Julie on 07983324437, Madge on 07429619657 info@got2b.org.uk

Yet only through communication can human life hold meaning. (Freire, 2006)

It seems impossible to imagine a world without conversation how can you possibly know what someone is thinking unless you ask or they tell you.  The ancient Greeks understood the importance of conversation, by employing a pedagogue, whose task it was to walk and talk with children. Whilst travelling to school the pedagogue would talk about the expectations of the day ahead and on the return journey would help the children reflect on the day.  In this essay I will look at theories of a number of key thinkers and current social policy to establish whether Conversation still has a role to play in modern youth work.  I will look at the possibility of non verbal conversation and share an example of a silent conversation.  I will also look at how changing technology is effecting how we converse.

Working recently in a drop in session mostly made up of 12-13 year old males, I found my role became one of re-enforcing boundaries and rules.  Constantly asking YP to stop throwing equipment, not to use the fire exit, to leave the fire extinguisher where it was, it is difficult to see how this sort of interaction can be viewed as meaningful conversation.  When I was sat with a small group of young males they were talking about ‘manhandling something’ and one of group said ‘boy handling more like’ I did try to lead the conversation about the difference between men and boys, the response I got was that ‘men have big dicks’. While this was not the response I had hoped for, it should be recognised that this was still the rudimentary beginnings of dialogue, from which I learnt something about the maturity of those young men and their readiness to engage in conversation.  Had we have been in a formal learning setting then the chances are this small interaction wouldn’t even have occurred and I wouldn’t have gleaned that bit of knowledge.  By looking at the theories of key thinkers it is possible to explain the young men’s response. In his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes of the necessity for certain conditions to be present for dialogue to be successful.  These conditions are

Love; Humility; Trust; Hope and Critical thinking. (Freire, 2006)

 Having recognised that these young men were not ready to engage, I can appreciate the importance of the conditions for conversation.  Informal Education through conversation, therefore, needs to be at a time when all parties are ready to engage and when these conditions are present. Given the fact that I had only worked with the boys on two previous occasions, it is understandable that the conditions were lacking.

Thinking of the Every Child Matters (DfSE, 2003) agenda, our current practice requires targeted work to achieve recordable outcomes and accreditation. One wonders how Freire’s conditions fit in to such policy when targeted work is somewhat enforced on both the worker and the young people.  When work happens in a short time frame, little chance is given to creating an atmosphere to promote love and trust. I wonder if conversation will still be a key skill employed by youth workers or whether we will find ourselves resorting to giving out instruction as a manner of education.  This method of ‘pouring information into an empty vessel’ is described as the ‘banking system’ (Freire, 2006).  Freire also recognises the inadequacies of this method of education.  The giving of knowledge in this way embraces the notion that the teacher/youth worker is all knowledgeable and the young people know nothing.   This method of education continues to feed oppression.  Unless young people are given the opportunity to question they will not be able to form their own opinions.  Freire favours the adoption of ‘problem posing education’ through dialogue the roles of student and teacher interchange and teachers are taught by students as well.  Each becomes responsible for the learning process.

Problem posing education does not and cannot serve the interests of the oppressor.  No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why? (Freire, 2006)

I would also like to look at the concept of legitimate peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This model clearly demonstrates different levels of participation within any group.

Members of the group move freely between these levels of participation, often coming closer to the centre as things of interest to them are at the fore.  From this model there is a plausible conclusion that the young men discussed in my example formed part of the peripheral group and the interaction I initiated from the core was not able to draw them further in to the group at this stage.

The silent conversation

Of course conversation doesn’t have to be a verbal experience, I once spent an entire evening having a ‘silent’ conversation with a young women.  She wrote “Hello, how are you” on a piece of paper and passed it to me over the coffee bar, I replied on the paper and we continued conversing in this way.  By the end of the evening we had explored an issue concerning her mental wellbeing to a satisfactory conclusion.  The reason this method worked really well on this occasion was, I think, due to her lack of confidence and withdrawn state at that time.  She was clearly instigating the interaction but was not able to verbalise that at the time.  This example, however, still follows the notion that conversation is spontaneous and takes place between two people in the same location.  Visual reassurance in the form of facial expression and body language are there to support the written message where tone of voice is lacking.

