Formal Education Is State Institutionalised Education Essay

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Education is subdivided in three distinct categories: formal, non-formal and informal practices. Formal Education is state-institutionalised, age-specific, ranging from primary to secondary as compulsory education, furthering to post-secondary and tertiary level; basically focusing on the subject-based curriculum of formal learning. The Non-Formal setting can be viewed as semi-structured planning, 'learning by doing', involving the organised extra-curricular experiences students gain within the formal setting. On the other hand, Informal Education may be regarded as an unstructured, educational practice which takes place in various social settings through voluntary participation; learning from everyday life experiences, informal education does not require a pre-established curriculum. All trajectories of formal, non-formal and informal education are woven and spun in a way which enhances students' holistic development in school, promoting new ways of thinking by creating awareness of the different values, beliefs and attitudes which young people, as students, encounter daily. (National Minimum Curriculum for Education, 1999).

2.2 Informal Learning - a backdrop for Youth Work Practice

In the local context, informal learning was historically based within community/parish settings where youth groups and other similar organisations flourished. Informal learning is nowadays being given more recognition even within the formal educational reform system, encouraging students to participate in informal settings such as sports, drama and various leisure activities. It complements the formal educational setup, encouraging young people 'to improve their standing within society; to enable them gain for themselves the resources necessary to analyse, criticise, challenge and change society itself'. (Rosseter, 1987, 52).

Informal Learning promotes community involvement, supports interactions among participants, embraces democratic values, builds self-esteem, improves personal and social responsibility, and encourages critical thinking skills. (Batsleer, 2009). The very relationships fostered through voluntary participation between young people and the informal educator within the informal setup therefore become less rigid, encouraging meaningful dialogue based on mutual respect and understanding.

Therefore, informal learning provides a suitable scenario for further learning opportunities for students as well as educators through youth work practice even in institutions such as secondary schools. Youth work offers a nurturing space where young people are free to explore their identity in a safe environment and are valued as important citizens. Youth work creates a positive impact on young people and their communities, facilitates the development of interpersonal skills, promoting young people's personal and social development and enabling them acquire a voice, a positive influence in society, resulting in empowerment. Empowerment is achieved when young people's social, critical, and academic skills are directed to create positive changes in their lives, community, and society as a whole. (National Youth Agency, UK). In this respect, increased self-esteem, maturity, knowledge and experience gained from youth work, enable young people to make informed decisions, find and pursue a positive role in their schools, communities, and society.

2.3 Youth Workers as Informal Educators

Since curriculum is a non-requisite to informal learning, youth workers may be perceived to enjoy a certain degree of flexibility. On the contrary, as informal educators, youth workers' efforts should move towards addressing young people's particular needs and interests, concurrently upholding concepts of democracy, where conversation is dialogically inspired and mutual experiential learning becomes possible. Young people's opinions, skills and experiences are recognised and valued as part of their own learning process. (Dewey, 1938). This holistic learning environment becomes a shared responsibility between young people and youth workers both as informal educators and learners at the same time.

Moreover, youth workers are also called upon to follow critical pedagogical principles in their practice. Youth workers encourage young people to question and think critically about society's beliefs and attitudes and how these impact their lives. Raising their critical consciousness, young people are empowered not only to participate in decision making processes but also to become agents of change. The Commonwealth Plan of Action for Youth Empowerment (2007-2015), endorsed by Commonwealth Youth Ministers and Heads of Government as part of the Commonwealth Youth Programme is also based on critical pedagogy principles. It states:

Young people are empowered when they acknowledge that they have or can create choices in life, are aware of the implications of those choices, make an informed decision freely, take action based on that decision and accept responsibility for the consequences of those actions. Empowering young people means creating and supporting the enabling conditions under which young people can act on their own behalf, and on their own terms, rather than at the direction of others.

(Commonwealth Plan of Action for Youth Empowerment (2007-2015)

2.4 Critical Pedagogy Principles determining Youth Work Practice

2.4.1 Learning from Personal Experiences

Young people's experiences are not only recognised as valid - they are the very layout on which youth workers determine their work. As an educational reformer, Dewey argued that learning and personal experiences were interrelated - "the organic connection between education and personal experience" (Dewey, 1938). Rather than limiting their access to traditional education which is extremely focused on content and lacks the holistic understanding of students, educators, as well as youth workers, should be concerned with developing students' capacities and competences through educational experience. Moreover, Dewey asserted that both curriculum and activities have to make sense in the learner's life in order to gain meaningful experiences. (ibid, 1938).

