According to Ivan Illich in 1972, “Universal education through schooling is not feasible”. His radical ideas regarding schooling provoked much debate back in the 1970s, with most dismissing him as an over-zealous new-age hippy. Could it be, however, that he was rather a forward-thinking would-be educational revolutionary? Are his ideas still valid today, and have any of his suggestions actually come into being? Some would argue that Illich had a vision of a home-schooling future which could be highly effective, and overshadow the formal education system altogether.
Believing schools to be guilty of corrupting society, Illich preached that our entire culture was institutionalised and in order to de-institutionalise ourselves, we needed to ‘deschool’ society. Quite apart from this philosophy, he felt that our schooling methods were altogether counterproductive. Teaching a child, through the formal system, he argued, may lead to high grades and the ability to regurgitate lessons and information, but it did not lead to the child thinking for himself and learning to come up with ‘something new’. In short, children are being told what they should know, instead of finding things out for themselves. This is, according to Illich, confusing ‘teaching’ with ‘learning’ or ‘grade advancement’ with ‘education’.
Illich believed that we should focus on ‘action’ rather than ‘consumption’ – rather than being spoon-fed information, we should be getting up and discovering it for ourselves. This concept could be applied to the learning environment by way of bringing ideas and possibilities to the table and encouraging the child to make use of them, rather than simply teaching the child the ‘correct’ answer. Furthermore, learning should be fun and interesting, incorporating every aspect of our daily lives and looking for learning opportunities in even the smallest action. Stimulating the child’s thoughts so that they can self-learn is known to be beneficial, and it does seem that across the world, some formal education systems are trying to implement this. Undoubtedly, however, this type of free-range education is far more achievable in a home-schooling environment. It is the home-schooled child who has their parent’s attention for most of the day, and it is the parent of the home-schooled child who has the freedom to create the day’s learning around one particular concept. There are no formal tests – those which measure some aspects of the child’s knowledge, but cannot possibly indicate the overall spectrum of the child’s learning.
Illich spoke at length of his vision of ‘learning webs’ – educational networks which offered peers with whom the student could work with. He particularly specified the use of computers for this purpose, voicing his surprise that this had not yet been done. Indeed, now in 2012, Illich’s idea has come to fruition and not only are we using the internet to find study partners and groups, we are using it to find support and advice, learning materials and information. We are even using the internet to arrange real life meetings with other home-study groups.
Perhaps Illich is still viewed as a radical thinker, but it can’t be denied that we can all learn something from some of his ideas, and although he died in 2002, it can be assumed that he would have fully approved of the use of the internet for such educational networking.
This article has been written by Sarah O’Reilly on behalf of Sopris Learning who develop learning resources for children & schools. They offer many tools & resources including a reading curriculum.