Conversation involves an immediate response.  There is not much time lag between the action of one person and the response of the other.  ..  … It means, for example, that what we say may be less thought out. (Jeffs & Smith, 2005)

Changing technology

As the technological age has taken hold, over the last decade young people are turning to texting and social networking as a means of conversation.  With 1 billion text messages being sent every month (BBC, 2007) one can see just how big an attraction this is becoming for young people.  As this form of conversation is not face to face, facial expressions are replaced by smilies like J or :p and voice tone replaced by CAPITALS to show, anger and hearts <3 and kisses x to imply good intent. We have also adopted abbreviations such as LOL (laugh out loud) or ROFL (roll on floor laughing). As Youth Workers if we want to maintain our contact, and continue to engage with young people then we must embrace these concepts and learn to converse with young people through these methods.  This will however, bring to the fore, problems and concerns around a number of issues.

  • Regulations – particularly concerning boundaries.
  • Concerns about protecting the safety or young people and workers.
  • Language barriers

Let us look at these issues in more detail. 

Regulations and concerns

Every organisation should have policies and regulations to inform and guide workers practice and Oxfordshire County Council, for whom I work, are no exception.  There are already policies around boundaries and the importance of maintaining a professional relationship.  However, there are no specific guidelines in relation to social networking sites or texting.  Without these clear guidelines, some workers are reluctant to engage in work with young people on the internet. One of the biggest concerns involves the social networking site facebook.  Many youth centres have their own pages, and young people and workers are invited to become friends of that centre.  The potential boundary issues are that young people are able to read ‘status’ information about the worker.  Imagine a workers ‘status’ reading ‘got a huge hangover, how much did I drink, can’t remember much about last night, but must have been a good one’ or ‘had a really crap night at youth club tonight’.  Photos that are uploaded by members can also be seen by the friends group.  This again crosses the personal/professional boundary line allowing young people to view images of workers and vice versa.  Despite these concerns social networking is a powerful working tool. Allowing workers to publicise the youth centre and planned activities, give instant reminders about returning permission forms or informing of unexpected closures.  It provides a platform to give young people links to other sites, providing information about drugs, sexual health and other issues.  I feel that organisations need to give serious consideration to the use of social networking sites, and policies drawn up as a matter of urgency.  Some of the guidelines around street based and detached youth work could also apply to on-line working.


On-line chat and texting has given us a new ‘language’ to learn, initially born from the requirement to limit the length of SMS text messages and speed for the ‘2 fingered typist’, most people are comfortable using abbreviated ‘text’ words like ‘C U L8r’ for ‘see you later’, and some are able to translate ‘BTW’ as ‘by the way’ or ‘TMI’ into ‘too much information’. However, internet language has now evolved to such a degree that the written word is almost totally unrecognisable as English.  Using the subversive language called ‘leet speak’ phrases such as ‘Hi, how are you’ become ‘H1, h0w 4r3 %05’ and ‘informal education’ becomes completely transformed into ‘1/\/|=ø|^/\/\4|_ 3|)|_|<4710/\/’.  Even ‘leet speak’ has its own variations unique to different on-line communities, dependant on which game or website the user is a part of.   Freire wrote of the need for ‘generative words’ the requirement to learn the words used by people with whom you engage, leads to an understanding of the world as they see it.  Without this understanding how can there be opportunity for youth workers to converse with young people on equal terms and without equality we perpetuate oppression.

In conclusion then, having looked at examples of conversation both verbal and silent, and exploring how conversation is changing in the world of technology it appears to me that conversation does still have a role to play in youth work and will do for the foreseeable future.  There appears to be a paradox between the time constraints and imposed nature of targeted work and the Every Child Matters outcomes of ‘making a positive contribution’, ‘Achieve economic wellbeing’ and ‘Equal Opportunity’.  In order to achieve these outcomes the ‘problem posing’ education model would be the best method to use, allowing young people to question and challenge the world around them.  The constraining element of targeted work however, lends itself to the ‘banking’ model. As informal educators, we strive to work with young people in many settings and on equal terms, if we are to work congruently then we must adopt the ‘problem posing’ model of education.  As youth workers we must jump into the ‘virtual’ world and be prepared to break down language barriers, to understand the generative words that our young people are using and to continue to converse with them.  Informal education continues to be a substantial part of youth work and conversation is the key element to informal education.


BBC. (2007, November 5th). Retrieved November 25, 2009, from BBC news Website: http://www.new.bbc.uk/1/hi/technology/7075005.stm

DfSE. (2003). Every Child Matters. London: Stationery Office.

Freire, P. (2006). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

Jeffs, T., & Smith, M. (2005). Informal Education: conversation, democracy and learning. Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.