Children spend less than a fifth of their waking hours in formal education. Yet their brains are constantly learning from their environment and experiences. Part of this free time is spent participating in informal education — those experiences which happen outside of formal classes in school or university, where people choose to take part in organised activities which have some educational purpose.
As an informal educator, you quickly realise that nobody has to listen to you in these settings. We’ll unpick some of the characteristics of informal education which follow from this crucial realisation in the rest of this section.
Informal education is different
Paradoxically, for an informal educator, I have spent much of my professional life training — and learning from — classroom teachers. I’m aware it’s all too easy to fall into lazy stereotypes when drawing comparisons between formal and informal education. Also, sometimes there are overlaps between the two contexts, e.g. a touring school assembly show designed to reinforce the geography curriculum, where all students are required to attend.
Bearing these qualifications in mind, the following features are common to many presentations in informal education but occur less often in a formal lesson:
- voluntary participation of the audience;
- larger group size;
- the learners do not necessarily know you or each other;
- groups contain a wide range of ages, backgrounds and motivations;
- you have limited information about their individual, pre-existing interests;
- you are not aware of the ability of each learner or if they have any learning difficulty or hidden disability;
- they are not expecting to take part in effortful learning or activities which feel overtly similar to those they experienced in school.
- the presentation is short and is a one-off or infrequent experience for the audience — this limits the outcomes that you can reasonably expect to achieve, but gives an initial advantage of novelty;
- intrinsically rewarding experience in itself (e.g. enjoyable; curiosity-provoking; amusing) without relying on external motivations (e.g. exams; peer competition; family expectations; classroom discipline);
- relevant and accessible — focusing on concrete phenomena and familiar applications, instead of leading with abstract ideas and theories;
- provides immediate satisfaction rather than delayed gratification;
- strong competition from the environment for the attention of your audience;
- no formal feedback or assessment;
- the significant time and money able to be invested in researching, writing, practising, rehearsing and refining the presentation.
- you’re often able to choose the topics you are most passionate about, rather than having to follow a set curriculum;
- you deliver a limited number of different programmes with an extremely high repetition rate;
- you can afford to commit more energy to each of these sessions compared to a teacher having to deliver all day;
- you have greater freedom to use unconventional approaches and interaction styles than a teacher working within the existing culture of a school;
- you have less authority to maintain control.
- often, the central purpose is to trigger interest and curiosity rather than teach a concept in detail;
- outcomes can be diverse and they cannot always be determined in advance;
- harder to measure the short and longer-term impacts compared to those from formal education.
These differences lead to a series of important consequences for your mindset, purpose and delivery as an informal educator. It is these characteristics which define informal education rather than the physical venue where it takes place. You will recognise many of these themes throughout the engagement techniques in the toolkit.
“Nobody ever flunked a museum.”
Frank Oppenheimer (founder of the Exploratorium)
Nobody has to listen to you
Spending most of our young lives with our family, friends and teachers is poor training for being an informal educator. The uncomfortable truth is these people are emotionally invested, or paid, to listen to us. Yet, no matter what sort of visitor attraction or outreach organisation you work in, you’re united by one presentation reality — nobody has to listen to you. These audiences only listen if you interest them.
The single most important idea of the toolkit is this engagement-first imperative. The more deeply you accept it, the more effective you will be as an informal educator. It affects everything you do with a voluntary audience. Without being able to win and maintain their attention, you stand no chance of achieving any of your other objectives.
Nobody has to listen to you. This should become your mantra.
Our voluntary audiences may enjoy two forms of freedom. In some settings, they may be physically free to leave our presentation at any time (e.g. a show on the exhibition floor or busking at a festival). But even if this is not the case, they are always mentally free to switch their attention, without consequence. And the younger the group, the shorter their attention span will be. These characteristics of informal education are both a challenge and an invaluable reality-check — the transparency of our audiences makes it easy to see when we’ve lost them.
It’s important to remember, just because you have their attention, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this will lead to any particular learning outcome. Your effectiveness as an informal educator also depends on what you do with that attention once you have secured it. Engagement is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for learning. You need to consider other factors, such as interesting and relevant content, accessible explanations and sustained effort from the learner. But the focus of this toolkit is on the vital first step of engaging your voluntary audience, because without that, any second step is redundant.
One of my best, and worst, experiences as an informal educator happened on the streets of Cardiff.