Two basic principles: continuity and interaction, characterise the nature of experience (ibid, 1938). By continuity, the learner values all experiences and carries them forward to affect future experiences. By interaction, the learner experiences transformation after going through a problematic situation. New experiences, gained from interactions, help the learner develop a social conscience, freedom and a sense of purpose. Thus, teaching and learning should be directly related to students' lives encompassing their community and society.

Learning which develops intelligence and character does not come about when only the textbook and the teacher have a say; that every individual becomes educated only as he has an opportunity to contribute something from his own experience . . . and finally that enlightenment comes from the give and take, from the exchange of experiences and ideas. (Dewey, 1938).

2.4.2 Democratic Values in the Learning Process

Youth work should recognise the learner's need to be surrounded by an environment which sustains democracy in order to develop democratic values, where voice and participation are encouraged, and learning takes place within meaningful contexts allowing the learner to build upon their personal knowledge and experience. Dewey (1916/1944) strengthens this viewpoint, observing that interacting with other learners; the learner understands different perspectives through critical reflection, "seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may go into such form that he can appreciate its meaning". Dewey's idea of democracy goes beyond government principles. It is 'a mode of associated living, a conjoint communicated experience'.

In a similar study, in "Pedagogy of the Depressed", Giroux (2000) contends that a democratic system in education empowers students to raise questions, encourages dialogue and critical thinking. The knowledge that students gain from this process expands their motivation and competences, enabling them to make informed decisions. "What students learn and how they learn should amplify what it means to experience democracy from a position of possibility, affirmation and critical engagement". (Giroux, 2000). Moreover, progressive educators were also called upon to be the precursors to create fertile ground where this framework could become a reality.

2.4.3 Sustaining Dialogue and Empowerment

Freire's philosophy on education, based on Marxist thought, contributed further to the valuable concept of democracy in education, the values of communication as dialogic conversation, anti-oppression, empowerment and transformation. All play a key role in youth work fostering respect, promoting a dynamic approach where learners are actively participating in their own learning. Dialogue is not just as a means of deepening understanding, but a collaborative process where the educator and learner enjoy an equal standing, learning becomes a dialogical process which builds on social capital and creates space for social justice. For Freire, transformation is the result of this praxis.

Such a utopia has the potential to create the conditions for groups to liberate themselves in their own contextually specific ways from all forms of oppression, domination, alienation, and degradation. A pedagogy built on these perspectives and practices seeks to understand the underlying motives, interests, desires, and fears of draconian shifts in education policy, and it contests ascribed methods of producing knowledge. (McLaren and Jaramillio, 2006)

In his book "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" (1970), Freire also acknowledges the difficulties in achieving dialogue. He shuns the hegemonic, oppressive and paternalistic view of traditional education, eliciting examples from a school or classroom context where education is compared to the "banking" concept of learning - the teacher deposits information to the students who are likened to empty "receptacles". Students who consequently become more dependent on the teacher are discouraged from developing 'the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world'. (Freire, 1970). Freire's arguments on empowerment are also remarkable. Freire (1970) argued that for education to be empowering, the educator and learner, in a democratic environment, form a transformative relationship not only with each other, but also between student and education, student and society. Education surpasses the classroom walls, spreading across all facets of the learner's life. Shor & Freire (1987) agree that education is political in nature-regardless of whether the learner and teacher realise their politics.

The educator's challenge is to engage the learner into active learning reaching towards the true intention of liberatory education - critical consciousness. Following this process, the learner advances to conscientisation defined as "learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions - developing a critical awareness - so that individuals can take action against the oppressive elements of reality" (Freire, 1970). Critical consciousness is therefore not just the mere understanding of the surrounding dominant cultures, but it transforms the learner towards social mobility or social action after engaging in a process of reflection and action to change the reality. Shor (1992) supports Freire's perspective by reflecting that conscientisation takes place through dialogue, interaction, and critical reflection - necessary tools for the learner to overcome obstacles, acquire a new understanding of the social world, and becoming an active agent, 'a form of social action because of its transforming potential, its challenge to the dominant culture.' (Shor, 1992).

