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The Practice of Freedom

March 24th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

What is the purpose of education? To express and exchange ideas about matters which concern us all. To exchange those ideas freely and openly without fear of ridicule, in spaces where we are respected equally. To be privileged to listen to the ideas of significantly knowledgeable others. To share and grow in our ideas. To participate in collective experiences, to grow in understanding and to make meanings. To learn about and respect other cultures. The purpose of education is to open the box and draw on the imagination of individuals and collectives in the passion for learning and to influence and shape our societies.

Sadly the reality of education is different. All too often education is based on divisions between those that have and those that don’t, differences of class and income, differences of gender and religion. Education is about conforming to the norm, heterogeneity, of fitting in to prevailing power structures and economic realities – realities dictated by the logic of capitalism. Education is institutionalization, testing and certification. And for those who do not conform, education is about rejection and failure.

Thus we see a very basic contradiction in the debate around the purpose of education. A contradiction between the provision of free or subsidized education to provide the factories and enterprises with sufficient skilled labour to produce profit and between educators and learners who value ideas and knowledge to shape and change society.

And technology is important. Educational technology has achieved little other than facilitating the management of learning. But the internet has allowed knowledge and learning to escape from the walled gardens of the institutions. Some forty years ago, Ivan Illich envisaged how we could use computers to deschool society and open learning to all. Freire developed the idea of a critical pedagogy where education meant the  ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. Friere wanted to overcome the dichotomy between the teacher and the learner, thinking instead of the teacher-student and student-teacher.

The internet provides us with rich and free spaces for expansive learning. The institutions only have left their monopoly on funding and on certification. And so capitalism has begun a new project. The first aim is to strike out at democratization of learning by privatizing education, by deepening barriers to equality and access. And the second more audacious aim is to privatize knowledge itself, to turn knowledge and learning into a commodity to be bought and sold like any other consumer good.

Thus we find ourselves at a turning point for the future of education. The contradictions inherent in the different views of the purpose of education do not allow any simple compromise or reform minded tinkering with the system. For those that believe in education as the practice of freedom there are two challenges: to develop a societal discourse around the purpose of education and secondly to develop transformative practice, as teacher students and student teachers.

11 Responses to “The Practice of Freedom”

  1. Doug Belshaw says:

    You draw out an extremely powerful dichotomy in the opening couple of paragraphs, Graham. I especially like the clarity with which you draw out what could be seen to be the inevitable institutional reaction to democratization of learning (deep barriers).

    Thanks for making me think! :-D

  2. Some very interesting thoughts here, Graham…. I like the emphasis on the social aspects. Some of us take these for granted, but it’s well stating these upfront, as I quite often come across people who feel that technology enables learners to do it all on their own. Learning is a bit like music, I think. You can practise on your own, but it only takes on meaning when you do it socially.

  3. joy thompson says:

    Thank you very much, Graham. You have put into words the thoughts that I have been struggling to clarify in my own mind. I will pass on your entry to colleagues for further discussion.

  4. David Truss says:

    What I think is exciting is that some purpos/ed discourse has started, and students are leading the ‘revolution’… (You didn’t use this term but what’s left if, “The contradictions inherent in the different views of the purpose of education do not allow any simple compromise or reform minded tinkering with the system”?)

    I say students are leading the revolution because they are making it so that those educators who do not work on transformative practice are becoming less likely to engage students in their learning.

    The biggest fear that I have is that corporate privatization/capitalization that you so eloquently describe develops a structure where the have and have-not gap becomes too big, and structurally embedded such that an uprising of any kind is easily crushed.

    You’ve inspired some big thinking, and it seems I’ve got to hammer out these ideas a bit more before saying more. Sorry that I’m not more succinct.

  5. Steve Philp says:

    You’ve written the purposed post I would have written had I the words or the experience. Recently I’ve been trying to put both the teacher student and the student teacher thing into practice.

    Always having considered myself a life-long learner, I came across the phrase “lead-learner” last year. There’s something in that that describes a humility that enables the other learners under your leadership to have more learning room.

    My students have also been experimenting as teachers this year: visiting other schools to show them how to do film-making; skyping other schools to share their learning on using Google Docs; and acting as peer mentors within my own school.

    When Vygostky described how learning exists within a socio-cultural context, it had powerful implications for how teachers should act in the now – effective teaching has to be connected to this current socio-cultural context. But in addition to that, it’s interesting to consider how the system is dynamic – by increasing the ‘practice of freedom’ it will change the socio-cultural context of the future, meaning that teachers will have to act differently in future ‘now’s. I guess that demonstrates that Einstein really was right – space-time is curved.

  6. Graham, as always, a cracking and thought provoking read. I kept going back to “express and exchange ideas about matters which concern us all. To exchange those ideas freely and openly without fear of ridicule, in spaces where we are respected equally. To be privileged to listen to the ideas of significantly knowledgeable others.”

    I kept stopping at the “to listen” bit. I wanted to insert something about ‘and equip learners with the confidence and skills that will enable them to engage in a dialogue with’ the significantly knowledgeable others that you mention. But you had covered that. So the emphasis on ‘listen’ was deliberate and important; listening/watching/eLurking an important stage in any learning. Quite a difficult ‘skill’ for learners to develop/value.

    I have listened and learnt something – Thank You (significant, knowledgable other) – John

  7. Michelle Howell-Martin says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. It really hit home for me, especially as it applies to my position teaching in the school which has the lowest socioeconomic profile of any in my district. There is a great divide between the haves and have-nots, particularly when it comes to access to technology and with teacher attitudes towards technology and its place in education. What I teach my students at 3rd grade they probably won’t see/use again unless they continue it on their own. It’s great when they choose to demonstrate their learning through technology tools, I just hope that one day more of my colleagues will see the value in it.


  1. “The Pratice of Freedom” by Graham Attwell 500 words contribution for the @purposeducation debate on: very worth reading

  2. Graham Attwell: “The Practice of Freedom”
    thought provoking read

  3. Current state of education? 2 Turning point? #teachingEnglish #BritishCouncil #elt #TESOL #tefl #esl

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