What are the characteristics of schooling that make schools schools?

In my research, one of my respondents made the comment:

“On the other hand [in contrast to good education], schooling means: classrooms, no learning and knowledge; when things are learned it has nothing to do with information, it is not interesting and not cool.”

From her perspective there were certain characteristics of schooling that make schools schools.  She held those characteristics up as being anti-educational.

The first of the characteristics is that schooling is done in a classroom.  The great Athenian educator, Socrates, avoided classrooms.  He chose to conduct his lessons in the midst of life being lived.  Cole, in her book, A History of Education: Socrates to Montessori, wrote that:

“… Socrates taught, but not in a school. It was in the marketplace, in the gymnasiums, and in the streets that Socrates carried on his life work of teaching young and old Athenians to know themselves, to know what was good, and to know what conditions influenced the development of virtue. He did not withdraw from life in order to study it under carefully controlled laboratory conditions but rather went joyfully out to meet it where it was whirling along at its busiest” (Cole, 1966, p. 10).

This is of course where Jesus did most of his teaching as well.

When my respondent said that in schools there was no knowledge and that when things were learned they had nothing to do with information, I interpreted that to mean that there was a disconnect between the information being communicated through the classroom lessons, and her everyday experience of life.  How much of school work is relevant to how many of the students?  Sure, a very small minority of the students will go on to higher education, and will spend the rest of their lives contemplating the esoteric and the ethereal, disconnected from the challenges and frustrations of living in a fallen world that requires practical wisdom to survive.  And much of school and schooling prepares those few for such a life.  But what about the rest?  Are they being equipped with entrepreneurial skills so that they are not dependent upon finding a job? Don’t have to depend upon government support?  Can they be productive and get paid for their initiative and industry?  Are they being taught how to be useful through mastery of practical, hands-on skills?  Are they interacting with a range of people, outside their peer group, and being challenged to develop communication skills in a range of circumstances, through a range of registers?

During the beginnings of the Global Financial Crisis nearly 53% of new university graduates in the United States of America were either unemployed or underemployed, and they had upayable study debts of between US$30,000 and US$300,000 at the end of their schooling experience; no employable skills, and no entrepreneurial skills (Weissmann, 2012).  At the very same time, young unschooled teenagers were earning between US$200,00 and US$1.5M annually from internet-based businesses [completely without schooling, but because of relevent unschooling, very entrepreneurial and productive – during a world-wide depression] (Investopedia, 2012).

I would suggest that in the majority of schools, the answer to all the questions above is, “No!”  Children are corralled into age-segregated classrooms, they are given mountains of busy work, required to memorize information for tests, but not shown how the information applies to developing healthy relationships, how to solve complex ethical challenges, or how to be productive and useful in life.

When my respondent said that school and school work was “not interesting and not cool”, she was indicating that the information being communicated is standardized.  Each of the attendees in a school classroom is uniquely created by God.  Their learning styles, passions, interests, and call of God upon their lives are unique.  But how can one teacher cater to the uniqueness of all the students in the classroom.  It is not possible.  I tried for 26 years, and was a complete and utter failure.  And it was not because I am a poor teacher.  I am a good teacher, and I have many one-on-one successes to demonstrate that I am a good teacher.  However, the classroom with one teacher taking care of nearly 30 children (and many more in non-western classrooms) is not an environment that can facilitate individuality.  Montesorri classrooms come close, but not as close as the unschooling environment.

Of course, there are many more characteristics of schooling that can be discussed.  However, these were the characteristics that came to mind from the response of one of my respondents.

Cole, L. (1966). A History of Education: Socrates to Montessori. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Investopedia. (2012). 10 Successful Young Entrepreneurs.   Retrieved 31/05/2014 12:30 AM, 2014, from

Weissmann, J. (2012). 53% of Recent College Grads are Jobless or Underemployed — How?   , from

deschooling, Ivan Illich, Unschooling

Some thought provoking quotes from Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich published Deschooling Society in 1970.  The concept of deschooling has moved on from Illich’s definition.  However, many of the ideas in his book are worth revisiting.

