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De-schooling (or re-schooling) society

April 30th, 2007 by Graham Attwell

Seems like finally a bit of discussion is opening up around deschooling society.

Wolfgang Greller, commenting on my presentation at the  Salzburg Edumedia conference “where I argued that we had to de-school society to enable real and effective life-long learning, says, “it would be very destructive to society to leave learning entirely to self-arranged activities [because learning] also includes learning about your dislikes and opening new, unexpected doors.”

Stephen Downes has responded “This is a common response, the essence of which is the fear that learners will make the wrong choices, learn the wrong things, or not learn at all. Which leads me to ask: are we doing so well now? Children grow up today illiterate, they grow up with racist or other prejudices, they grow up violent, and millions upon millions grow up without an education at all. I’m not saying we should suddenly shut the door – that would be irresponsible. But I think that , instead of trying more and more management (which, incidentally, makes education more and more expensive), we could try less management. Watching, yes, to be sure no great disaster happens. But letting go.”

The slide which is causing the discussion is only a small part of my presentation. But I will elaborate more on the ideas in a short podcast on this blog tomorrow. Meanwhile here are a few notes I write last December on this subject and which I hope to base a future, more worked out, paper.

The industrial model of education and institutional organisation

Why do I call our present education systems and institutions an industrial model? I would argue the forms of education and learning provision we have developed have arisen in response to the first industrial revolution – of mass industrialisation – and of ways of learning and organising knowledge development inherent in such a social model. In this section I will look at some of the key features of the systems. of course this can only be an ideal type model. I am aware that different cultures have developed different forms of such an industrial system and that there are many, many instances of brave – if isolated – attempts to innovate and go beyond the limitations of the present system. Furthermore within different cultures – and countries – there may coexist different forms of organisation and of schooling. I am also aware that my taxonomy is neither a true one or complete but I did say in the introduction that this was a work in progress!


In most European countries education is compulsory from between the ages of 5 and 7 to between the ages of 14 and 18. There are legal sanctions against parents for their children not attending school. Education for older learners is voluntary, with grants available in some countries. Motivation for post compulsory education is generally seen as the opportunity for better employment and higher pay.


There appears to be an interesting dualism to the ethos for education systems. On the one hand education is posed as an entitlement for integration and participation in society and for providing an understanding of the tenets of arts and sciences; on the other hand more recently the role of education in providing the skills and knowledge required for employability has been increasingly stressed.

Institutional organisation

Institutions organised by age group or sector of education on geographical basis. Sometimes also organised on subject basis.


Institutions usually managed by appointed managers. In some countries under national government direction, in other local government plays a role. some systems provide for representation of parent and or / students and in some countries are elected senior managers.


Most important feature is division of learning into subjects. Usually based on post Renaissance subject taxonomy based on disciplines. In some countries there is a national curriculum, developed by ‘experts’, in other curriculum guidelines. Often curriculum severely restrained by requirements of qualifications. Varying degree of autonomy for institutions in developing own curriculum. Little option for students, at least in compulsory school sector.

Curriculum is organised on basis of graded progression through sequence of learning objectives towards attainment of prescribed body of skills and knowledge.


Various espoused and practices of pedagogy (I am unconvinced they are always the same). however whatever approach to learning and teaching is adopted, pedagogic approaches are heavily influenced by curriculum and forms of school organisation.


Institutions are usually organised around a three term or semester year, with set times for the start and end of learning activities.

Classes / forms / Groups

Most institutions divide students into classes, forms or groups for learning. These may be based on age, on previous attainment or even on the alphabetical order of the students name! Students may remain in the same group for different classes, or may change between different groups.

Buildings and classrooms

Education takes place in buildings built or designed for that purpose. In some countries the buildings are walled or fenced off to keep students in and non-students out. Buildings are typically divided into classrooms for between 10 and 30 learners with the provision of a desk for each learner and a desk at the front for a teacher. May also be specialised laboratories and workshops for teaching particular subjects requiring specialised equipment. Higher education facilities have larger lecture theatres in an amphitheatre design.

Contexts for learning

Apart from apprenticeship schemes and other vocational education and training programmes, most learning is based in the institution. Students may undertake a period of work-practice – but that is predominantly to learn about the world of work – rather than to learn through working.

Learning materials

Largely based on standardised textbooks produced by commercial publishers


Learners are usually enrolled in a single institution on the basis of their age and / or where they live. They will progress to another institution dependent on age or attainment.


