Can we learn without learning institutions?

Ivan Illich would have shouted out an unequivocal YES to that questions. In his 1970 book, "Deschooling Society" Illich proclaims that educational institutions do little to achieve their intended ends and at an extraordinary cost. He pointed to the barriers erected by systems and bureaucratization thus separating citizens from their needs. The very institution designed to meet the need become incapable of doing so because of the focus on process over people,

Illich goes on to suggest solutions, namely getting rid of the institutional provision of education services in favour of personal learning networks based on interest and need. He seems to have sparked some response as there is much evidence today of Illich's thoughts in action:

  • The USA has some experiments with school voucher systems allowing families to apply principles of the market economy to schooling. They can take their education credit as a voucher and selecting what they deem to be the best school for their child. This breaks the government monopoly on education and encourages competition which may find more efficient ways to produce a better product.
  • Charter schools bring diversity to the education market offering school experiences with different focuses that may better meet the child's interests.
  • MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses bring people together to teach and support each other in a shared learning experience on topics of common interest. The institution, if one is involved, may offer little more than a framework for matching people and content.
  • Affinity Spaces - James Paul Gee in his book, "The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning" describe current practice and potential for online spaces in education. Discussion boards, forums, online chats, blogs, social media pages, each of these can serve as a virtual meeting space and repository for content and discussion. Members come and go and are more or less engaged depending on their needs. Gee calls these "Affinity Spaces". People come together over a topic of interest and teach each other. No institution required.
  • Social Constructivism / Connectivism are two learning theories that see knowledge and community as inextricably intertwined. Social Constructivists asserts that individuals make meaning through reflection on shared experience and through the co-creation of products that embody their new understandings. Connectivists see knowledge as distributed throughout a population; the learner navigates the network as both consumer of information and creator of meaning.

Each of these examples seems to reflect Illiich's exhortation to wrest free the act of learning from the terrible clutches of the bloated bureaucracy. Now, whether they are all good and effective in their own right, or whether they too will be adopted and bureaucratized in time is yet to be seen.

1 Comment

  1. Kristy says:

    When I just read the title of your post, “Can we learn without learning institutions?”, my initial reaction, absolutely! I think there is powerful learning that happens in many different parts of our lives outside of institution learning. During my undergraduate degree, I think I learned more outside of school than inside – life skills like paying bills and cooking. That being said when I read the words “namely getting rid of the institutional provision of education services in favour of personal learning networks based on interest and need”, I felt my heart skip a beat. It scares me to think of that happening. I think there needs to be a base level of education that is provided to all and I think that might be where the role of the institution comes in. If I had been given a choice when I was younger, I never would have learned math. It was boring. Like it or not, I use math everyday – while shopping, while budgeting, etc. I am likely over simplifying Illich’s words, but it is interesting to uncover my deep rooted connection to the institution. I wonder if this type of strong connection is what makes it difficult to innovate within the institutions? Perhaps if we released the fear of change, we would not require a radical shift in the institution because innovation and creativity would be celebrated.

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