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. xix  “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.”

p. 4  “Everywhere not only education but society as a whole needs ‘deschooling’.”

p. 13  “A … major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching.  Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of leaning under certain circumstances.  But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, … has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.”

pp. 13-14  “There are very few skills that cannot be mastered by intensive drill over a relatively short time at a cost far less than the cost of 12 years of schooling.”

p. 16  “Skill teachers are made scarce by the belief in the value of licenses.  Certification constitutes a form of market manipulation and is plausible only to a schooled mind.”

p. 17  “… discrimination in favour of schools which dominates … discussion on refinancing education could discredit one of the most critically needed principles for educational reform: the return of initiative and accountability for learning to the learner or his most immediate tutor.”

pp. 17-18  “… (the) two-faced nature of learning: drill and an education.  School does both tasks badly, partly because it does not distinguish between them.”

p. 20  “The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.”

p. 23  “A deschooled society implies a new approach to incidental or informal education.”

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

p. 28  “The school system is a modern phenomenon, as is the childhood it produces.”

p. 29  “If there were no age-specific and obligatory learning institutions, ‘childhood’ would go out of production.”

p. 31  ” The most important role of schools is to create jobs for accredited teachers, no matter what their pupils learn from them.”

p. 32  “The school teacher is a ‘secular priest’.”

p 39  “We cannot begin a reform of education unless we first understand that neither individual learning nor social equality can be enhanced by the ritual of schooling.”

p. 40  “Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions.  Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all nonprofessional activity is rendered suspect.  In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and, finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates.”

p. 40  “Most learning is not the result of instruction.  It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.”

p. 48  “School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.  Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition.”

p. 48  “School either keeps people for life or makes sure that they will fit into some institution.”

p. 75  “Everywhere the hidden curriculum of schooling initiates the citizen to the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent.”

p. 76  “A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.  Such a system would require the application of constitutional guarantees to education.  Learners should not be forced to submit to an obligatory curriculum, or to discrimination based on whether they possess a certificate or a diploma.  Nor should the public be forced to support, through a regressive taxation, a huge professional apparatus of educators and buildings which in fact restricts the public’s chances for learning to the services the profession is willing to put on the market.  It should use modern technology to make free speech, free assembly, and a free press truly universal and, therefore, fully educational.”

p. 91  “To guarantee access to effective exchange of skills, we need legislation which generalizes academic freedom.  The right to teach any skill should come under the protection of freedom of speech.  Once restrictions on teaching are removed, they will quickly be removed from learning as well.”

p. 92  “At their worst, schools gather classmates into the same room and subject them to the same sequence of treatment in math, citizenship and spelling.  At their best, they permit each student to choose one of a limited number of courses.  In any case, groups of peers form around the goals of teachers.  A desirable educational system would let each person specify the activity for which they sought a peer.”

p. 93  “The inverse of school would be an institution which increased the chances that persons who at a given moment shared the same specific interest could meet–no matter what else they had in common.”

Home-Based Education

What is in a name?

Very interestingly, amongst the home educators that I interviewed there was a range of names given to the process of home-based education.  I am in the process of interacting with those names and considering as to whether they are synonymous, or whether they are ways of identifying different aspects of home-based education.

So far the list includes:

  • interest-driven learning/education
  • child-led education
  • natural learning
  • eclectic learning
  • self-directed learning
  • home-based education
  • discipleship
  • learning in life
  • learning for life
  • our walk with the Lord
  • our life
  • God’s people walking in His ways
  • family-friendly education
  • activities-based learning
  • hands-on learning
  • hack schooling
  • democratic schooling
  • anarchistic schooling
  • kitchen table/dining room table education
  • learning from life experiences
  • practical learning

I am very much leaning towards using the term home-based education as the umbrella term, with a range of delivery methods ranging from home schooling (i.e. reconstructing school in the home) to unschooling (i.e. educational delivery in a way that does not resemble schooling, but is guided by the parent and at the same time is also sensitive to the motivation, gifts, interests and calling of the children) to radical unschooling (i.e. totally child-directed, without any hindrance or direction from adults).

The list mentioned above provides the words to describe the elements within home-based educational delivery.

Still wrestling with this, and would very much appreciate what others may have to say about the matter.