From: Cunningham, Donald J. (
Date: Thu Mar 03 2005 - 06:21:56 PST

I have reached the age when I exhibit the annoying tendency to cite
earlier work that addresses contemporary issues. Jay's rant reminds me
of Ivan Illich's wonderful book "Deschooling Society". Here is a bit I
wrote about it:


            Contrast this view with that of Ivan Illich (1971) in his
provocative book Deschooling Society. Illich traces many of the ills of
modern society to the existence of schools, that he defines as "the
age-specific, teacher related process requiring full-time attendance at
an obligatory curriculum." (Illich 1971 25-25). According to Illich,
the institution of the school is based on an enormous number of
unfounded and potentially destructive assumptions.


            We have been lead to believe that learning is produced by
teaching, and therefore those who have not been taught by teachers have
not learned. Teaching is something that must be done by specialists, by
teachers who have credentials entitling them to engage in this
activity. And the primary activity of these credentialed specialists is
to produce more credentialed persons (e.g., third graders, graduates,


            Since school is obligatory, our society asserts that those
who fail to complete school or somehow choose not to participate are
flawed. A diploma is equated with competence and is often used to
determine fitness for a job. Any intellectual accomplishment unrelated
to school is regarded with suspicion or as "odd". Someone who is
"self-taught" is exceptional rather than ordinary. Lack of schooling is
a sign of poverty, perhaps its cause. The poor often have no choice but
to rely on schools as the way out of their poverty. The rich have
other options. Schools have thereby become one of our society's
principal means for discrimination rather than some benign source of


            Schools also serve to isolate children from real life,
prolonging and legitimizing childhood. The artificial setting of the
classroom is regarded as more appropriate for learning than any normal
everyday context. The students are responsible primarily to the teacher
and learn that to be successful they must attend school and graduate.
Anything other than this is unacceptable, even illegal. Children learn
that they are "pupils", the recipients of the teacher's knowledge. And
as the teacher's stature grows, more and more responsibility for
transmitting the culture is delegated to the schools. Teachers are now
responsible for caring for, transmitting values to and providing therapy
to students who are not succeeding. All this elaborate planning and
manipulation ensures the stifling of genuine learning rather than its
promotion. The picture of schools that Illich paints is so bleak and
even destructive of individual liberty that it is difficult to disagree
that society would be better off without them.


            In place of schools, Illich proposes the establishment of
"learning webs", educational institutions that will appeal to the
inherent desire of individuals to learn. These webs provide access to
resources, tools to those who want to learn from these resources, and a
forum to present their thinking to those who want to hear it. Four
types of webs are proposed. Easy access must be provided to reference
services such as libraries, computers, calculators, etc. This access
must be available to rich and poor alike. Although such tools are
typically regarded as teaching devices, under the control of schools,
they must be recast as tools available to every member of society for
self- directed learning.


            Skill exchanges is a second type of learning web. Those
with skills, like a guitarist or a computer scientist, who is willing to
share a skill, makes his/her willingness known to others through
advertisements, signs at the supermarket, etc. The teacher of skills
can be induced to offer services through public funds or reciprocity
agreements (i.e., I'll teach you typing if you teach me to play the


            Peer-matching is similar to skill exchanges except that the
matches are made with people of equal ability so that they can learn
together. Illich believes that technology can serve this role by
providing experiences matched to the level of the learner, as when
computers are programmed to play chess at various levels of expertise.
But it is important to point out that this matching must be
self-chosen, not dictated by an external agent like a teacher. An
important side effect of peer- matching is that people will come to
rely on each other to meet their needs, not "experts".


            The final type of web is professional educators or masters,
operating independently of traditional schools. These educators should
have three types of competence: to create and operate the resource,
skill and peer matching networks described earlier, to advise learners
and their parents in the use of the networks, and to serve as guides and
mentors in some particular types of learning within the expertise of the
mentor. Relieved of the obligations to serve as expert or specialist in
the traditional school environment, professional educators can come to
serve as collaborative mentors whose suitability is determined by their
abilities, not their degrees or other credentials.


            Despite their different starting points, the vision of
schooling of Stephens [J. M. Stephens book The Process of Learning,
described earlier in the paper] and Illich is remarkably similar. Both
regard learning as a natural process that is either immune to or
subverted by traditional teaching practice. Both positions point to
self-motivated, self-directed learning mentored by individuals capable
and interested in communicating about their fields of expertise. Illich
believes that such goals can not be accommodated within the context of
traditional schools but I think he seriously underestimates the strength
and good will of most teachers who would welcome such a shift in their
orientation and obligations. Freed from the necessity to prepare their
students from the latest standardized test, I truly believe that most
teachers would gladly accept Illich's role of professional educator.
It is the educational establishment (school administrators, school
boards, professors of education, etc.) that has to be disestablished.


