The beauty of informal education – Why teacher learners need a day out

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Photo of the Remarkables mountain range in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Gugulethu K. Radebe

After spending just over three years of my life as a teacher or a teacher’s aide, I learned a lot of lessons about the school system and how it works. I had the great pleasure of watching learners light up as they finally figured out a concept they previously did not understand and watched them learn to probe more into an issue and ask the “right” questions.

I spent a lot of this time pondering about how I could make learning a more meaningful experience for my learners and one that they find pleasurable and rewarding. A lot of these questions were answered in one way or another in some workshop somewhere but many of these answers applied to some learners but not to others. I then had the privilege of pursuing a different way of teaching in the form of facilitating learning at the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre.

This move, amongst other things, was fuelled by my passion for learning and teaching that went beyond the school curriculum. I got into a space that valued human rights, difficult conversations and community building as much -if not more- than I do.

The South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, which is the body in charge of the Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town centres, aims to provide a space where learners and communities can look at the Holocaust and other genocides as a case-study for teaching humanity, equality, and the importance of human rights and democracy.

The museum space allows me to interact with learners in a very different manner than I could in a traditional teaching classroom. Though we don’t have the luxury of building relationships with learners, we have the gift of anonymity which allows learners to feel safer and to feel like they can own their opinions without fear of judgement and punishment. They have an opportunity to look at, sometimes, familiar content in a way that’s different from the tradition teacher and whiteboard scene they’ve learned to get used to.

They can ask questions and wonder about issues that far exceed what is required for a test or an exam at the end of the school term. It allows them the opportunity to be immersed in information and allows them to pick an area of interest within that area, that way making it feel more relevant to them and their everyday.

Teachers often teach how they learn, which means that students taught by an auditory learner often do a lot of listening and are often expected to verbally communicate what they learn. Many museum spaces allow learners to be exposed to a healthy mix of all learning styles, from activities for kinesthetic learners to videos, audio and art for auditory and visual learners. These spaces allow learners to grasp information in ways that feel most comfortable to them.

They allow all learners to work with new information and process it how they deem fit without the pressure to express themselves in a certain way by the guide or facilitator. This experience allows learners to have a sense of control over their learning, making it a much more meaningful and rewarding experience for them. These spaces, with the right preparation from the teacher, can allow learners to better engage with concepts they may have previously struggled with and may make engaging with the same content at a later stage more comfortable to learners.

Aside from the educational benefits, informal learning environments allow learners to interact with one another in a different space, this may be in the form of casual socialising between the learning experiences or in the form of discussions and activities in the learning sessions. Learners get the chance to learn about one another and learn to interact in a manner that may differ from how they interact in their comfort zones.

Excursions and school outings allow learners to explore the width and depth of any topic and learning with the hope that they find something meaningful and significant for themselves in the content they are exposed to. It allows their brains to experience familiar content in an unfamiliar way which brings the content to life for them and it’s with this fresh understanding that learners are able to cognitively and emotively process content that many may have just remembered for a test and forgotten.

As teachers, we need to more conscious of the importance of this informal learning to afford our learners the opportunity to learn lessons for a lifetime and not just until the end of the exam period.

Gugulethu K. Radebe is a teacher, poet and social activist. 

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Photo of the Remarkables mountain range in Queenstown, New Zealand.

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