‘Deschooling Society’: Revisiting a Classic | Harbord & Khan | 4 Min Read

February 16, 2023

Expectations of teachers grow. Expectations of schools grow. How we learn, and how we deliver what we want to teach have evolved in the past couple of years. The pandemic has changed how everyone learns and how everyone lives, and we would be very foolish to ignore this lesson. However, we would also be very foolish not to see this change as an opportunity to examine what we do, how we do it, and how it has been done before.

In 1970, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society was first released. This book criticizes society’s institutionalized education because it constrains when we learn to a brief period of our lives. Considered radical at that time, Deschooling Society was once essential reading in education courses during the 1980s. In his opening chapter, Illich outlines why we must disestablish schools and explains that schooling should not be confused with education as well as teaching with learning. Although it is not an easy read, it is still relevant since Deschooling Society addresses many of the same issues that concern educators today. 

In the table below, we show how ideas from Deschooling Society still relate:

1970’s Ivan Illich–(Roman Catholic priest, theologian, philosopher, and social critic).2022 
A good educational system should have three purposes:
1. All learners who want to learn should have access to resources at any time.
2. Empower those who want to share their learning with those who want to learn. 
3. Furnish those who want to present an issue to the public the opportunities to make the challenges known.
Today’s equivalent:

1. Lifelong learning.

2. Collaborative learning.

3. Purposeful learning and real-life issues. 
Match the right highly motivated teacher with the right highly motivated student in an intelligent programVocational training, mentoring, apprenticeships
Match people according to their interest in learningDifferentiation and Interest-based  learning
Create learning collaborations between colleagues as learning websOpportunities for interdisciplinary /multidisciplinary teaching and learning.

As we developed our ideas for this article, we discovered others who are exploring similar themes with reference to Illich’s thinking (Rincones et al., 2021) but extend the idea of “forced” deschooling of society caused by the pandemic. The mandatory closure of schools resulting from the pandemic, in effect, nullified many features of our students’ experience of institutionalized schooling. Solutions created through online learning meant we learned that some students learn really well in this medium, but there are also many students who did not thrive, couldn’t self-regulate, couldn’t work independently, and missed interactions with their peers. Apart from deschooling, we also had de-socializing. Through our knowledge of brain-based learning, many educators believe that students today do not learn unless they are learning collaboratively, and therefore the separation from their physical classroom has not been particularly supportive of some students’ learning.

Illich was deeply influenced by the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Both authors’ work is politically charged, and both are concerned with discrimination, poverty, and how social class affects one’s situation. We wonder if Deschooling Society would even be published today when one considers the political correctness that surrounds so many of these difficult issues that still need to be addressed. Has anything really changed? 

Many of Illich’s ideas relate to societal and ethical values and he references “a network of service.”

“Curriculum has always been used to assign social rank” Illich, I. (1970)

How might we support the development of a school environment which fosters communities of empowered learners with a sense of social justice and responsibility? Using our own Harbord & Khan Ethical model, in which ethical values play a vital role could be one way of exploring this question. We embed ethical dilemmas in our curriculum to engage and inspire students as they face real-world issues and challenges.


Experiences, regardless of their physical contexts, can give us insights into ourselves and our world. Illich’s comment that “Most learning happens casually” and factors such as “work, leisure, politics, city living and even family life should become themselves the means of education” inspired the creation of our Transfer Toolⓒ. Harnessing the value of experiences outside the school grounds can give students opportunities to reflect holistically on at-school and out-of-school experiences and how they can support one another. The transfer of learning is not just from subject to subject but from one environment/experience (out of school) to another (at school-virtual or physical). Using the Transfer Toolⓒ, for example in the case of ‘Myself and My Relationships,’ students can compare and contrast what they learn from their families and communities with what they learn at school from their teachers and peers. Although it might be interesting to explore this potential transfer of learning from home further, it would be difficult to do because everything we teach needs to be measured. Let alone the conflicts that may occur between home and school cultures.

Illich’s comment “Neither learning nor justice is promoted by schooling because educators insist on packaging instruction with certification” is as powerful today as it was when he wrote it; the fact that more teachers are questioning testing, grading, and assessment in response to student achievement during the enforced online learning has led to many faculty discussions as to how to meet the requirements of school boards and state standards in this new educational landscape. The priority is: how do we meet the requirements of our students’ learning?


Freire, P., Ramos, M. B., & Macedo, D. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Thirtieth Anniversary edition. ed.). The Continuum International Publishing Group.

Harbord, M. J., & Khan, S. R. (2022). Ethical Model. Harbord & Khan. Retrieved August 29, 2022, from https://harbordandkhan.com/ethical-model/

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling society: 3rd digital edition: 2022 (3rd digital ed.). KKIEN Publishing International.Rincones, R., Peña, I., & Canaba, K. C. (2021). A call for rethinking schooling and leadership in the time of covid-19. Frontiers in Education, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2020.618075

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Harbord & Khan for Intrepid Ed News. Also, visit their website at https://bit.ly/3XopEzQ.

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website: https://bit.ly/3XopEzQ

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