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Reimagining Learning and Education: Thought Provoking Short Reads Exploring Issues in Education and Schooling.  

Popular perception holds that the institution of schooling is the panacea that will eliminate poverty and inequality and bring prosperity to all who have access to it.  It doesn’t matter where people fall on the political spectrum, left, right in between or not on it at all, they all have a shared understanding of the necessity for compulsory schooling for all children.  Add to that the myth that we need schooling to enable learning or that learning only happens in schools under a system of rewards and punishments.  To further complicate matters, the words ‘schooling’, ‘learning’ and ‘education’ are used interchangeably as if they all mean the same thing They aren’t.  

Reality and popular perception aren’t always in sync.  In the case of compulsory schooling, the reality is completely out of sync with popular perception.  An honest look at the reality of the impacts of schooling shows that this single institution has been especially detrimental to self sufficient, intact, egalitarian communities: to their ways of living, knowing and being;  it’s especially cruel to the mental health of children and it is extremely damaging to the environment.  Let’s also not forget about the colonising effects and cultural erasure resulting from McEducation that is delivered globally to children all over the world with no regard to the cultures and landscape of the communities the children come from. This love affair we have with compulsory schooling brings in a lot of money for well meaning nonprofits and individuals out to ‘save’ the world.  Greg Mortensen (Three Cups of Tea)  was one of those darlings of society until it turned out out that his work of building schools in Pakistan was just a fairy tale. While most people were predictably outraged at the lies and misappropriation of funds destined for children now denied ‘an opportunity to a better life’,  Carol Black, writer and filmmaker, expressed a different kind of outrage.  She asks and answers some important questions about our obsession with schooling the world in Three Cups of Fiction.  On “Whites in Shining Armor” & the Toxic Fantasy of Saving the World with Schools.  Carol jumps right into the issue of some of the consequences of introducing western style, compulsory, industrial schooling on egalitarian, cooperative communities. Carol also talks about the increasingly high levels of suicide amongst teens in countries like South Korea and India as a result of the pressures of schooling and what school achievement has come to mean for people.  The toxic effect on mental health is not exclusive to children in the majority world.  Children in the western world in  W.E.I.R.D. (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic) societies also struggle with school induced stress. Peter Gray, author and Evolutionary Psychologist, shares some disturbing information on this in The Dangers of Back To School.

The dirty underside of our system is that schools as we know them today are structurally designed to fail a reliable percentage of kids.  Interestingly, they reliably fail a much higher percentage of kids in low-income areas than they do in affluent areas, and this is true from Detroit to Gilgit-Baltistan. ~ Carol Black

In  Occupy Your Brain: On Power, Knowledge, and the Re-Occupation of Common Sense, Carol further expands on the effects of compulsory schooling on cultures. She goes on to build on the disempowerment and disconnect between what children learn in schools and how little they learn about the actual power structures that govern their lives.

But one of the most profound changes that schooling brings is the radical shift in the locus of power and control over learning from children, families, and communities to ever more centralized systems of authority. ~ Carol Black

Then Munir Fasheh, Harvard Phd Educator, raises the little talked about issue of the relationship between selective knowledge and power in this brilliant essay The Trouble with Knowledge.

Labeling a child as a “failure” is a criminal act against that child.  For a child, who has learned so much from life before entering school, to be labeled a failure, just because s/he doesn’t see any sense in the mostly senseless knowledge we offer in most schools, is unfair – to say the least; it is really outrageous.  But few of us around the world seem to be outraged, simply because we usually lose our senses in the process of getting educated. ~ Munir Fasheh

While numeracy and literacy are necessary tools for effective functioning in the modern world,  how do we ensure that we don’t unnecessarily sacrifice childhoods, cultures and entire knowledge systems in order to ensure that everybody is literate? Turns out we don’t need to.  In A Thousand Rivers: What the Modern World has forgotten about children and learning, Carol explains how reading ability was acquired in previous generations — without our obsession with phonics (it hadn’t been ‘invented’ yet)  or preoccupations with making it a ‘thing’. Peter Gray’s piece on children teaching themselves to read in the modern world is an excellent supplement to A Thousand Rivers.   Literacy is an essential tool in the modern world,  yes.  But as Munir says  “I have a big problem with celebrating a tool, especially in a world where tools (such as language) are used to control, suppress, and distort.  Celebrating literacy is like celebrating cars.  When we look at what cars have done to ancient and great cities like Cairo and Athens, we realize that we need to be more careful.  In other words, we need to look not only at what literacy adds (in the way it is conceived and implemented) but also at what it subtracts or makes invisible.”.  Our challenge is to figure out How To Eradicate Illiteracy Without Eradicating Illiterates?.

