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Introduction to Learning Theories

"Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."
- Paulo Freire

Exploring thinkers central to the development of the theory and practice of lifelong learning, social action, social pedagogy and informal education

Continuing development of theory and practice (Excerpt from CES Theory )

There is a rich and continuously growing debate about theory and its application to youth work, in different settings or for different purposes. This debate is vital to the health and development of the field. As Spence says (2007: 4):
The creation of research-based, theoretically developed and practice-informed texts is necessary to the process of creating a discursive field in which the meanings, values and potential of youth work as professional activity might be effectively communicated.
Because of the wide ranging and detailed nature of the discourse, however, it is very difficult to pin down and capture. Something of its nature and scale can be seen in the list of journals and other sources provided by the Australian Clearing House for Youth Studies. It can also be seen in the following free online journals:

  1. Youth Studies Ireland Journal
  2. A Journal of Youth Work (Published in Scotland)
  3. Youth and Policy (Published in England)
  4. The Journal of Youth Development (Published in the USA)

An excellent space for people to explore the theory and practice of informal education, social action and lifelong learning, was established in 1995 at the YMCA George Williams College, London. It can be accessed here:

Another valuable place to access latest thinking, training, research and policy developments in relation to youth work is the European Union – Council of Europe Youth Partnership. The function of the partnership is to strengthen social inclusion, promote democracy and human rights, democratic citizenship and youth participation, and to foster intercultural dialogue and diversity.
Similarly, the European Youth Forum provides access to a wide range of news and resources. The Forum works to empower young people to participate actively in society and to improve their own lives by representing and advocating their needs and interest and those of their organisations. The Forum has three main goals: greater youth participation, stronger youth organisations, and increased youth autonomy and inclusion.

Consideration of key issues in youth work literature
There is a small but growing literature about youth work, which provides an important space for the discussion of key issues. This can be illustrated with writing from the UK. For example, in looking back at what she describes as the emergence, suppression and demise of work with girls and young women, Spence (2010) explains how women youth workers combined feminist theory, personal commitment and single-sex work to challenge prevailing male oriented ideas and provision. In her view the thrust of the work had petered out by the end of the 20th Century. This was due to a combination of factors including; reduced funding, top-down managerial approaches, and a tendency for the work to be subsumed under emerging professional frames that were more compensatory than political in intent.

Batsleer (2013) also writes about how youth work with girls and young women has taken inspiration from feminism and the women’s movement, focussing on the strength and potential of girls as beings in their own right, rather than as carriers of social problems. Her argument is that autonomous community-based projects can affirm young women’s lives and creativity and seek to challenge oppression.
Batsleer and Davies (2010) present a series of texts considering contemporary youth work in the light of (UK) government policy initiatives to help readers to develop their theoretical understanding and practice. The topics include youth work within integrated youth support services, targeting, developing global literacy and competence, and anti-racist work.
Ord (2012) presents a series of texts on issues in youth work management covering topics such as planning, supervision and evaluation. The book applies a historical and theoretical lens to these standard topics, while considering the ways in which management has become much more clearly identified with delivering government policy. The contributors assess the impact of such a development on youth work practice.
In her book on working with diversity, Soni (2011) explores definitions of identity and culture and aims to examine and demystify the language associated with diversity issues, such as ‘cross, inter and intra-cultural’, the nation state, class, ethnicity and race, and the links between these terms. The book examines theories and concepts that are relevant to developing an understanding of the impact and inter-play of power in multi-cultural communities.

International research
The wider discourse is increasingly informed by a growing body of research into the theory and practice of youth work. This has recently been captured in the publication of Youth Work – a Systematic Map of the Research Literature, written by the EPPI Centre, Social Research Unit at the Institute of Education in the University of London. The map provides a unique resource for investi­gating the content of youth work, how it is delivered and how it is assessed in formal evaluations of its impact and by young people themselves. The map identifies 175 studies which provide empirical research evidence on the impact of youth work, 93 of which are evaluations of impact, on the lives of children and young people aged 10 – 24. It shows that a wide range of designs have been used to study the impact of youth work, with many collecting children and young people’s views through interviews and focus groups as part of case study and single group design methodologies. Most reports were either case study (32%) or cross sectional designs  (15%), both collecting data at one point in time (e.g. after participation in youth work activities).
In addition to evaluations of impact, a significant proportion of the studies were also interested in investigating the factors contributing to the successful delivery of youth work activities, including views on engagement and participation, particularly from the perspectives of children and young people. There are also a number of studies concerned with the testing and develop­ment of evaluative methods, particularly those addressing the validity and reliability of personal development measurement resources.

Link to Infed Thinkers and Innovators HERE

John Holt John Holt’s explorations of the failures of formal teaching and schooling influenced a generation of educators

Kurt Hahn A key figure in the development of adventure education, Kurt Hahn was the founder of Salem Schools, Gordonstoun public school, Outward Bound, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and the Atlantic Colleges.

Some of the theories that inform how we understand children and young people