I was an enthusiastic, naive student on a Masters course in science communication. I had snapped up the opportunity to take some hands-on science activities to unsuspecting shoppers in the city centre. I couldn’t wait to win over the crowds with my table-top busking activities.
The reality was somewhat different.
It’s not until you’ve had hundreds of people walk past you as you attempt to interact with them that you know what it’s like to feel truly ignored. The variety of ways that humans have to ingeniously avoid any sort of eye contact is astounding. On the rare occasions I managed to stop someone, our exchanges often ended in them walking off when I was in mid-sentence. Having to be more interesting than their coffee or shopping was a high bar to achieve. However, over the afternoon, through bitter trial and error, I began to learn some of the secrets of the battle for attention on the street. It was learning opportunities like this one that eventually led to the collection of techniques in this toolkit.
Painful as it was, this formative experience taught me the importance of never taking my audience’s attention for granted. No matter how interesting you find your subject, it’s always your primary responsibility to demonstrate this interest to your prospective audience. What’s in it for them?
Learning this lesson the hard way has helped me with every presentation I have given since. Inside my head, the looming threat of the physical or mental departure of my audience forces me to ask myself constantly — is this line or action interesting enough for my audience to stay for the next one?
The “education versus entertainment” debate
For as long as informal education has been recognised, it has faced many accusations that it is merely entertaining, rather than genuinely educational.
This widespread debate has generated more heat than light. It ignores the different interpretations of “education” and “entertainment”. Both terms come with a lot of hidden baggage. Conventionally, education is steeped in associations around work, e.g. important, serious, difficult and unpleasant; whereas entertainment is assumed to be play, e.g. vacuous, frivolous, simple and pleasurable.
The most useful analysis of this dispute I have come across was developed by Alan Friedman, who was the Director of the New York Hall of Science. He argued that the uneasy tension between education and entertainment comes from a trade-off model of placing these experiences at opposite ends of a continuum — the more you have of one, the less you can have of the other. This stance assumes that education cannot ever be enjoyable in and of itself, and that educators continually have to “sweeten the pill” of learning by adding entertaining distractions. If you believe this perverse view of education, it will leak into everything you do as an educator. And this belief will infect your learners too.
Instead, Friedman used a two-dimensional space to represent the relationship between the independent variables of education and entertainment. The voluntary nature of our audiences means that informal educators work in the space that is both educational and entertaining.
To me, entertainment is enjoyably holding someone’s attention through provoking emotional reactions; and education is any intentional act that leads to changes in interest, understanding, motivation, attitude or behaviour. With these definitions, there is clearly an overlap between education and entertainment. A key part of your role as an informal educator is to model positive attitudes towards learning. Pitting education against entertainment is a false — and damaging — dichotomy.
“We’re not putting the fun in science, we’re just letting the fun that’s in science out.”
Paul Zaloom (Beakman, TV science presenter)
Your impact can be diverse
The teachers on my training courses often complain how narrow their learning objectives must be. Sadly, many schools have become victims of the tyranny of the measurable.
Teachers have a moral responsibility to help each student achieve their highest potential in national examinations. So, they end up having to “teach to the test” by focussing on cognitive outcomes (e.g. knowledge, understanding, skills) at the expense of affective outcomes (e.g. emotions, attitudes, motivation) which cannot be assessed easily. This dilemma is not the fault of the dedicated educators working in this regime. Our examination systems are founded on the convenient assumption that all the measurable outcomes are important, rather than questioning whether all the important outcomes are measurable.
In the case of informal education, however, visitors come to our programmes for many reasons — including social interaction — and we cannot enforce our purposes on them. We work in the overlap between our purposes and their needs. Informal educators embrace these needs. This open approach creates the potential for outcomes which are more varied and less predetermined than formal education. This diversity is one of the greatest joys of doing what we do.
Frameworks which claim to embrace the full breadth of the potential short and long-term outcomes of informal education are dubious. So, the following list of outcomes and examples should be treated only as an illustration to help you think about your impact. As a generalisation, the further you descend this list, the longer-term the outcome becomes and the harder it is to achieve from a single intervention.
