Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Schools

Reflections on Illich 10: The characteristics of schools

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from: http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Deschooling/intro.html

pp. 26-27  “… I shall define ‘school’ as the age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum.”

The characteristics that Illich refers to as being defining characteristics of schools are:

1.   age-specific (and age-segregated) learning contexts;

2.   teacher-related (teacher-centred) processes;

3.   full-time attendance (compulsory attendance); and

4.   obligatory curriculum (centrally determined, and obligatory for all to complete).

Each of these characteristics militates against efficient and effective learning on the part of the students. 

Firstly, age-specific and age-segregated learning ensures that learning will be pitched at the mediocre, with very little attention to the needs of those students at either extreme of learning capacity.  Age-specific and age-segregated cohorts are created on the assumption that all children pass through the same stages of development at the same times, which is not true in all areas for all children.  There are developmental differences that enable many children to be at different stages at different times in different areas of their lives.  This assumption of equal development suppresses individuality, and creativity, and ultimately prevents most children from becoming excellent at anything.

Secondly, teacher-related/teacher-centred processes focus on the interests, strengths and abilities of the teacher.  Effective learning takes place when the student has a particular interest or passion that is being catered for.  Learning should not be totally child-centred and child-focused, however, the individuality of the student needs to be taken into consideration, including favoured learning styles, previous learning, orientation, interests and passion of the child.  All these need to be taken into consideration when facilitating learning opportunities.

Thirdly, full-time, compulsory attendance does not take into consideration the powerful learning that takes place when spontaneous opportunities in the context of living life present themselves.  It is important to have the time and the flexibility to respond to these learning opportunities.

Finally, a centrally determined, obligatory curriculum does not take into consideration the myriad of variations of learning needs that are spread across families, communities, regions and so forth.  No one person can learn everything there is to learn.  And no one person or group of people can choose from the full range of possible things that can be learned, which are to be the universally required core learnings.  These are local decisions.


One thought on “Reflections on Illich 10: The characteristics of schools

  1. ronald slyderink says:

    This is a pretty good description of what a school is and I would say each of these characteristics may indeed mitigate against the well being of students in their éducation’. However there are factors which if present would change the notion that all schools are bad. Any system, any organised entity set up to achieve something including home based education is in a similar position. There is only one major criteria that needs to be met to ensure ‘success’, and most schools do not meet it and this ensures their failure. It is honouring and serving God in thought, word and practice as a priority and leading strategy or methodology. If this is missing, what is vital and determinative to true education is missing. Wisdom will be missing. This is where going in all directions or no direction is demonstrated. This is man’s way, the way of leaving God out and substituting idols for him. It is doomed to fail, both in the consequential sins it creates and the wrath of God in judging it for what it is.

    If leaders, teachers were led by God and his word, then we would view life, education, children, work, the çurriculum’, accordingly, God would direct us taking into consideration the needs of the individual and the community, local and global, in light of the Kingdom of God. Its programs, lessons, learning experiences (and teaching) would focus on building character and a vital relationship with God, including knowledge, skills and values relevant to serving and loving God and people, doing good, praising God for his goodness and gifts. If schools or homes do not do this then true education and discipling (they are interdependent) will not happen or be impoverished. How many schools operate like this? Few if any among thousands, My experience is that even Christian schools follow the ‘world’ and spend the majority of their time fitting into secular curriculum with humanistic values and reasoning.

    Any curriculum or subject or learning program that starts by ignoring in principle and practice not seeking to use the knowledge and skills in serving and loving God and our neighbour is idolatrous. No good will come of it. We need to listen to and turn to God for wisdom and power to do what is right and good. We need Godly leaders, teachers and parents who will develop Godly curriculum where God rules and the young are given opportunities to grow in Christ doing his works praising God.


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