Let’s not forget, when we are talking about schooling, we’re talking about a very specific McDonalds like kind of compulsory schooling: bums on seats; seated in straight rows; teachers as the custodians of knowledge; children as empty vessels; assessments; grades and rewards and punishments for (non)conformity and (non)compliance. That children’s consent isn’t required is implied in the compulsory part of schooling.  But it doesn’t end there, what gets delivered in schools globally, regardless of the culture and history of the people, is a subset of predefined knowledge with slight variations here and there — a tiny subset of information that excludes whole worlds of other knowledge and other ways of knowing!  Manish Jain presents a thought provoking essay in McEducation for All: Whose Agenda Does Global Education Really Serve?

Under McEducation for All, learning and knowledge, along with everything else in life, is to be extracted from an abundant gift of the commons and converted into a scarce good that can be processed, packaged and cleverly sold to us. McEducation for All tells us that we must all walk on a single universal, linear, standardized path of education and development, which is dictated by the logic of the industrial-military system. ~ Manish Jain

Talking about McEducation, here are some brilliant responses from leaders around the world on the UNESCO’s proposal for McEducation for all.

The environment is another casualty of our schooling system.  David H Orr, author of Earth in Mind, suggests, quite convincingly, that our environmental problems are a direct result of the kind of schooling system we have forced on people, in terms of knowledge and mindset.  What is Education for: Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them.

My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival – the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind. ~ David Orr

On Terminology
The terminology: Schooling, Learning and Education all have different and specific meanings but are often used interchangeably as if they mean the same thing.  John Taylor Gatto’s quote “When you take the free will out of education, you get schooling” comes to mind hereLearning of course, happens all the time, everywhere!  While Aaron Falbel doesn’t quite agree that schooling and education are different, he does a great job separating the idea of learning from schooling (which he calls education) in  Learning? Yes, of course. Education? No, thanks.

It is ironic that education, carried out by well-meaning people hoping to produce or enhance learning, ends up attacking learning. But this is precisely what happens, despite all the good intentions. In the climate of education, learning is cut off and disembedded from active life. It is divorced from personal curiosity and is thus profoundly denatured. Learning shrivels as it becomes the result of a process controlled, manipulated and governed by others. It deteriorates into empty actions done under the pressure of bribe and threat, greed and fear. We all know this to be true from our own “educational” experiences. ~ Aaron Falbel

In my TEdx Talk: Education is a Practice of Freedom, I elaborate on those words, exploring the intersections between learning, education and schooling and how they connect with society.

That schooling is antithetical to learning is not lost on school students either, as evidenced by the reflections of Erica Goldson on her school journey in her valedictory speech delivered on graduation day.  While Erica Goldson was fully schooled, Astra Taylor was completely unschooled.  Astra has quite a different reflection on her journey in the Democratic Education of an Unshcooler.  Different worlds, different experiences and different reflections. 

If you are thinking that perhaps schools as we know them are now different from in the past and there is significant school reform on the horizon and therefore an institution worth protecting, there’s still the fundamental problem of school attendance being compulsory and the severe restriction on children’s freedom to actively participate in designing their education journeys that needs to be done away with.  Peter Gray builds a case for why we need to first start with taking the compulsory out of schooling and bring in freedom in Is Real Educational Reform Possible? If So, How? and in The Most Basic Freedom Is The Freedom to Quit in which he insists that schools will only become moral institutions when children are free to quit.

There are many amazing alternatives that are already in practice.  Some are well supported, others are a constant struggle for the creators, but they all give us hope for a deschooled reimagined learning society, and I’d like to end with Akilah Richards’ thoughts on why we need to Break Up With Schools as we know them in which she presents some of the alternatives and experiments in education that are already underway.

Happy Reading


  1. Three Cups of Fiction.  On “Whites in Shining Armor” & the Toxic Fantasy of Saving the World with Schools ~ Carol Black
  2. The Dangers of Back To School ~ Peter Gray
  3. Occupy Your Brain: On Power, Knowledge, and the Re-Occupation of Common Sense ~ Carol Black
  4. The Trouble with Knowledge ~ Munir Fasheh
  5. A Thousand Rivers: What the Modern World has forgotten about children and learning ~ Carol Black
  6. Children teach themselves to read ~ Peter Gray
  7. How To Eradicate Illiteracy Without Eradicating Illiterates ~ Munir Fasheh
  8. McEducation for All: Whose Agenda Does Global Education Really Serve ~ Manish Jain
  9. Responses to UNESCO’s McEducation Proposal
  10. What is Education for: Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them ~ David H Orr
  11. Learning? Yes, of course. Education? No, thanks ~ Aaron Falbel
  12. Tedx Talk: Education is a Practice of Freedom – Zakiyya Ismail
  13. Erica Goldson’s Valedictory speech
  14. Democratic Education of an Unshcooler ~ Astra Taylor
  15. Is Real Educational Reform Possible? If So, How? Peter Gray
  16. The Most Basic Freedom Is The Freedom to Quit Peter Gray
  17. Why We Need to break Up With Schools ~ Akilah Richards 
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