The framework for discussing education and social justice is often limited to the formal settings of nurseries, schools, colleges and universities. However, significant learning takes place beyond these confines: at home, in communities, at work and leisure, through activism and volunteering, in arts and popular culture, in nature and via digital media.
The existence and value of this informal learning seem to be ignored in educational policy making. The emphasis is rather on a duty to constantly reinforce our status as employable neoliberal subjects by training and retraining throughout our lives; even with ever-decreasing resources to support this.
In a posthuman, postcolonial world, formal education is increasingly anachronistic, tied as it is to a belief in both the unified human subject who can be perfected by education and to a set of national beliefs and values that education should transmit, recently defined in the UK by PM David Cameron. In its fixity it cannot help but perpetuate social inequality. It inevitably reproduces the values and assumptions that have created an unequal society in the first place. To achieve social change, what constitutes learning and where and how it happens must be rethought.
Research with marginalised young people who left school with few qualifications and even label themselves “the thick bunch”, revealed the many forms of informal learning which engage and interest them: anything from music and DJing to sport, mechanics, animal care and advanced computing. This invisible learning is disregarded and unrewarded and does not move them from the category of ‘failed learner’, with the concomitant impact on their chances for social justice.
For young people in rural areas this dichotomy between life within and outside school becomes even more pronounced and their lives even more ignored, as they are perceived as less likely to cause social unrest than their urban counterparts. Whilst further research identifies multiple ways in which they learn and generate skills through their engagement with nature, they see these skills disappearing in the face of the colonisation of the countryside by wealthy second home owners.
There is much more to know about marginalised young people and informal learning, but we do know: it can be vitally important; it has generated capacities and predispositions to learning (unlike school), yet they are not encouraged to celebrate it or use it as a pathway out of low-paid work or unemployment. So, a shadow community of marginalised learners exists in parallel to the world of formal education. Social justice demands “social connection” (Young, 2011) between and across these two communities, but it is not currently in the interests of those with power and privilege to break down these divides.
Informal learning sometimes results in withdrawal from the social world; but it can also generate important forms of intra-activity with the human and non-human. Truly recognising, respecting and rewarding young people’s informal learning implies a radical re-envisioning of both education and the existing social (and ecological) order. As such it is a good starting point in our quest for social justice.