Breaking the mould
I was interested today to read the transcript of some online exchanges on the BECTA discussion list. They were between Graham Brown-Martin and others who were discussing the use of VLEs in education. The ALT-C 'VLE is Dead' Symposium got a mention, as did my reference to the work of anarchist philosopher Ivan Illich. Illich argued that schools were like funnels, an industrialised, impersonal process that created more problems than solutions. His alternative was to establish learning webs where everyone could share their expertise with their communities and learn from each other as the need arose. Informal learning, for Illich, was more situated than formal learning, and as Einstein once said: 'Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned at school'.
During my presentation in Manchester I happened to mention that Illich's 1970s notion of deschooling society could now be achieved through new web based tools, but that we were in danger of turning the Web back into a funnel if we persisted with wholesale implementation of institutional VLEs that constrained rather than liberated learning.
Graham Brown-Martin makes an excellent point about new technologies and learning on the BECTA discussion group. He says: "...the technologies used by young learners outside of school are often far more powerful and relevant to the outside world than that which is within it. For example an Internet enabled Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 is some 3-4 times more powerful than a typical school laptop whilst still allowing collaborative play with thousands of other global citizens. A Nintendo Wii presents a new mode of human computer interaction far more in keeping with skills needed for future telematics than a desktop PC". Graham is absolutely correct of course, but others are not so optimistic about these informal, extra-curricular learning processes.
Always an emotive subject, the BECTA discussion on the institutional VLE descended to the level of name-calling. Referring to my presentation at ALT-C and my mention of Illich was enough to brand me as a member of the 'loony fringe' by one contributor. Actually, I'm not offended by this, but I am genuinely encouraged. It's not the first time someone has tried to shoot me down. It happened during the plenary session of ICL in Austria earlier in the year too. "No-one quotes Illich anymore!" - said an angry keynote speaker when I asked him a question. It's not always a bad thing to be labelled lunatic...
The clue is in the use of the descriptor 'anarchist'. One keen observer asked me after the event to explain my statement that Illich was 'one of my favourite anarchists'. He asked what other anarchists I admired. I responded with a list of people including: Jesus Christ, Mozart, Picasso, Van Gogh, Stockhausen, Einstein, The Beatles and Dylan Thomas. A surprising list perhaps? Few of these, if asked, would have classified themselves as anarchists in the sense that they wished to 'destroy the world'. Many of them were criticised for being mad, deluded, drug-crazed or drunken, but each of them in their own way broke the mould, enabled us to see the world in a new way, and created new concepts that made us rethink our representations of reality. To me, that is what true anarchism is. Not being satisfied with the present, it is about challenging, subverting and ultimately replacing tired old structures - 'destructive creativity' if you will.
Illich has often been misunderstood. He was not saying 'destroy school'. He was saying that the ills of the current school system (read 1970, or 2010) far outweigh the good. School is creating far more societal problems than it is solving, he believed. His notion of 'learning webs' reflects his concern that we become more community focused and able to respond to changes, whilst his critique of 'funnels' shows his concern for the bland, homogenous and often irrelevant curricula of his own time and the impersonal, behaviouristic manner in which it was delivered.
Here is what Illich actually said: “A…major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching. Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives".
On his blog, Bill Ellis provides us with a clear insight into the motivation behind Illich's thesis: "Deschooling Society was more about society than about schools. Society needed deschooling because it was a mime of the school system that it engendered and that engendered it. In our current society individuals are expected to work in dull and stultifying jobs for future rewards. This they are trained to do in schools. They go to school so that they can get a job to work for future rewards".
We are seeing some green shoots. Creative curricula and personalised learning environments are the start of the deschooling Illich espoused. The formation of loose networks of practice communities on the Social Web is another. Doing away with school systems that inhibit creative expression and individualism, and introducing forms of assessment that support learning rather than measure it are also the start of the deschooling process. Using appropriate digital media that connect people into expert webs and enable them to negotiate meaning that is relevant to their own specific contexts is infinitely better than instruction. We won't be doing away with the school or university building. What we should be doing though, is building the essence of all that is good from the school and university into each personal learning space, wherever that may be, and whatever form it might take.
Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich