8 minute read

In this TedxLyttletonWomen talk, titled Education is a Practice of Freedom, I take us on my journey as I explored the intersections between learning, education and schooling and their relationship to the society we end up with. I propose that schooling in its current form is a tool of oppression and a violation of our right to education and that how we live with and educate young people are social justice concerns. Finally, I invite us to consider an Ubuntu Pedagogy as a way to reimagine learning, education and community.

The talk raises many issues that invite further exploration for folk seeking to reimagine education. Below I share some of the resources that inspired my talk and resources for further exploration.

The Talk

Unschooling Distilled

I briefly mention our education practice of unschooling but don’t really talk much about it, so here are a few links to learn more about the philosophy, the socio-political potential and some of the tensions around the terminology of unschooling.

The Unschooling in South Africa FAQ provides a basic understanding of unschooling that we live and that I talk about. It is useful to hold this understanding when exploring the resources I link to.

I mention in my talk that the philosophy of education that I was searching for was one geared towards social transformation and decolonisation. Unschooling as Social Change is the first piece I wrote that tries to make sense of how I make this connection between unschooling and social transformation.

I firmly believe in the potential of unschooling as tool towards decolonisation. So much so that I convened a whole conference dedicated to this idea. The theme for the Learning Reimagined Conference 2018 was Unschooling as Decolonisation, making this the first conference globally to focus on the socio-political dimensions of unschooling, decolonisation and social change. I try to build a case for the theme of the conference in this piece and later share further reflections on this theme.

There is rarely a discussion about unschooling that doesn’t divert to the actual use of the word, what it really means and whether we should ditch it in favour of another word. I provide some background to the word unschooling and what it represents for me, but I also later suggest that maybe there’s a case for using the term intersectional unschooling.

Children Are People

In the talk I mention using the word child/childish as an insult. I got a lot of feedback on that one particular line at the rehearsal and the live event. Toby Rollo wrote a really good piece on this and I really encourage you to check out his words.

I also want to elaborate a little on why I believe children are a marginalised community. If we understand marginalisation​ as the process of pushing and keeping a particular ​group​ or ​groups​ of people to/at the edge of ​society​ by not allowing them an active voice, identity, or place in it then there is little doubt that children are a marginalised group.

Until we start seeing children as people and until they too can enjoy being liberated and free, only then will liberation and freedom be a reality for all of us. There’s some excellent literature on the need for recognising and then resisting adultism as an essential component in our work towards a socially just world. Dr Stacey Patton’s work is part of that body of literature and activism. In my talk I only quoted the second part of Dr Stacey Patton’s quote. The complete quote reads:

Generations of scholars and activists have examined race, gender, class and sexuality as categories of oppression. They have not extended the same courtesy to the category of childhood, to the oppression and sufferings of children. But the fact is, you can’t reproduce any order of societal oppression based on race, gender, class or sexuality without first destroying each generation of young people as soon as they enter the world.

Parallel Education Movement

The conclusion of my talk suggests what a reimagined education could look like. But we don’t need to only imagine it, because there are a number of folk globally and in South Africa that have moved beyond reimagining into recreating. The links below are a tiny sample of these reimaginations and recreations that hopefully provide a sense of the momentum in reimagining education and community.

Shikshantar The Peoples’ Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

Ecoversities Alliance
ecoversities: learners and communities reclaiming diverse knowledges, relationships and imaginations to design new approaches to higher education.

Democratic Education Centres

Liberated Learners

Agile Learning Centres

Community Learning Spaces: Project Defy Nooks

Reimagined Learning Spaces in South Africa


I’m a school survivor. I did well and made my parents proud.  But it came at a cost!

In a system built on compulsion, compliance and competition doing well required me to betray my inner child, my curiosities and my need for connection.

But, I survived, mostly.
Most of us do don’t we? 

Why?  Why did I have to survive this 12 year experience 

When education should be about thriving and freedom. What happens to those who don’t survive it? 

These are the questions I held when I set off to study education. I didn’t learn much but I bumped into one unforgettable line… 

Learning is the relatively permanent change in knowledge, ability or skill through experience
Relatively permanent change. 

Now, If learning is relatively permanent change – then what did I just spend 12 years at school doing?

Because I didn’t do any relatively permanent change 

My process was to learn for the test, write the test, forget about it. 

Sounds familiar? 

Learn, test, forget  was the default process of schools thirty years ago when I was there, 

Not much has changed

That’s not learning.  It’s short term memorising. 

It disturbed me that there’s no escaping this institution

This place of learning 

that millions of children are forced into,  

but where very little learning happens?

And that it consumes so much of our lives 
for 12-15 years!

I had to survive this experience and my learning was minimal? How does this institution have such a strong hold. What is its relationship with learning and education and society? 

The answers to these questions could not be found inside the institutional box.  I had to step out and create my own learning journey. I used books, blogs, and videos and I found multiple learning communities to connect with. . Families that had stepped out of the schooling system, people who were involved with self directed learning centres, community learning spaces and ecoverstiies. 

Incidentally, this learning journey of mine is pretty much what learning generally looks like when we own our learning. 

Intrinsic motivation

Access to resources 


Freedom to be curious and ask questions, 

Freedom to take detours, to go slow, to go fast…

And FREEDOM to choose our teachers or learning community 

This is what freedom in learning looks like.

I found some answers too. The education I was envisioning was one rooted in children’s rights, freedom and geared towards social transformation.

For us, that looked like unschooling as 

a practice of  living and learning in freedom through partnership and community.

This process of reflecting on my learning that  landed us at unschooling, 

 extracting values and principles from my learning, and the conscious action I took as a result… 

That is education

This reflection towards conscious action, this is what transforms learning into education. 

Education is a wholly internal process.  

Nobody can give us an education, 

Nobody can define what values or principles we extract from our learning. 

An education is something we uniquely create for ourselves shaped by our environment and our access to learning resources.

We have a right to education. It is a right that 

has been recognised as a human right by a number of international conventions. 

But it’s different from other rights.  

It is the only right that is compulsory to exercise! 

Yip – you had that right – It’s a compulsory right. 

Consent not required. 

It is also a restricted right. 

So our right to education has come to be compulsory to exercise and only through compulsory schooling. 

Where’s the freedom in that? 

That;s not a right – that’s education conscription! 

12 years of compulsory service where our minds are conditioned towards a particular outcome
Or what Sir Ken Robison refers to as mining our minds

But Compulsory schooling in its current form is restricted and narrow in practice.  

Compulsory schooling says 

NO to all the rich ways in which learning happens. 

NO to exploring our curiosities and thoughts. 

Instead, it confines us to classrooms and limits the range of knowledge we can access. 

In this form, 

Compulsory schooling is a violation of our right to education.

With this one compulsion begins a whole slippery slope of a slew of other violations 

Do you remember your own schooling experience?

The horrid school uniform –  always wrong for the weather – too hot, too cold, 

reinforcing the gender binary,

And the dreaded inspection?  Hair, nails, jewellery,

Not being free to pee when we needed to?  What was with that?

Wasn’t it dehumanising?

As soon as there’s coercion there’s oppression

And In this form, 

Compulsory schooling is a tool of oppression.  

What we’ve inadvertently created in our dehumanisation of young people is a yet another marginalized community.  

How many of us are willing to go back to the child status.   

To experience such dehumanisation again? 

How many of us practice that dehumanisation on the young people in our lives? 

(Even though I try not to)

Have you ever uttered those words 

“Don’t treat me like a child” or “I’m not a child” 

What are we really saying?

Don’t’ disrespect me like that.  

Don’t tell me how I should be feeling

Or how I should be responding to how I am feeling

Don’t dehumanise me!

So why is it okay for children to be treated this way? 

It gets worse.

Not only are children treated like a marginalised group, they come to learn that they are also a despised group.  

That word child / or toddler  is used as an insult.  

That word Childish is generally a negative descriptor!

And children hear and read this about their identities. 

Dr Stacey Patton, a Child Rights Advocate  is one of a number of scholars that points to a disturbing link between child oppression and the kind of society we end up with.

which is why for me how we live with children and the education options available to them is a social justice concern.  

She says, 

You can’t reproduce any order of societal oppression based on race, gender, class or sexuality without first destroying each generation of young people as soon as they enter the world. 

Sadly all of us experience oppression for the first 18 years of our lives. 

This oppression has a name:  Two in fact. Adultism or Childism

Adultism is the automatic presumption of adult superiority over young people causing adults to in ways that are oppressive to young people.  This happens at a structural level – compulsory schooling for example, and at an personal level – dominator parenting. 

And then, from a place of deep deep love and with the best of intentions

We put the next generation through this very experience. We force them into schools that 

disrupts their learning, 

violates their right to education and join schools in 

dehumanising them. 

Is this really the experience we want for every generation of young people? 

Are we liking the society we end up with as a result?

I don’t.  

To me it’s broken, violent and destructive and crying out for us to break the cycle?

We can break the cycle! 

We can break the cycle

By replacing schooling as a tool of oppression with education as a practice of freedom?

We can break the cycle by 

refraining from powering over young people and partnering with them instead

We can break the cycle by 

minimising individual competition in favour of community collaboration

What could emerge as a result?

Multistreams instead of mainstream, 

Wholeness instead of trauma,

Learning communities instead of learning hierarchies, 

If I am whole and unbroken

and each of us are whole and unbroken

Then the community we make up is whole and unbroken.

And if the community is whole and unbroken then each of us can thrive. .  

I am because we are!
In South Africa we call that Ubuntu.

Education as a practice of freedom underpinned by the philosophy of Ubuntu. 

An Ubuntu Pedagogy!  

I’m here to invite you to 

reimagine learning, 

To reimagine education and 

To reimagine community

On the other side of this imagining, lies an amazing child honouring world.

Let’s meet there.

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