RE: Schooling, De-schooling

From: Tony Whitson (
Date: Thu Mar 03 2005 - 07:35:24 PST

Could this be sheer coincidence, or is there some kind of cosmic connection
at work?


Don's message arrived just as I was sending a link on Illich to one of my
classes. Here's the link:


If you are not familiar with the infed site, you may want to explore --
especially if you're interested in this topic.


From: Cunningham, Donald J. []
Sent: Thursday, March 03, 2005 9:22 AM
Subject: Schooling


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


            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, etc.).


            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 opportunity.


            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 guitar).


            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


            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




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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