“Both the exchange of skills and the matching of partners are based on the assumption that education for all means education by all,” Ivan Illich writes in the opening chapter of Deschooling Society.
I’m re-reading Illich as both a reminder and challenge to what I believe. This go round, I’m struck more than ever by Illich’s prescient imagining of a type of protean meetup system for the education of those interested.
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…Each man, at any given moment and at a minimum price, could identify himself to a computer with his address and telephone number, indicating the book, article, film, or recording on which he seeks a partner for discussion. Within days he could receive by mail the list of others who recently had taken the same initiative. This list would enable him by telephone to arrange for a meeting with persons who initially would be known exclusively by the fact that they requested a dialogue about the same subject.
Illich goes on to explain these two individuals would know one another by the agreed upon texts resting next to the other’s coffee cups, and conversation would commence.
He argues that these types of meetings aren’t the domain of school, that they work against the bureaucracies of schools. I disagree. There’s room in any school with any sort of bulletin board (online or on-the-wall) to build a similar system.
Think of it as a bastardization of the much-touted 20 percent time from google. Instead of building an idea, students in school would have 20 percent of their time to explore an idea about which they are curious.
Sign up anonymously with the texts (defined broadly) you’re interested in, and check back for some sort of “like,” “favorite,” or “+1” of your posting. Then, set up a place in the school or nearby to meet and follow Illich’s instructions. The whole deal, up to the point of meeting would be anonymous, filtering out cliques and other stratafications.
When the study was done or a participant decided she’d gotten what she wanted from the interactions, the student could post again or respond to another’s post. The cycle would continue.
The key for me is the focus on questions and curiosity. The interactions are driven by participants’ wonderings. As Illich points out, the most an instructor can do is help “the pupil formulate his puzzlement.”
With the exception of a few pockets of open school and some progressive home school networks, most students find themselves participating in schooling that is antithetical to Illich’s ideal.
Instituting this type of system, for even a portion of the week, could open our understanding of students’ answers to an oft-overlooked question, “What are you curious about?”