- immediate emotional response, e.g. the curiosity, enjoyment, uncertainty, anticipation, surprise, intellectual joy, wonder, awe, shock, disgust and fear shown by the audience;
- interest, e.g. primary school pupils show greater short-term interest in their history lessons after being inspired by interacting with an educator playing the part of a historical character at a museum;
- understanding and skills, e.g. students are shown a memorable science demonstration of a rocket in a science centre which their teacher can later exploit when explaining Newton’s third law in the classroom; a teenager sees a forensic science presentation at a science festival and applies the same critical thinking skills to judge the reliability of the “fake news” they encounter on social media;
- social and interpersonal skills, e.g. after a presentation at a youth club on how to resist peer pressure, a teenager interacts differently with their friends the next time one of them brings drugs to a party;
- motivation, e.g. a student hears a talk about how a career in engineering allows you to use your creativity to solve problems collaboratively to help others and they decide to investigate engineering courses at university;
- self-efficacy, e.g. a year group at a secondary school take part in a maths magic show which explains abstract concepts in an accessible context — some students, who had previously told themselves that they couldn’t do maths, start to show more confidence in class;
- attitude, e.g. a family take a nature walk and through lively debates with their guide they develop a closer affinity to their environment and the importance of preserving it for future generations;
- behaviour, e.g. a child watches a presentation at an aquarium which shows the damage plastic waste causes to wildlife and they then recycle all their plastic bottles in the future.
Can you think of an incident that revealed the power of informal education presentations to you? I’m compiling a collection of stories and examples of hooks from readers for HOOK wisdom, a future free resource to complement this book. You can find out more and submit your stories about using any hooks here.
Be clear about your purpose
The above diversity in outcomes is mirrored by an equally broad range of purposes held by informal educators. I’m often amazed by the variation in the goals of individual educators, even within the same organisation. Strangely, as a sector, we rarely discuss the differences in our personal motivations.
This partly explains how two educators can present the same topic in such different ways. For example, school presentations which are designed to develop the scientific thinking skills of the audience (e.g. how to design a “fair test” in planning an experiment), can frustrate science communicators who are driven more by explaining scientific concepts; and vice versa.
As a trainer, I try to avoid evaluating any informal education presentation until I understand the purpose of the educator giving it. From my perspective, all eight of the educational outcomes above are valid. The critical issues to me are that — you’re clear about your objectives; you believe these purposes are in the best interests of the audience; and your chosen medium is aligned with your purpose. Before you develop any presentation, you should ask yourself if this is the best medium to achieve your goals with that particular audience. To demonstrate what I mean, these are two examples of presentations which I feel break these principles:
- an assembly talk for secondary schools which tries to convey too much detailed information. This is unrealistic. The medium of live presentations to a large, varied audience is poor at communicating dense and complex content — especially when nobody has to listen. A well-written textbook or a classroom lesson are much better suited to this type of content.
- a badly delivered science birthday party show which claims to be “educational” to get bookings from parents but which, in reality, consists only of gratuitous explosions, misleading explanations and faked passion for science. This is deceptive and exploitative.
Provoke interest, rather than teach
Despite this range in motivation, the most common purpose of informal educators is to provoke emotional responses and interest, as vital first steps to later learning outcomes.
“Give people facts and you feed their minds for an hour. Awaken curiosity and they feed their own minds for a lifetime.”
Ian Russell (science communicator)
It’s not that informal educators don’t care about cognitive outcomes during their presentation. Almost every show or workshop I have presented has involved a range of objectives which included gains in understanding and skills. These goals are obviously particularly important when working with school groups, given the demands placed on the teachers who book us. But the reality is that, in general, the contexts we operate in don’t lend themselves to fostering these types of outcomes as efficiently as classroom lessons. Effective teaching of concepts usually requires a cycle of — explicit objectives; instruction; and assessment of what has been understood and remembered. Then repeat.
As an informal educator, it’s hard to create controlled situations where free-choice learners can progress through this cycle repeatedly. This limits the breadth and depth of content we can realistically hope to teach through a single, short presentation. People can learn from informal education contexts, in a cognitive sense, but we can’t easily control or measure what it is that they learn without undermining what makes these experiences unique in the first place.
On the other hand, interactive presentations are well suited to generating emotional contagion, fostering interest and motivating audiences. Curiosity is widely regarded as the engine of learning by educators and researchers and that is what informal education primarily focuses on. It is pointless to try to recreate the experiences of the classroom in informal education settings. Instead, informal educators and teachers should embrace and celebrate their different contexts and purposes.