Ways with Learning: Conversations with Shirley Brice Heath About Nonformal Education

In this week’s post, former IEN Managing Editor Jordan Corson (@jordancorson1) summarizes some of his recent conversations with renowned linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath about her work with nonformal education programs around the world. This conversation is part of a series of posts over the past several years that describe the development of a variety of afterschool and out-of-school education programs including Ikamva Youth and the Kliptown Youth Program in South Africa, Citizen Schools in the US, the BEAM Center in New York City, outside of school programs in Malaysia, and extra-curricular and afterschool programs in Singapore. Brice Heath is currently working on a new book entitled Theater for the Future.  In it, she points out that she does not believe we can or will “return to the usual passive uses of theaters, and that the model of Public Works (such as the National Theater’s Public Acts) will spread around the world of modern economies.”

For decades, Shirley Brice Heath has explored dynamic language learning and nonformal, community-based education programs. When she published the monumental Ways With Words, an ethnographic examination of two communities engaged in language learning practices, the book raised challenging and influential questions about the relationship between culture, community and language. In recent years, Heath’s work has extended in many directions, including museum learning in London and community-based arts programs in New York City. Heath’s collaborations with these diverse organizations and communities offers a number of lessons about the possibilities of education beyond the bounds of school. It also further illuminates her commitments to working with families and supporting underserved communities. In studying voluntary learning and describing what is happening in places where youth learn voluntarily, Heath hopes to push educators to rethink where and when education happens and how learning contributes to building a more equitable world.

Rethinking where and when education happens and how learning contributes to building a more equitable world

Public Works

Working with the Public Theater, Heath has helped develop the Public Works program. The program partners with organizations throughout New York City to connect community members to classes, workshops, and a participatory model for theater. Once a year, Public Works brings together the community partners to produce a show at the Delacorte Theater.  Public Works as an endeavor aims to reflect something central to Heath’s work, learning and making that is “of, by, and for all people.” Rather than theater as something for those who can afford it, and instead of theater as a passive event, Public Works reaches out to create meaningful, participatory forms of engagement rooted in local communities. Heath shares many stories of the hundreds of people that make Public Works, but vividly recalls the story of a man who joined the Delacorte productions every year. Even after battling serious illness, the man returned for a production of As You Like It, feeling that helping to create and participate in the theater was something inexplicably important in his life. As a consequence, Heath describes Public Works as blurring “the lines between theater professionals and community members” and promoting learning in meaningful and productive work.

Public Works blurs the lines between theater professionals and community members and promotes learning in meaningful and productive work.

The Public Works program in New York has expanded to build similar models in Dallas, working with the Dallas Theater Center, and in Seattle, working with Seattle Rep. As with its New York City work, Public Works in these cities engages communities to create collaborative theater projects that emerge from participating community members. Though the programs share a similar mission and structure, their localized roots mean different forms. In the process, the programs act as places to build local communities as much as they function to develop the actors’ craft

A Different Kind of Museum Learning

Heath also extols the work of the Tate Museum in recent years. The museum decided to get rid of the familiar hourlong guided tour format for schoolchildren, the Museum created open “learning studios,” where children and any interested person could explore and discover information on topics related to the museum’s exhibitions. These studios, as well as thematic workshops, extended well beyond the limited scope of a class fieldtrip. As with Public Works, the program breaks down divisions, making visitors not merely passive observers, but emerging experts on topics central to the Museum’s galleries and exhibitions. This approach shifts the position of youth and those who come to the museum from visitors to collaborative participants. For instance, many workshops at the Tate now pair artists and scientists and invite community members to come learn with them, and the Young People’s Programmes welcomes 15-25 year olds to “experiment, create and innovate…to design and deliver programmes for themselves and other peers.”

Shifting the position of youth and those who come to the museum from visitors to collaborative participants

This shift has also come with a more fluid, flexible form of museum learning, helping free educators and young visitors from demands like coordinating their visits with school fieldtrips. The Tate Museum (and subsequently other sites throughout the UK) has used this model to create collaborative, accessible, and open spaces to encounter art. These programs further promote community partnerships, linking science and arts, something Heath sees as inextricable.

Heath has also worked with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Similar to her research in the UK, Heath has worked with the museum to undertake significan changes in its educational programming. The Louisiana Museum specifically uses its physical space to consider the role of architecture and environment in creating place-based learning experiences. Whether the New Worlds of Learning or experiential learning with refugee children, these activities, as with other institutions, emerge from partnerships and community engagement.

Shirley’s Lessons

These programs offer a small glimpse of the many projects that Heath and community activists undertake. In each of these endeavors, Heath was never exclusively a researcher, but an active partner in building collaborative spaces of exploration. Reflecting on this ongoing work, Heath shares a few lessons about learning in general.

  • Schools cannot contain learning

Learning is an ongoing exploratory process that extends far beyond the boundaries of school. Older community members eagerly participated in Public Works productions. Parents joined children at museums not as chaperones but as co-learners. Additionally, the shape of these programs suggests that learning does not fit into the neat, bordered confines of a school. The work culminates in large, expressive productions and participants develop a clear sense of craft. Yet, there is no assessment of mastery and learning emerges from the shared task of designing and creating.

  • Art and science are artscience

Heath points to an ongoing conversation about the false division between art and science. She uses David Edwards’ term, artscience, as a way to show the deeply entangled nature of these fields. Looking at the collaborations of artists and scientists in places like the Tate Museum, Heath suggests that artscience involves collective learning and the integration and use of multiple, entwining knowledge and skills. Artscience is not a new phenomenon; Heath notes that these disciplines have historically worked together. Artscience is perfectly exemplified in informal learning practices. Heath points to the way youth make art in the 21st century. Musicmaking, podcasts, and video production require artscience expertise.

  • Voluntary Learning Embraces Equity

As much as these informal learning sites create opportunities for anyone to participate, they are not apolitical. Heath’s work, and thus her involvement in cultural centers and museums, directly focuses on creating learning spaces beyond the confines of schooling that directly work for and with people from underserved communities. For instance, the Louisiana Museum creates specific programming for youth with disabilities as well as work with refugee youth that create safe environments for children to take risks, explore art, and develop self-confidence.

Throughout, Heath suggests that there is nothing particularly magical or mystifying about informal learning work. Really, it is about interaction and space. The most profound learning events occur in museums, theaters, and parks and on the way there and back in conversations about everything they encountered.

                                                                                    —  Jordan Corson

2 responses to “Ways with Learning: Conversations with Shirley Brice Heath About Nonformal Education

  1. Pingback: Who and What Counts in Education? A Conversation with Jordan Corson | International Education News

  2. Pingback: Who and What Counts in Education? A Conversation with Jordan Corson Study Aims

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