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Photo by Kristin Jillson

Taking Learning Into Their Own Hands: How Schools Can Disable Learners
Schools often make us dependent on schooling by convincing us that it is the best or only place learning can occur.

Schools surely want to empower learners. Their mission statements regularly contain sentences about how the goal is to create “lifelong learners.” It’s a worthy goal that I think most teachers and administrators admirably strive toward. The problem is that I think schools just as often disempower. It’s not the fault of bad teachers or uninspired administrators. It is the fault of a message schools almost have to impart by their very nature: learning is best done here. We are the experts, and we are the ones best equipped to ensure that you learn.

This is what cultural critic Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society, was getting at when he wrote that “the existence of schools produces the demand for schooling.” It’s also what he named teaching as a “disabling profession.” The problem is not that schools and teachers teach kids stuff, but that they can subtly send the message that learners must (at least should) go through them to learn.

It’s a subtle point that I didn’t really appreciate until I had a conversation recently with a colleague, a fellow college professor with a PhD. We happened onto subject of our children’s education when I told her of my family’s plans not to enroll our son in school unless he chooses to go. “A homeschool curriculum?,” she asked. “No,” I said; “I think he can learn what he needs without any formal curriculum, just by learning what he needs when he needs it.”

She had a lot of really interesting questions, but one stood out. “What if,” she pressed,” he gets to the age most of us leave school and finds out that he didn’t learn certain things he should have, that other kids did?” She used history as an example, and talked about how she realizes how little history she retained from school and regrets that gap in her knowledge.

I responded in three ways. First, I speculated (to her confirmation) that she was taught history... in school. As most of us did, she learned it and forgot it. Secondly, I surmised (again, to her confirmation) that the reason she probably forgot that history is because, like most of us, she learned it before she had any real appreciation for, or interest in, it. It was, I said, a shame that she learned it then as an uninterested student, rather than now as an interested adult. (I suppose I also should have pointed out that as an intelligent, PhD’d, professor, her life didn’t seem to suffer for her lack of historical knowledge.)

Finally, I responded by asking her why, if she is interested in history, she doesn’t just go learn it. Her answer is what really got to me: she just hadn’t really thought about it. She knew she had a gap in her knowledge that she wanted to fill, but didn’t really think to start filling it.

Why? Here, I want to stress that this colleague is a very smart and capable person. She has a PhD in a social science field and has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals. I’d go so far as to say that learning not only isn’t a problem for her, but is something she actively enjoys and is good at.

Why, then, would it not occur to her that if she regrets not knowing history, she could learn it? I suspect that the reason is that history is the type of thing one is supposed to learn at school. And when we think of something as a “school subject” that requires a trained teacher and curriculum, we don’t often think of it as the type of thing we are capable of learning without school. (When objecting to Self-Directed Education, no one ever wonders how they will learn musical instruments or how to use computers. They are concerned about how kids will learn what we think of as “school subjects” like math and history.)

I hear this sort of concern about gaps in learners’ knowledge a lot. As chances had it, I was scheduled to attend a panel of adult unschoolers the week after this conversation, so I decided I’d ask unschoolers how they’d answer the question. So I put it to them: have you ever come across gaps in your knowledge and come to regret not learning those things in your earlier years?

I asked five unschoolers (four who were now adults, and one who was still “school age”). To a person, they all had some difficulty making sense of the question. One put their confusion something like this: “Are you asking me whether I’ve come across situations where I didn’t know something that I could have learned at an earlier age?” (I suppose when you put it that way, the question comes off as confusing; I was basically asking whether they’d ever not known something.)

Another quickly answered: “That doesn’t happen to me.” I was confused. “You mean you never come across stuff you don’t know that you regret not learning sooner?” I asked. She clarified that what she meant was that when she does come across such things, it’s no big deal because she usually figures out how to learn it. (I even talked to an unschooler who gave an example. Coincidentally, it was about learning early US history when she got interested in the Broadway musical Hamilton, because she wanted to understand more of the references in the play.)

The fact is that we all experience these sorts of gaps in our knowledge: in this, these unschoolers are not different from my (formally) learned colleague. The question is what we do when we experience those gaps. My colleague’s concern about Self-Directed Education – and that of many others I’ve talked to – is that without school, learners will experience large gaps in their knowledge that they will be (almost?) powerless to remedy. Yet, here were unschoolers telling me that this just wasn’t a problem, not because they didn’t have gaps in their knowledge, but because they are remarkably adept at taking learning into their own hands.

This is what I think Illich meant when he said that schools produce the demand for schooling. When we send kids to school so that they can learn, we often inadvertently teach them that learning is best done in school, that you learn there or you’ll have trouble filling the gaps later. In that way, schooling can increase people’s dependency on schooling.

What will my son do when he comes across gaps in his knowledge that he regrets having (as he inevitably will, schooled or not)? I hope he sees those as opportunities – maybe even exciting ones – to learn. I hope he sees learning as truly a never-ending quest and the world as a set of resources that can help him do it. And I hope he sees conventional schooling as one potential resource, not the only place where learning is supposed to happen.