Lunatic fringe?

Ivan Illich once argued that schools were like funnels, a transmission system - an industrialised, impersonal process that created more problems than solutions. His alternative to funnels was to establish 'learning webs' where students could share their expertise within their communities and learn from each other as the need arose, and as their interests drove them. For Illich, informal learning was more appropriately situated than formal learning, and therefore more relevant for lifelong learning. The work of Paulo Freire holds a particular significance to this discourse - he argued that dialogue was more powerful than curriculum, because it is the essence of informal learning, driven by interests rather than the expediences of the state. Einstein was an echo of these sentiments. He once said: 'Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learnt at school'.

During a presentation in Manchester two years ago, 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. He is one of my favourite anarchists, I said.

In an online discussion group later, someone suggested that my mention of Illich was enough to brand me as a member of the 'lunatic fringe'. I smiled, because I wasn't offended by this, but genuinely encouraged. A similar thing happened to me during the plenary session of the ICL conference in Austria. I asked a question of one of the keynote speakers, and cited Illich's deschooling position. He lost his cool and declared "No-one quotes Illich anymore!" It's not always a bad thing to be labelled a lunatic. It often means that people just don't fully understand what has been said. It's the same when someone is labelled an anarchist. It is often used as a perjorative description, without a clear understanding of what it actually means.

The Sex Pistols sang 'I am an anarchist', but I'm not convinced they were really aware of the true connotations of their lyrics. One of the conference delegates at my Manchester presentation asked me to explain my statement that Illich was 'one of my favourite anarchists'. He asked me to say 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'. They didn't of course. Most of them were criticised for being mad, deluded, drug-crazed or drunken, but each of them in their own way broke out from the mould, enabling us to see the world in a new way. They 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, anarchy is about challenging, subverting, removing and ultimately replacing the tired, creaking old structures - a kind of 'destructive creativity' perhaps. It may not all be about smashing the system. It may be about repurposing it - just take a closer look at Illich's ideas:

Here is what Illich (pictured left) 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".

Illich was not saying 'destroy school'. He was saying that the ills of the current state funded school system (read 1971, or today - it makes no difference) 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.

On his blog, Bill Ellis provides us with useful 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 process Illich called for. The formation of loose networks of practice and virtual communities, professional learning networks (PLNs) and 'user groups' on the Social Web is another. Retiring school systems that inhibit creative expression and individualism, and introducing new 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 direct instruction. I can't see us demolishing the school or university building. What we should see happening 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. You can read more about the Deschooling Society ideas of Ivan Illich.

Images: Moon source. Illich source.


Graeme Ferris said…
Great post Steve, thanks!
Kelley said…
I have found this to be a fascinating post as I read it, and read it, and then read it again. It is filled with ideas that I find tumbling through my thoughts even after the browser is closed. Destructive creativity, assessments that support learning rather than just measure it, repurposing the educational system, deschooling....a lot of reflecting ahead for me. So how do we turn school from a place into a choice? From a set of hours each day to a mindset of continuous study and investigation. Thank you for sharing and for giving me so much to think about.
Dr Eva Dobozy said…
Thanks for this Steve,
It’s good to know that I am in good company. I am also labelled a ‘lunatic’ by many of my teacher education colleagues and students, who firmly believe that the ‘funnelling system’ serves them and our future teachers well. Breaking out of this mould and providing an environment that relies on student teacher initiative, risk-taking, networking, collaborative knowledge building/testing/expansion, generally the stuff of ‘higher’ learning (rather than teaching) makes me not only an outsider, but in a system that encourages teacher evaluation by students (who have been socialised into and expect to consume pre-chewed and easily digestible information to be tested on), makes me also someone who is labelled a ‘bad teacher’. Teacher education students in the end-of-semester evaluation noted that they were ‘amazed about how much work they put into this unit' (creating a learning object aligned to the new Australian national curriculum), despite my failure to teach them ‘anything’. In a system where paying consumer students (in teacher education) are able to contribute increasingly to quality assurance practices at institutions of ‘higher’ learning, students influence the curriculum and pedagogical practices. I argue that in such a system there is not much hope for school education to change and reform. We will be stuck in a system that values and advocates teacher-telling so that all students can (hopefully) pass their high-stakes tests. Therewith teachers, parents and students can feel good, as school children will demonstrate (through hard evidence) that they know a lot of useless staff for a minute or two. Unfortunately these students, many of which will be future teachers, will be unable to ‘think outside the box’, solve problems without someone telling them what to do and how to do it and see the value of brainstorming outrages ideas and running with something that they thought was impossible. Hence, the majority will not see a need to change a system that served them so well. Maybe there will be one or two who will be labelled ‘a lunatic teacher’ because s/he will resist the urge to teach and instead make students learn using their own resources and initiatives …. – you get the picture

