What have you been working on?

I’ve been talking to teachers who are working to provide informal science teaching for students in extra-curricular clubs. I wanted to understand their motivation and their struggle.

From a broader perspective, my aim is to look at education policy and try to find how it plays out in teachers’ day-to-day experience. The policy here was the neo-liberal, market-driven nature of education, and how that impacted on
five science clubs.

A recent Wellcome Trust Science Learning+ study suggested informal learning is an incredibly powerful experience. However, the very nature of informal learning raises a whole load of challenges for schools regarding attainment metrics.

How did you research this?

I conducted interviews and lesson observations with five teachers, working in three challenging state secondary schools.

Informal learning was classified as sessions before school, at breaks, lunchtimes and after school, that were not assessed, did not follow a set curriculum, were non-compulsory and were open to all students.

However, they could not be linked to exam preparation, contain coursework catch-up, be offered to a specific cohort, be compulsory or have assessment as an integral part.

The teachers were all asked to use a series called the periodic table of videos – created by chemists from the University of Nottingham – a powerful learning tool about the joy and wonder of science.

What did you find?

One major finding is that there is a real conflict between the formal and the informal curriculum, the former being based on high exam grades and marketable outcomes.

Informal learning is rather about creating curiosity and understanding the world: you get an answer, rather than the answer. Science is about: “How does that work? Let’s try again.”

I found teachers who were committed to helping students to learn about the world, but who were under pressure to turn science clubs into revision clubs. These were after-school clubs, where the kids had chosen to come along, but even in that setting, the pressure was on to turn it into a performance-based activity.

What’s important to their students is to use science as a means to understand the world. However, when teachers are given a narrow, exam-focused remit, they are under incredible stress and don’t have the time for half a class to get it wrong.

And since it’s hard to assess informal learning, it’s also hard for teachers to argue for its value.

For example, one teacher took the class to a perfume counter in a department store, to smell fragrances. They then went back to school and tried to analyse the composition of perfume. It’s impossible to quantify the additional value of that excursion.

What would be your take-home message?

The study, although small-scale, signals to leaders and policymakers the crucial nature of informal learning. Moreover, informal settings can be a powerful context for students to access an understanding of science in context – understanding that does not necessarily lend itself to being “captured” by the performance metrics predominantly used to evidence learning.

Enacting informal science learning: exploring the battle for informal learning was published in the British Journal of Educational Studies