Schooling, deschooling or unschooling?

Rough First Day

There seems to be a growing chorus questioning our Western school system. The conversation has been strong amongst bloggers, voices like Brian Alger or Robert Paterson on the value of homework or Chris Corrigan on unschooling. A number of our firiends in Sackville have posted on Rob’s homework-related posts. Now the cry against homework has been picked up by the mainstream media such as Time Magazine and The National Post.

It’s not just homework, but the fact that a one size fits all approach to learning just does not work in a ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world. As Ivan Illich said in Deschooling Society in 1973, “We permit the state to ascertain the universal educational deficiencies of its citizens and establish one specialized agency to treat them.” That agency is cracking.

The lack of confidence in our education system is similar to the search for better training and e-learning methods, as evidenced by the interest in our Informl Learning Unworkshops. People realise that the old ways of instructional systems design take too long for most training programs. Furthermore, slapping on a training course cannot address the majority of human performance issues faced by organisations today. Also, many are discovering that learning on the Web is more about who you know than what you know, because if you know many knowledgeable people, you can usually find a solution to your problem. The “connectors” are becoming critical to any organisation.

As students go back to school, it is up to the rest of us to ask what are they really doing there and if there is a better way. We owe it to our children.

[Note: there are more learning links to explore on this one post than our boys may get in a day of classroom instruction]

8 Responses to “Schooling, deschooling or unschooling?”

  1. Jay Cross

    Harold, I see this as one more blow to authority from the growth of information networks.

    Earlier today I wrote “In the old days, we just took it. I sat through twenty years of educational exercises. Coloring outside the lines or thinking creatively was punished. Eat your training; it may taste bad but it’s good for you. Today people are mad as hell and won’t take it anymore. They take the lessons that are useful and fast-forward through the rest. The learners have seized the remote control.”

    This resurfaced after being tantalized to watch a clip on YouTube. “I’m not much for television in the morning. Hell, I don’t watch television more than an hour a week. Yet this morning I began the day watching a very funny clip of Dave Letterman when GE purchased RCA and became Dave’s new boss. (He tried to take the Board of GE a fruit basket but was turned away at the door.) This is the difference between old-style behavior and the new. I no longer have to sit through a hour of boring stuff and commercials to get to the really funny parts. Similarly, no one should have to endure an entire training program in order to learn the few nuggets they came for.”

  2. Rob Paterson

    What do we do – I mean what do “We” do?

    Is writing enough?

    Is the way forward to start a “school”. Chris did but has left it because it reverted back to being school.

    I don’t ask this question rhetorically – I don’t know but am willing to try

  3. Harold

    As the boys go to school, I’m asking the same questions. My actions, so far:

    1. continue to push the creation of a Commons that could offer a third-space for community-based learning.
    2. continue the conversation and see who else has similar concerns
    3. keep a close eye on our monopolist education system

  4. Lisa R

    I wish charter schools were an option here in NB. In Ontario, Alberta and other places, charter schools seem to come closer to creating school environments that nurture learning in a natural environment. Personally I struggle with the limitation in the school system, particularly because I see my son struggle in an environment that in many ways does not suit his style of learning. And having used an eclectic unschooling approach in homeschooling my son until grade 3, I saw that it did work when life became our school room.

  5. Bruce

    I understand that education has to evolve as technology becomes available and as we learn more about how different people learn. It is easy as an academician to declare certain ways of teaching ineffective. It is totally different to stand in front of 30 eager minds, each with different learning styles and disabilities and try to deliver a lesson. As an instructor, I am not trying to compete with your DVD player, computer, or any other means of entertainment. I don’t have to. My goal is to impart knowledge “by any means necessary”.
    I remember sitting in the back of classrooms, wondering why I was there, wishing the teacher would shut up. I remember thinking what a giant waste of time it was. Over the years, some of that information is the most important things I learned. It wasn’t fun or interesting, but through lectures, assignments, homework (yes, homework) and tests it was drilled into me by sheer repetition. I am glad I did not have the ability to “fast forward” through it.
    This may not be the best way to teach, but teaching is a bit of an act of desperation. You have someone’s attention for a relatively short period of time and you are trying to impart knowledge to them, whether they know it is important or not. You can’t rely on the learner to judge what is important. If the learner has no respect for the teacher, they have lost that “apprentice” mentality and might as well try to figure it out on their own. The most important thing we can do to help our children learn is to empower our teachers, give them the tools they need, and pay them a competitive wage. None of these revolutionary ideas will be effective because it will end up being another “one size fits all approach to learning just does not work”. The teachers have got to be free to teach “by any means necessary”. I agree that we, as educators, should ask ourselves if there is a better way. Most teachers do, but we need an opportunity to implement our ideas.

  6. Harold


    Thanks very much for your comments. I know that there are many capable and well-intentioned teachers in our schools. My criticism is that “school” is the wrong system for learning. It is a system designed for teaching.

    For instance, the reason that you have someone’s attention for a relatively short period of time is because our school system has created the artificial constructs of classes, periods and subjects. All humans are innate learners and can learn without schools and teachers, as has been proven by brain-based learning science and through history.

    You say that “The teachers have got to be free to teach by any means necessary”, but I would say that children should be allowed to learn by whatever means necessary. You state that “You can’t rely on the learner to judge what is important.” I disagree, and would say that you have to involve the entire community, including the children, in determining what is important. How can any individual or professional group decide on what is important to teach, when our children will leave school and do jobs that not yet exist, using technologies that have yet to be invented?

    As Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

  7. Eric Tirrell

    My august sirs,

    There are, in rough measure, three levels of students. The small plutocracy of intelligent and highly self motivated, who will learn the material whether, the teacher is in the room or not. These people, upon graduating, often take high profile jobs at Time Magazine and the National Post. Then there is the vast majority of students who you have to beat with some kind of stick (fear motivated) to learn the material and three repetitions are usually required. Upon graduating these people do the work of the world. Schools exist primarily to serve this group. Last we have the small group of students either emotionally or physically damaged. This group is hope motivated and their future is unclear.

    Through strict admission requirements, you can close your eyes to the last group. Now you are left with a vast majority of students who will only learn the material through coercion and repetition. Homework is a valuable tool in this endeavor.

    So, lets set up a mind experiment. One group goes to a school with teachers, but has access to advanced internet tools. The other group is made up of 16 yr olds, with some direction from internet learning software only. Ready GO. Four years later which group, on a whole, is more prepared to enter the workforce? If you said group number 2, you are not a teacher.

    Students learn at different rates and for some students the rate of learning is much faster than the average class length. This is a classical educational problem. Literally, I am sure Socrates had to strike this balance. New tools could greatly enhance the quantity of learning for high learning rate students. Does this mean just turning these students loose on the internet? If not, how do you write a curriculum?

  8. Harold

    How do you write a curriculum? You don’t.

    Here’s a quote from “Ivan Illich in Conversation” (1992):

    “Schooling, I increasingly came to see, is the ritual of a society committed to progress and development. It creates certain myths which are a requirement for a consumer society. For instance, it makes you believe that learning can be sliced up into pieces and quantified, or that learning is something for which you need a process within which you acquire it. And in this process you are the consumer and somebody else is the organizer, and you collaborate in producing the thing which you consume and interiorize.”


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