What's an Informal Educator?

Since we’re aiming to create community among informal educators here, it seems only natural that we should start by defining our terms: What is an informal educator, exactly?

To start with some eliminations, we all intuitively know that a formal educator is the one in the classroom: your Grade 3 lead teacher, high school chemistry teacher, or college professor. Learners are enrolled at an institution, teachers are the employees of that institution.

So informal educators are the art museum tour guide and the naturalist who leads children on their first wilderness walk. But if you think for a minute, you’ll come up with lots more examples of people who aren’t classroom teachers, but do teach children and adults1:

  • basketball coach
  • cultural interpreter
  • piano teacher
  • afterschool supervisor
  • camp counselor
  • museum guide
  • aquarist
  • scout master
  • naturalist
  • guitar teacher
  • docent
  • storyteller
  • babysitter
  • zoo guide
  • wilderness leader

I could go on and on…

But what about grandma?

Right. There are a whole lot of situations where we learn outside of the classroom but in unstructured ways. Our grandma teaches us to make dumplings, we watch YouTube videos about how to make podcasts, we read a book. Humans learn from each other but also by ourselves.

UNICEF came along in the 1970s and decided that education had three components: formal, informal, and non-formal. Here’s how they divvied it up:

UNICEF’s name What it meant
formal education structured and graded; primary, secondary, and technical school
informal education lifelong learning; mediated by our friends, communities, the marketplace, and mass media
non-formal education organized but outside of the formal education system

To them, all of us naturalists and coaches in the word cloud above are engaged in non-formal education – but in the time since, almost everyone started using informal to refer to folx like us. Personally, I think non- and in- are just too similar to be intuitively useful, so I use this paradigm:

independent, informal, formal


  • To me, we’re informal educators who teach in a structured way, often within a non-school institution like a park or a dance school. We usually see our students for short times, and sometimes just once.

  • Formal educators, of course, are the ones in schools and universities. They see their students regularly and for weeks or months at a time.

  • People all learn independently, too – through media, conversations with friends, and having experiences.

Clear as mud?

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Comment below or get in touch!

Read more

  • Coombs, P.H.; Prosser, R.; Ahmed, M. New paths to learning for rural children and youth. International Council for Educational Development/UNICEF: New York, NY, USA, 1973.
  • Eshach, H. (2007). Bridging in-school and out-of-school learning: Formal, non-formal, and informal education. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(2), 171–190. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-006-9027-1

  1. Got any more? Get in touch and I’ll add them to the word cloud! ↩︎

A Park Ranger leading a group of children in a forest
A park ranger is one kind of informal educator
Ted Toth / National Park Service (Public Domain, NPS work product)
A Park Ranger leading a group of children in a forest
A park ranger is one kind of informal educator
Ted Toth / National Park Service (Public Domain, NPS work product)


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