            So I would agree that schools are part of the problem but
may also be the best context for a solution. Expecting that all
learning can occur through informal contacts between self- motivated and
enlightened individuals seems wildly utopian and improbable. I would
hope that the dentist I visited this morning did not acquire his skills
by responding to a note pinned to the bulletin board at the local
grocery store.


            I would like to see how schools would work when we cast out
the demons of objectivism, when we recognize and reject the metaphor of
the mind as some sort of container which must be filled with the
knowledge found in teachers' minds and instructional materials. We
"experts" in colleges and universities who train teachers have done a
marvellous job of indoctrinating them in objectivism. And we have
convinced policy makers, parents, and especially the pupils of the
validity of this view and the appropriateness of measuring the worth of
schools and students by scores on standardized tests.


            But suppose we all (politicians, university types,
administrators, teachers, parents and pupils) change our views of
school and teaching to one in which school is a resource rather than an
obstacle, where teachers are mentors rather than sources of absolute
authority, where reading, writing, drawing, etc. are seen as tools to
think with rather than tasks to be mastered. What would schools look
like with this sort of epistemological foundation? ........ Why don't
we give it a try? Carpe diem!




Don Cunningham

Indiana University


From: Jay Lemke []
Sent: Wednesday, March 02, 2005 10:38 PM
Subject: RE: What's new in classroom configurations


Very interesting resource links posted recently about issues of designs
for learning environments.

I rather liked the basic ideas in the Duluth harborside plan, though
perhaps the homebase was short-changed a bit.

Let's consider starting from some radical re-engineering of how learning
is done, and I don't just mean kids in groups, which is great for
getting them to talk and have a little freedom of action on short
timescales, but still is mostly NOT a ZPD because of its homogeneity
with respect to competences relevant to learning goals (though valuable
insofar as other sorts of diversity leaven the groups).

Most basic is getting outside the walls of the school, not just of the
classroom. Then, giving students more control of the goals of their
learning, as well as the timing and means. Start by changing the power
relations. Imagine that it was a learning environment for high-status,
powerful adults, not for our last remaining legally disenfranchised
social caste (apart from gays in the US).

Look a bit at how citizens of this age group and generation CHOOSE to
learn when not in school. E.g. how they share tasks of learning to
become expert players of computer and video-games (and for other
activities within their own culture-realm, ignored by the curriculum and
most parents). By and large they do want to play together, which is not
seen as distinct from learning together. The learn/play distinction is
itself fundamentally dysfunctional, as we have known theoretically at
least since LSV and Dewey. While there are purely online collaborative
groups, there are also usually face to face ones. There is the same kind
of total integration of practice and learning that Lave describes for
traditional apprenticeships, and which makes sense in age-heterogeneous
(and competence-heterogeneous) communities -- but not in imitations of
these principles in age-homogeneous classrooms.

Several of the sources posted recently mention the need for a variety of
different kinds of learning environments, and likewise for different
kinds of learning/action/play groups: peer groups, peer and mentor,
competence-diverse, diverse in age and likelihood for forming social
bonds with similar vs different members, etc. Longterm groups, ad hoc
groups, across all timescales.

A lot less emphasis on adult planning and design and control. Less adult
pre-occupation with optimizing learning; let people figure out how they
learn well and support that, in its many forms. Good learning
arrangements emerge when people get together because they want to share
in learning/playing/doing. No one has to design it all for them, and
design really cannot effectively anticipate the variety of possible
solutions people will come to.

But all of this is predicated on something much more basic: motivation
to learn/play/do. Most of the problems with school-based and
curriculum-based education comes from the very simple fact that most
students do not want to learn what someone wants to teach them. And they
are right. There is no evidence, beyond the most basic elements of
primary school curriculum, that any of what we spend hours and years
teaching is actually of any use to most people. Most of it is simply
artificially over-valued cultural capital, not functional cultural
capital (or functional only because it is arbitrarily valued). The
fundamental problem with education today is not teaching methods,
resources, or learning environments. It is the CONTENT.

Still, it is more intellectually interesting to think about the role of
space and time, by which we usually really mean place and pace, as well
as movements and traversals, in learning, rather than about why schools
and their version of "education" are so dysfunctional. It is also less

One could take, in a sense, two approaches to this. You could look at
the chronotopes (space-time-place-pace typical dynamic patterns) of
non-learning in failing institutions, to see how not to do it, and to
watch the counter-chronotopes of resistance, appropriation, etc. Or you
could look at the rarer examples of spontaneous learning/playing/doing
communities (some of which might even occur in schools) and see what
their chronotopic patterns are like, and how they come up against
obstacles and barriers, and which ones they find ways around and how.

Of course what I would LIKE to study would be such communities for which
the barriers are removed, so that one could see just how they would
evolve if our society were actually interested in having people learn to
think and learn how to succeed at what they want, which it clearly, and
for fairly obvious reasons, is not (or at least its most powerful
interests are not).


Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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