Perth, Western Australia
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Graeme - glad you enjoyed it and found it useful
Steve Wheeler said…
Kelley, I'm pleased that the post made you think. It made me think while I was writing it too ;-) All of these things are possible, but we first need to break the mould of traditional school mentality, and that means winning hearts and minds of those who make the decisions. That will take a lot more work I'm afraid...
Steve Wheeler said…
Eva, I'm glad I am not alone :-) I guess the one thing we can do is to continue the fight, just as those I listed have done. I consider positive deviance as a key trait in new teachers, and try to instil this in all those I send out into the classrooms. I try to inspire my student teachers to reach out for new experiences, inspire their learners, and try to dream up a new, exciting and impossible idea every day before lunchtime. We dream, and in the end we triumph.
Manish Malik said…
Hey Steve,

Destructive Creativity: should it destroy the schools? I too think that in the real world that we live in, we cannot do away with schools as we all need a job to make ends meet and when at work we cant look after our children. Most of what we learn may come from what we learnt outside the school but importantly, how we learn can be greatly influenced by the school we attended and/or the PLN we may be part of. In fact schools is where we may start to build our PLNs. The curriculum is only so much important.

It is this potential of the schools that needs tapping into. Destroying the unhelpful ways and promoting the real potential.

I agree that VLEs are not setup the right way and this kind of reflects what the institutions think should happen in them - so its not technology that is at fault there. There is technology out there that promotes openness and provides for fostering PLNs within and outside your institution(s) both during the course and lifelong.

PLEs (online) on the other hand are non institutional personal set of personal web tools the we choose to use. They may not always allow access to all your PLN and may even be for the enthusiastic geek who can manage a 100 usernames and passwords.

There is a strong case for institutional learning environments to foster good connections within the student and academic community as well as with external communities. Boundaries between formal and informal have never been rigid or well defined. However, we brand formal all that is done in school and informal all that is done outside. Surely, knowledge does not have such boundaries. I think we should experiment with new ideas that will strike a good balance and allow the two sides to have a conversation. A bridge is a good idea. Edupunk or a case where everything is informal maybe not. Atleast not in this context when we know schools can do some good.
P@ said…
Great post Steve, and great comments too.

I'd like to follow up on Manish's point about curriculum being only important to a certain degree. In an ideal system, I honestly believe we should be focusing on teaching people how to learn - and nothing else. The curriculum can exist, as something they test their learning skills against, and assessment can even stay as a part of that, but we should be testing how well they learn (for their own benefit, not to satiate some mis-begotten desire for league tables) not how well they retain facts, nor even, really, how well they problem solve (though that is related to learning).

I would love to see the core of education being just this: facilitating learners learning how to learn better. If you must throw in specific skills/knowledge oriented assessments in order to support the business world, fine, but all those elements should be distinct from the core vision.

Oh, and if you manage to do it, can you teach me how to learn better, please? I'm not too bad at it, but I know I have a long long way to go yet!
Tim Brook said…
Can scarcely believe it - the very last blog I visited was quoting John Holt! Now I just need someone to quote Postman and Weingarter's "Teaching as a Subversive Activity" an I'll
a. Be happy and b. Start worrying I'm in a timeslip....
Tracy Russo said…
Perhaps the flack you receive is why my copy of Deschooling Society on the shelves behind me is leaning on my hard hat. PLE's and VLE's aside, data analytics certainly funnel in the name of convenience as we buy in to the process. Digital Hemlock: Internet education and the poisoning of teaching by Tara Brabazon is an interesting read related to the Curriculum questions of Who and What constitutes/controls curriculum.

As you brought in pop culture, I would have to add the Five Man Electrical Band as a soundtrack contender with "Signs, signs, everywhere I sigh..."
Simon Ensor said…
Coming to think that 'personal' for learning is not always useful or desirable. Am thinking more and more of community. Cf As humans, we each have a unique self narrative: “we tell ourselves a story about who we are, what others are like, how the world works, and therefore how one does (or does not) belong in order to maximize self.” We join a community to become more of ourselves – to exist in a place where we feel we don’t have to self-edit as much to fit in.

Popular Posts