Qualifications set by national or regional bodies. Usually based on individual examinations although coursework may be taken into account in some cases.

Role of teachers

Teachers key role is to manage the learning of individual students (within classes and groups) and to enable the attainment of the curricular objectives within the different subject areas. Teachers are ‘experts’ in their subject.


Usually through external inspection, although may be some elements of institutional self evaluation. In some countries tables are published showing attainment rates in qualifications.


Usually form central or local government based on number of full time students. In some cases may be attainment based. Also may be extra funding for innovation and projects.

In summary our education systems have been designed to efficiently and with some degree of equity, instil a basic level of skills and knowledge over a set period of time.

There is limited choice for individual learners, neither indeed do schools have a great deal to freedom in what they teach.

The overwhelming focus of the education system is on institutional learning, with limited provision for learning from work or from the community. The community  of learners – or rather the group of learners is based on geographical proximity, age and or attainment.

It is not only the strictly managed and controlled learning environment that will inhibit the development and implementation of PLEs but the approach and organisation of knowledge within the institutions.

If PLEs are to contribute to what I call the relearning of society, we need to re-examine how we organise education. The next and final section, begins to sketch out a new vision for education or learning provision in the future.

Personal Learning environments and Relearning Society

The de-institutionalisation or at least recasting the role and organisation of institutions is the greatest need in terms of reforming education and introducing Personal Learning Environments. It is not only that the present institutional structures are too inflexible to support PLEs, but that they fail to provide support for the many different contexts in which learning is taking place.

Instead we could envisage the idea of Community Learning Centres. These would be support centres open to all ages of learners – at least form the age of 11 or 12 upwards – although there is a case for  maintaining separate primary learning provision. Critically such centres would be networked allowing access support for learning presently only available in specialist schools or in Higher Education Institutions, within the community.

Learners would work on projects combining elements form different subjects. Individual learning plans would be developed through the PLE with the support of what is now called teachers. Such projects would be undertaken in teams with ‘teachers’ facilitating learning. Teams could be geographically based but might well include participants form other Community Learning Centres and from other countries participating through networked communication. Although this might seem far fetched, many young people participate in on-line communities involving participants form different countries in their leisure time.

Projects would include the wider community including community based organisations and enterprises.

Learners would be able to access federated (or central) repositories of Open Educational Resources. New resources, created by ‘teachers’ to meet the particular need of a learning task would be added to such a repository.

Progress and attainment would be recorded in the group and individual Personal Learning Environment. Learners a-would be encouraged to produce regular presentations of their work, which would be shared on line and also provide a resource both for other learners and for the broader community.

Community Learning Centres would support wider community resources including provision for adult learners and support for single parents. Parents and retired people would be encouraged to assist  with the learning provision. Centres would be controlled by the local community, with regular and open meetings to discuss management and future development.

Buildings would be designed to facilitate interaction between small groups of learners, providing privacy and quiet for intense activities but also encouraging transparency and communication. It goes without saying that they would also provide access to bandwidth and to Information and Communication Technologies.

Higher Education providers would be given a new role in supporting networked Community Learning Centres. But with more learning occurring at local level, and learners participating in the network of centres as a whole, not an individual institution, they would also be able to return to their core role as centres of research (with that research shared under Creative Commons and Science Commons licences).

Whilst negotiated learning plans would recognise the need for breadth of learning, they would also take into account the particular interests of individual learners.

Hopefully over a period of time the motivation for learning would cease to be compulsion, but rather the opportunity for participation in learning activities. However, it may be that we have advanced the leaving age for full time education too far young people form say 14 or 15 should be offered the opportunity to undertake paid work whilst learning.

Is this utopian? I do not think so. the development of PLEs is not a major impossibility – indeed we already have prototype applications – although more work needs to be done in the area of provision of services. There are many examples of innovative projects operating in similar ways to what I have described (including projects working with socially disadvantaged learners). The problem is that such projects operate where they can find space in the curriculum and  institutional organisation, often with  external project funding, and where their  are enthusiastic and skilled teachers. Of course generalising such an approach will require Professional Development to enable teachers to play a very new role. It will require reducing the control of institutions and the reshaping of learning provision. However, the kind of scenarios I have described above can be found every day in kindergartens. If we can do it for 3 and 4 year olds why not for older learners?

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