It has.”

Graham, S. (2013). College of one: The story of how F. Scott Fitzgerald educated the woman he loved.


Click here to read: A College of One
Click here to read: A College of One


The recording of part two of the discussion session:


Love, beauty, pleasure and truth motivate us and these things exist of each other and not as separate entities clinically factionated off into fictional silos of the abstract. Antonia Darder, a well known contemporary practitioner of Paolo Friere’s pedagogical philosophy reminded me of the essential role which feeling has in education. Feeling is a profound part of our sentience.


Without feeling there is little or no apprehending of the reality we encounter. The lovers, friends, relatives, strangers and colleagues in our life all shape our experience and capabilities through a kind of gifting of knowledge and knowing.


Marcel Mauss wrote The Gift, a book looking at the ancient indigenous practices of the pot latch – ceremonial sharing which reaffirmed social bonds and brought together different individuals and communities for a wider, stronger more healthy society in general. Of course, colonial Britain banned this practice in the north Americas and this is a significant part of the story of colonialism; subjugation of wealth physical and existential.

Mauss, M. (1954). The gift: Forms and functions for exchange in archaic societies. London: Cohen & West.


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As a natural part of our human being-ness, we work all day and then, when we retire to informal personal spaces with our loved ones and continue to talk about what we are passionate about. In the bedrooms and bars, restaurants and museums, cafes and the natural world we are forever entwined in a process of learning and teaching. As social mammals part of our actualisation manifests through a gift economy (a synergy of gifting) – the being in reciprocal arrangements.



This is also true of other species and various experiments have shown that animals prefer to work for food, even if they do not have to. For example a group of ostriches who had learned to press a key in order to obtain peanuts as a reward, preferred to work in this way for their food rather than having it given to them free without reciprocation or interaction.


When a keeper accidentally dumped a whole bag of peanuts in their cage, they went over to the pile of nuts, sampled some and went back to the key to ‘earn’ their peanuts. The same phenomenon has been observed in chickens. In terms of behavioural economics this phenomenon has disturbed some traditional learning theorists.

(Wemelsfelder F. (1984). – Animal boredom. In Advances in animal welfare science (M.W. Fox & B.S. Mickley, eds). Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 115-154. Page 116)



Reciprocity is the mechanics of being in a relationship. I would argue that giving and not receiving is the fundamental basis of informal learning. John Dewey famously said, “Education is not preparation for life, it is life itself”.


His philosophy of education recognises the bigger picture of the metaphysics at work when we are looking at the first principles of education. Understanding informal education is understanding your relationships with and in the universe.


Everything I know and practice today can be traced back in origin to an engagement with someone and something other than me. My encounters in the universe have made me rich with possibilities particularly through the nurture of other people.


For example, I learned to write due to one of my first loves. She taught me calligraphy and copperplate handwriting along with a multitude of things. We had a deep and passionate relationship in which we prompted and promoted learning in each other. You can see an artefact of this legacy in the artwork here today.


Together we spent countless hours excited about life and discovery. Pleasure was a hallmark of our experience and understanding more about the truth of our experience was the basis for propelling us forward. This is the basis of many love affairs.


In a different context, I spent many hours drinking with a retired pharmacist and discussing medical biochemistry in critical ways. He taught me to question myself, to cite knowledge from peer reviewed sources, to lay out rationales which could be tested. From this many works have sprung and I have brought you another artefact of this learning process.


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It was this retired pharmacist that introduced me to Sheilagh Graham’s College of One. He recognised in me someone who enjoys knowledge, thinking and learning from others. All this came along with companionship – a quality which defines a world worth living in.


I can think of drifting through London and sitting on the streets of Covent Garden putting books of handwritten poetry in front of me where I would write a poem for someone in exchange for a donation. This brought be to roam the city and ultimately I spent a lot of time drinking with Croupiers at Piccadilly Circus.


These I learned a great deal from about mathematical probability and human nature. Fiercely interesting, it would be hard to enumerate all that I have learned from them ranging subjects of politics, philosophy and information technology. This is where I learned my first practical computer skills after I had written a prospecting document on Parkinson’s disease whilst crashing on the couch of one particular household. In reciprocity I was given my first laptop and taught how to use it and maintain it.


I learned so much through friendly relationships with people, each one built upon the foundation of kindness and interest; each one lacking exams, certificates, financial exchange or even transactionalism. Education and learning was informal and as such was open to interpretation and experiment. Having all the qualities of play I was to discover that I had endless energy to invest in developing when it was framed in such a way.


What is the value of all of this ??? Well, education cannot be explained in singular ways, it is a series of complex behaviours which amount to development. I am richer, fuller, more complete and capable. I am healthier and happier, I am less alone.


There is no just way to reduce it all to a simplistic Aristotelian expression; this refers to the fact that so much of the Western way of encapsulating experience of the world is done by inferring each phenomena has a unique ‘soul’, and as a result people, experiences and phenomena get articulated as one expression when in reality they embody multiple expressions (Research the ‘Theory of General Semantics’ and ‘The Map Is Not The Terratory’).


Education is a complex phenomena not readily reducible to finite criteria without losing some aspects of its animation and life. Just as we see the continued debates about the validity of exams and marks being given in attempts to measure intelligence, knowledge and ability. It is somewhat absurd to attempt to make single number valuations of complex phenomena.


Informal education forgoes all the systematic bureaucratisation of life processes in exchange for spending all that energy on more pragmatic pursuits. The assessments and processes of falsification are inwardly associated with the senses and the sense-making of the world; they are embroidered as a part of the operation of living.


The recording of part three of the discussion session:


Ivan Illich had profound and marked criticisms of the ritualization and institutionalisation of aspects of human life. What follows is an excerpt from his most well known book ‘Deschooling Society’. Illich’s philosophy of learning was also a practical critique of how our societies have become structured ultimately separating the individual from their own life:


“Learning Webs…. In a previous chapter I discussed what is becoming a common complaint about schools, one that is reflected, for example, in the recent report of the Carnegie Commission: in school registered students submit to certified teachers in order to obtain certificates of their own; both are frustrated and both blame insufficient resources – money, time or buildings – for their mutual frustration.


Such criticism leads many people to ask whether it is possible to conceive of a different style of learning. The same people, paradoxically, when pressed to specify how they acquired what they know and value, will readily admit that they learned it more often outside than inside school. Their knowledge of facts, their understanding of life and work came to them from friendship or love, while viewing TV, or while reading, from examples of peers or the challenge of a street encounter.


Or they may have learned what they know through the apprenticeship ritual for admission to a street gang or the initiation to a hospital, newspaper city room, plumber’s shop or insurance office. The alternative to dependence on schools is not the sue of public resources for some new device which ‘makes’ people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment. To foster this style, attitudes towards growing up, the tools available for learning, and the quality and structure of daily life will have to change concurrently….


Everywhere the hidden curriculum of schooling initiates the citizen to the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent. Everywhere this same curriculum instils in the pupil the myth that increased production will provide a better life.


And everywhere it develops the habit of self-defeating consumption of services and alienating production, the tolerance for institutional dependence, and the recognition of institutional rankings. The hidden curriculum of school does all this in spite of contrary efforts undertaken by teachers and no matter what ideology prevails.”

(page 75 to 77, Illich, I. (1986). Deschooling society. Harmondsworth: Penguin.)


Click to Download: 'Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich'
Click to Download: ‘Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich’


Hopefully this shares some thoughts which will interest people about the ideas that can be found in informal education.  I spend a lot of time researching and writing about education as human development and in senses which extend beyond financial structures which have come to dominate the lives of those who do not have finance.