Radical Alternatives to Education?

Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of Learning Technology, Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth

There has been a lot of rhetoric in recent years about the failure of schools. Successive political parties several countries have based their manifestos largely around educational reform. All political parties consider that this is probably what the public wants to hear. The‘No child left behind’ and ‘Every child matters’ agendas epitomise the view that education has been something of a political punch bag, yet not a lot seems to have changed, and if there are changes, most are far from radical. Other initiatives have been proposed to reach distributed and impoverished populations of young people. The ‘One Laptop per Child’ project was a classic example of this kind of technologically driven effort. If any substantial change is proposed however, it is often resisted by teachers, school leadership, parents. Sometimes the resistance is overt, more often than not, it is tacit. Whatever form the resistance takes, there is often inertia in the state funded education systems of the world. If we are to turn around our failing schools and make a long lasting impact however, perhaps we need to apply some radical, or even outrageous solutions.

So let’s think about it. What is the most outrageous alternative education scenario you could possibly imagine? How about children not attending a school at all, but instead learning from home? Well, this is not so outrageous, nor is it particularly new, because it’s happening somewhere in the world right now. Distance education in the remote outback regions of Australia and in the hard to reach rural areas of other large area countries has been alive and thriving for years. So too has the home schooling movement in all its shades and colours. Both are successful methods, but both also suffer from a number of drawbacks.

OK. So what about no school at all then – let children learn through ‘life experience’, with no formal schooling at all? This would result in children going straight to work as soon as they could talk. Well, the sweat shops in the Far East can easily lay claim to that one. And of course, in Europe in the last century but one, this was a common experience for every child except those privileged to be born into affluent families. It may be a radical approach, but anyone who advocates no school whatsoever, deserves a size 12 boot up their backside.

OK, what about children taking control of the curriculum, controlling discipline, and deciding what the teachers should teach them? No, sorry – that is completely passe. That was done by schools such as Summerhill School and a number of other progressive, humanist schools in the 1960s in England and elsewhere.

How about something a little less radical then? The teacher stepping back out of the way, so that the child can take the centre stage and learning is focused on their personal development rather than simply on facts and knowledge? No again – the Montessori schools have been taking the approach for years.

How about a more balanced curriculum then, where academic topics are weighted equally alongside artistic, aesthetic and social skills? Close, but no cigar – the Rudolf Steiner school movement has cornered ‘head, hearts and hands’ education for some time. Are we running out of alternatives? Is there any radical approach that has not been tried and tested? Are we doomed to continue with a rusty, creaking, increasingly outmoded and bloated national curriculum which every day becomes more and more irrelevant to the needs of the modern, fast changing, digitally-rich world of the information society? Are we?

Well, there is ‘deschooling’ of course. Deschooling in the sense that the anarchist philosopher Ivan Illich proposed in the early 70s. There’s no need to panic. It’s not doing away with schools, as most people think when they hear the phrase ‘deschooling’. Deschooling is not to be confused with the ‘unschooling’ we discussed earlier in this article. No, it’s more a philosophy premised on the assumption that universal education is simply not possible, nor is it desirable. We don’t all need to know the same stuff, therefore why should we all sit together in the same room, at great public expense, for so many thousand hours of our young lives, to be forced to learn it all? Why should we, in the sage words of Sir Ken Robinson, be ‘batch processed’ by age groups, in an industrialised instruction machine. Children all develop at different rates, so age categorisation is a false measure based on economic and management expediencies rather than because of any consideration for the learning experiences of individual children. Illich rejected these processes as unsound and unsustainable. He was also concerned that we should do away with what he called the ‘funnels’ of the schooling systems. His alternative were ‘learning webs’ that enabled every child (and indeed every adult in the context of lifelong learning) to learn what they personally needed to survive, thrive, care and share in their communities and societies. His idea of ‘peer matching’ was indeed very radical for his time:

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity. (Illich, 1971)

Impossible then? Yes probably. Impossible now? Under the current funding regimes of mass state funded education, and in the present ethos of rigid curricula and control freakery of Western governments, trying to formalise something like this would be extremely difficult. But when we consider that 80 per cent of what we learn is achieved primarily outside the school gates, I am sure we might be able to agree that there are some potential loopholes just begging to be exploited. Add into the mix some positive deviancy from a few disruptive activists within the teaching ranks, and we may be able to make some progress toward transformation of the state funded school system.

So let’s see – how radical can we get with education? What if every child had their own device to connect to the world of knowledge and what if it was actually engaging and fun. What if children could search for any topic they wanted to know about and find complete high quality resources on it in seconds, on a screen right in front of them? What if kids could match their interests and knowledge needs with other kids whom they could link with around the globe? What if children could learn from each other within an online global community, using social networks and massively online role playing games? What if each child could create his own personal learning environment from a huge choice of tools that were free, scalable and open for all to use without any concerns about personal safety? What if this kind of learning was formally accredited in such a way that employers would recognise it? What if the learning webs that Illich dreamed of were actually a reality and a way to democratise knowledge? What if all of this could be brought to us through easy to use personal devices, connected anytime, any place, and totally free to use?

So why aren’t we doing it?


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  1. teresamac says:

    sounds rather like a French edutainment programme called Adibou I used to use with my kids over 10 years ago. we were so excited about it but when it came to interaction there was rarely anyone else in the programme! what about the impact on working parents? i doubt the world is ready for this, maybe baby steps?

    • Steve Wheeler says:

      I guess the baby steps are already being taken. My point is that this is already happening for many young learners, but almost always outside the formal classroom setting. The technology exists, and young people are ready for this kind of learning, as they are already doing it in informal contexts. It’s the schools, some teachers, most leadership teams and many education authorities that are not yet ready for it.

      • Andy Jones says:

        It sounds great! Children connected to a world (web) of knowledge where they could search for any topic they wanted to know about and find complete high quality resources on it in seconds and see it right in front of them. Each child creating his (sic) own personal learning environment from a huge choice of tools that are free, scalable and open for all to use without any concerns about personal safety.

        It sounds a bit like… a library. And we all know that you can barely move in most public libraries for all the hundreds of children clamouring after the books, journals and learning resources on the shelves.

        I am not convinced.

  2. Ron Amundson says:

    I sort of wonder what will happen should informal learning webs become the primary? It might well yank the cheese right out from under the current infrastructure.

  3. John Newton says:

    The mismatch between the reality of much education experience today and the possibilities afforded by new technologies is actually pretty well understood by many kids. Why isn’t change happening? It will, once the children of the revolution have got our jobs ;-)

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