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The Khan Academy and Instructables

The Khan Academy(246) is a sort of online Freeskilling, and is a powerful tool both for parents who are considering home schooling and those who want to learn – or for their children to learn – in their own way and at their own pace.

Imagine you were teaching cycling to some kids, who, after a month or two of trying, still hadn’t mastered staying on without using their stabilisers. They show up for your next class as normal, both excited and nervous about the prospect of taking the stabilisers off. But you tell them that was last week’s lesson, and that this week they are going to have to ride a unicycle, just because they should have learned to cycle by now given that others in the class already have. This sounds like an absurd way to run an education system, and it is, but it is exactly the way education works in many countries.

The Khan Academy works on a completely different understanding of what education is about. It allows students to master one thing before moving on to more difficult aspects of it. Used in conjunction with home schooling, children could develop at a rate they enjoy, and not one that is stressful and unhelpful to them.

Founded by Salman Khan(247) as a not-for-profit organisation, it is an ever expanding collection of videos (2,800 different tutorials at the time of writing, which have already provided over 120 million lessons) that teach the viewer, in an easy and fun way, everything from algebra and arithmetic to art history, economic theory, biology and even how the money and banking system works. All is available for free.

Instructables(.com)(248) is a very similar project with a huge database of skills, mostly practical, such as how to make a cantenna,(249) your own solar panels, and how to knit or walk on stilts (which I am not entirely convinced is practical but sure is a lot of fun). Again it works as an online version of Freeskilling. If you know how to make something, you can either film yourself doing it or write step-by-step instructions, before uploading it onto the website. From that point onwards anyone can search for that skill and learn how to do it. Similarly, if you want to learn something, go to their website and search for it. My advice is to view a number of different options – and there is always a choice – before deciding which instructions to follow.

While both of these depend on access to a computer and the internet to exist, I see them as powerful transitional tools that will enable us to skill up for a different future and learn in different ways. If you are completely moneyless and have no internet access, you could use both for free at your local library. Given that libraries are free only at the point of service and currently rely on taxpayers money to exist (though they could be run on a non-monetary model and examples of this do exist), it would be good if you then put these skills to use in some way that was beneficial to the rest of the community in your local area, and not just yourself.

The Barefoot College

As noted earlier, the majority of schools today are designed with the needs of the monetary economy in mind, and not the people they were once intended to serve. Schools today certainly aren’t run with localised living as the goal. It was in response to this that Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy(250) set up the first Barefoot College in India in 1972. Since then it “has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable”.(251) Throughout the day and night it teaches young and old, literate or illiterate, the skills they need to be of use to their local community in a way that ensures they are as self-sufficient as they can possibly be.

The skills they teach can be roughly categorised into “solar energy, water, education, healthcare, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development”. They regularly train people to be such things as teachers, solar cooker engineers, hand pump mechanics, blacksmiths, water testers, doctors, midwives, dentists, artisans and water drillers, all of whom can then serve their community in ways that work for them. The school has five ‘non-negotiable’ values: equality, collective decision making, decentralisation, self-reliance and austerity (simplicity I believe is a more appropriate word), all of which I believe ring true to the value system of a moneyless economy.

This college currently only exists in India, but there is no reason why it couldn’t be replicated in other countries around the world, as the functions it serves are universal, as are its guiding principles.

Other alternative schools

There are many other forms of alternative schooling, but to outline them all would be a book in itself – Fiona Carnie’s Alternative Approaches to Education: A Guide for Parents and Teachers is a good start for those of you who would love to explore more. I would encourage you to check out other educational models such as the Steiner (Waldorf) schools,(252) Sudbury, Montessori,(253) the Small School,(254) Schumacher College(255) and Summerhill.(256) None of these models are currently moneyless (though they can be free at the point of delivery), but I include them because I see no reason why moneyless versions couldn’t be devised and implemented in the future if the will and commitment is there. I also believe that their approaches could help prepare the soil from which the seeds of moneyless economies can grow, as they (to varying degrees) encourage their students to think and live freely and in a sustainable manner.

Charles Eisenstein, author of The Ascent of Humanity and Sacred Economics

What would education look like in a world in which our connections to Nature and community were healed? Some would say that school itself will wither, its artificial separation of the young from adult activities being a primary engine of youth alienation and disconnection. Perhaps so; on the other hand, young people have always had their special realm, a kingdom of childhood neither rigidly set off from adult society, nor identical to it. And there have always been some adults temperamentally drawn to interact with this realm. I think, then, that even in a future where self-direction and apprenticeship take on a bigger role, there will still be something that we could call school.

Obviously, though, such an institution will be very different from schools today. Far from being an agent of social and planetary healing, today’s school system is deeply implicated in maintaining the status quo. Who would consent to perform the mindless, tedious, degrading, dangerous, or immoral jobs necessary to make the world go round, who had not been so conditioned by school?

If not to condition us to do trivial, degrading, or unpleasant work for external rewards (now grades, later money), then what could the purpose of school be? Our naïve response, ‘to learn’, cannot be it. Children learn automatically; they are like sponges. The question is never whether they will learn; the question is what they will learn. In most societies, they learn the attitudes and ideologies that justify and perpetuate that society, and they learn the habits of complicity, obedience, and dependency on authority. Reacting to this, some philosophers of education propose that a child’s learning should be guided solely by his or her own curiosity; that teachers should never pressure or guide a student toward a topic of study, but merely be resources for a child to come to, instruments of a child’s self-education. There are schools designed along these principles – the Sudbury model schools – and doubtless they have a place.

Yet, there is also such a thing as a great teacher. I’ve had the good fortune to experience several. They infected me with passion for something I might not otherwise have known to exist, they pushed me to achieve things I didn’t know I was capable of, they initiated me into a new world. There is a fine distinction between pushing knowledge on someone who is not interested in it, and recognizing in someone an interest that they themselves are not aware of. Wary of arrogance, some people say that a teacher should not teach, nor a healer heal, without the explicit invitation of the recipient. A great teacher or healer, though, might listen to the silent asking.

I have spent several paragraphs arguing that there even should be something called ‘teaching’ and ‘school’, because that is not at all obvious to those indignant at the awful and sometimes violent colonisation of childhood by school. School has been an instrument of oppression. But what could it be?

Because the nature of school is so intertwined with the nature of money, perhaps the economic future that is possible offers a glimpse into what is possible for school as well. The modern economy forces most people to do things they don’t fundamentally care much about, or even that they hate, for an external reward (money) that they associate with their comfort, security, and well-being. So also for school and grades. School is practice for life. Well, suppose we create a different kind of economy, one in which the primary question of Homo economicus is not, “How do I make a living?” but rather, “What am I best able and most willing to give to the world?” In other words, what would school look like aligned with an economy of the gift?

In such a world, school will be a place where, first, children discover what their gifts are and what they care about, and second, where they practice and develop those gifts. School today already does that, a little bit, if you are lucky enough to have gifts that the system recognizes and condones. If your gift is for writing or mathematics, you might indeed discover and develop it in school.

But if your gift is improvisational acting, or emotional intelligence, or the sensing of human energy fields, or for growing plants, or almost anything involving the hands or the heart, it is more likely that school will suppress your gifts than develop them. In a way this is understandable: after all, such gifts have been of little use in achieving a secure place in the society of the machine. But that society is changing, and of such gifts the world is now in crying need.

“School is a place for children to discover and develop their gifts.” From this principle, a diversity of pedagogic methods and educational models can spring. Many exist already in the margins and crevices of our educational system, in the alternative schools and the classrooms of maverick teachers. In a gift-based future, what today is alternative, maverick, and marginal will become the new normal.