Schools as Learning Webs

Once I had made up my mind that some sort of school system is necessary, I found Ivan Illich’s book called Deschooling Society which he wrote in 1971. This was a radical critical discourse on education as practised in "modern" economies. Giving examples of what he regards as the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education, Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements. He says:

“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries”.

Illich argues that the institutionalization of education tends towards the institutionalization of society and that ideas for de-institutionalizing education may be a starting point for a de-institutionalized society. The book contains suggestions for a reinvention of learning throughout society and lifetime. Particularly striking is his call (in 1971) for the use of advanced technology to support "learning webs":

“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”.

I really agree with Illich’s broad ideas as expressed in Deschooling Society. However, I realise that what Illich was criticising was the institutional nature of modern schooling rather than school per se. I love his description of educational webs – I believe the Internet and social media is now creating these webs, just as he described them in the 1970s, but far more seamlessly than he could have imagined then.

Illich was explaining his view that education should unfold organically (be self-directed) with the child at the centre of a learning web with access to the information, skills and experience that he requires in order to flourish (supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements). I do not believe that ‘school’ is incompatible with this vision of education. I love to think of humanity as an interconnected web of organisms which work together to advance their collective wisdom. I believe that rather than saying that schools should cease to exist, we need to design schools that function like learning webs (or ecosystems) and not learning authorities.

Future Schools

For all of the reasons I describe in “Do children need schools at all?” I do not believe that isolating children from their peers or the rest of their society, will help to transform our society (the human ecosystem) as a whole for the better. Somehow we have to learn how to get on with others, to see and value other perspectives, to learn from others’ experiences and wisdom, and to collaborate with others in finding solutions to our global challenges. Whilst schools as they currently exist do not do this at all effectively, I believe the (un)institution of ‘school’ has the potential to be a place where children can come together to grow, learn and innovate together as long as it functions like a learning ecosystem and not a learning authority.

Most importantly, not all schools need to look and feel the same – just as there are millions of different ecosystems on our planet, so should there be millions of different school ecosystems for all the different organisms (children) to be enabled to reach their full potential.

I would argue that a lot of what unschooling and deschooling proposes in terms of self-directed life learning in a connected learning web is how an organic education system needs to function. Children need the freedom of self-organised and relevant learning in fluid webs of people, environments, information and processes. I would love to see a planet full of “unschools” or a system of “deschools” that function in this way. I call these Future Schools.

I would define a Future School as an enabling learning environment for child-centred, self-organised learning to emerge. It would operate like a learning web composed of such things as people, environment, information and processes rather than a hierarchical institution.

I think that our future education system will be an interconnected web of such Future Schools. In the next blog I will explain how this Future School system will emerge based on how all natural systems function.

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