Analogous to this concept of students' gaining of critical consciousness and empowerment to engage in their own educative process are the contents of a letter, turned into a book, which eight students, guided by their teacher, Don Lorenzo Milani wrote in "Lettera a Una Professoressa". This book puts in clear evidence Milani's critical pedagogical concepts and skills in enabling the students analyse critically the systematic failure of the formal educational structures of the time. The students, in fact, examine how education and educators have a moral obligation to facilitate learning and not perpetuate failing procedures especially on students who do not belong to a privileged category or class, whilst other students are 'branded with the mark of the chosen race'.

In the commentary to their book "Lorenzo Milani, l-Edukazzjoni u l-Gustizzja Socjali", (Lorenzo Milani, Education and Social Justice), Borg and Cardona (2008) stress that similar to Freire, Milani opposes hegemonic forces which encourage reproductive processes in education and contend that "Filwaqt li l-proċess edukattiv jgħin il-mobilita' soċjali, ħafna jibqgħu msammrin fl-iskaluna soċjali u fl-attivita' ekonomika ta' familthom". (Whilst the educational process encourages social mobility, most remain nailed to the social ladder and economic activity inherited by their families). On the other hand, Milani strongly instils critical consciousness in his students, encouraging them to critically think, learn and look beyond their past failing experiences resulting from discriminatory and selective practices. These students were transformed into active agents of change, promoting hope, social justice and a liberatory education for all.

2.4.4 Encouraging Voice and Active Participation

Since 1981, Maltese students encountered similar discriminatory experiences as those mentioned in Milani's students' book, where the highly competitive Junior Lyceum examination favoured slightly more than half the students sitting for the exam as 'the high flyers' and left the failing students disenfranchised at such a tender age. In both instances, the only voice emerging from the students was stress, anxiety and lack of free time attributed to long hours of homework and study in preparation for the examination. The 2008 Report on 'Transition from Primary to Secondary Schools' addressed some of the students' urgent voices; recommending proposals that stimulate students' positive educational experiences throughout their school years. However, realisation of the student voice concept and students' participating in their own learning processes may still be far from being carried out.

Giroux (2003) contends that in formal education, students have limited opportunities to participate in school decisions, and to a lesser extent in their own educational progress. As a result their voices and needs may not be observed to when decisions and policies are being allegedly constructed to cater for their requirements. If schools and educators are to function democratically, their commitment should secure a meaningful student voice; venturing beyond students' opinions, engaging students as active agents of change. (Fielding, 2001b). Students who are active participants in decision making processes, gain important skills, experience and social capital. By validating their expertise, young people are enabled to exercise their political rights, encouraging their participation in a democratic society. Moreover, a youth-engaged approach offers a dialogical process which also complies with Fielding's view that students are valued as co-constructors:

It is not just about listening attentively and with interest to students . . . it is also about the explicit development of students as agents of their own and each others' educational transformation. It moves beyond students as interesting sources of data, students as co-constructors of new meanings and shared understandings rooted in the unpredictability of dialogue. (Fielding, 2001a: 150)

Mitra's (2008) seminal study in this area also revealed that increasing student voice opportunities in schools who involved students in their decisions led to increases in youth agency, belonging and competence. Whilst drama, sports and fund-raising activities provide opportunities for young people to assume different roles and explore their skills, students should also be enabled to discuss their educational and developmental needs, thus increasing ownership towards their own learning schemes.

2.5 Conclusion - Applying the Principles to Practice

Youth workers take advantage of such learning processes as the way forward, and create a familiar and comfortable environment which stimulates interest and promotes young people's active participation through different approaches. Informal education in youth work could be a tool which supports an inclusive setting for all. Critical pedagogical approaches encourage young people to become motivated, develop their own creative initiatives and skills to become active participants in their communities; instilling a gratifying sense of achievement, self-confidence and self esteem. Promoting an active society in youth work which also celebrates diversity, is a means towards an evolving and transforming society, where young people become the catalysts for social change through interaction with their peers as well as adults, in a transversal active participation on multiple levels, improving their own educational and social environment and transforming it into a better place for all.