Ivan Illich wrote Deschooling Society forty-six years ago. Illich was convinced that the practice of education was ultimately limited as a force for freeing the minds of humanity to make a better future for all (which he did ultimately hope could happen) because of the character of educational institutions. As Ilich put it-
“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.“ (He had similar concerns generally about the effectiveness of western social institutions that arose from modernity).
The end of Illich’s pronouncement emphasises the association of learning with sharing and caring, which is what this post touches on.
Illich writes of ‘educational webs’ replacing existing educational institutions. An analysis of Illich’s ideas on education from a primarily technocratic perspective might conclude that a deregulation and eventual dissolution of compulsory education would in and of itself be a sufficient condition for the kind of change that Illich imagined. An ‘educational web’ could refer to something like a Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE) as proposed by Sugata Mitra. The SOLE concept was initially no more than a single, free to access, and web-enabled terminal mounted in a wall in a public area of a city in India in which the great majority of nearby residents would not have been expected to have financial means to access such technology nor to be provided with traditional educational opportunities that would be likely to offer comparable learning opportunities (since then the concept has grown into larger scale initiatives such as School in the Cloud). The original SOLE gave otherwise neglected would-be learners the chance to engage in learning (with some notably impressive results). Mitra’s experiment was an example of sharing (giving actually, if temporarily) which in itself was at least indirectly caring, but the experiment was also symbolically something of a challenge to the assumption of the desirability of education as an institutional public good and hence implicitly an argument for allowing a free market in education to replace mandatory state funded education. (Many arguments against this conclusion and detailed commentary on how it is being applied in practice are presented in the Hack Education blog.)
Arguments relating to the effectiveness of provision of education are complicated by the important fact that education is a service that is provided not only to those who can appropriately be discussed in terms of autonomous economic agents (rational maximisers or not, depending on what economic orthodoxy one accepts) but also to those who do not necessarily make choices about the educational services that they consume- children. Children’s families are (hopefully) the primary source of those children’s sharing and caring needs and whether consciously or otherwise families are the primary source of their children’s earliest learning. For a minority of children (currently somewhere around two-million in the USA for example) this arrangement is continued for many years of their education through homeschooling. Rejection of educational institutional provision in general for younger learners is a growing (yet still fringe) tendency that has been argued by some educational researchers such as Alison Gopnik to be based on sound principles.
What families decide to teach their children themselves varies between families. Teaching of early literacy within families is a long established and well recognised practice. Less typical but also quite well recognised is the stereotype of the extremely highly academically achieving child who has very well educated parents that have taken personal responsibility for delivering large parts of their child’s education (examples of such are easily found on certain reality TV shows). A high level of parental education is not necessarily a requirement for a high level of personal involvement in parental teaching of their children- Richard Feynman remembered his not highly educated father (a tailor) being a key role model in his intellectual development through incidents such as the one described below.
The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.” (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)
I have no specific data about what topics most parents do and do not attempt to teach their children but I strongly suspect that mathematical and scientific teaching is considerably less common than teaching reading. A plausible reason for that difference would be that probably a lot of families would be less confident of their own mathematical and scientific knowledge than of their literacy knowledge and so would be less confident to teach it (and if their confidence is problematically low then this reluctance would be justifiable as a lack of confidence could result in ‘iatrogenic’ exacerbation of learning difficulties for mathematics and science either through misleading and/or incorrect knowledge being transferred or by children noticing increased anxiety in family members attempting to teach them scientific and mathematical content). Educational (possibly pseudo-educational in some cases) tablet/smartphone apps for preschool and early school age children exist in abundance and these include plenty of mathematical apps (science related apps are less common). Many of these apps seem to have been designed with an emphasis on ‘child friendliness’ in the sense of providing stimuli that children are likely to find engaging (whether cognitively engaging or merely instrumentally engaging is not necessarily clear). What I have not found evidence of is educational apps that are obviously designed for children to use with their parents.(It may well be that one of the selling points for some apps is that they occupy a child’s attention in order to substitute for input from a busy parent.)
I am currently reading (with much interest) Catherine Sophian’s The Origins of Mathematical Knowledge in Childhood. I started reading this book as part of an ongoing interest that I have accumulated in mathematical EdTech for learners that do not necessarily respond positively to traditional mathematics teaching. It is my opinion that actually almost all learners fall into this category and those that do not seem to be so are usually those who have not yet encountered traditionally taught mathematics content of sufficient abstruseness, in my opinion because traditional mathematics curricula have been designed to keep that content at arm’s length based on received wisdom of what learners are capable of understanding at different ages (for an extraordinary challenge to conventional assumptions of this kind I strongly recommend investigating Don Cohen, The Mathman who demonstrates convincingly that six and seven year old children can understand pre-calculus if it is explained to them in age appropriate formats). My ideas for an ensemble of related visual and game-based mathematics learning apps are based on the concept that there could in principle be a surprisingly high level of continuity and consistency in both user experience and cognitive terms between the earliest stages of mathematics learning and the stages at which even atypically successful mathematics learners are not expected to have advanced beyond by the time they have reached the culmination of their compulsory education. If I am correct and a programme of study with this range can be connected by a unifying underlying approach then I imagine (actually I didn’t imagine it- it was suggested to me) that both parents and children could engage with that programme comfortably enough for it to become a fairly accessible and approachable vehicle for inter-generational mathematics learning comparable with parental practice of helping their children to learn to read.