Panel B.02 — Critical unschooling and the decolonisation of education: ideas, challenges and practices of collective liberation for social justice

Convenors Elena Piffero (LAIF – L’Associazione Istruzione Famigliare, Italy); Gina Riley (City University of New York, Hunter College, School of Education)

Keywords Critical unschooling, choice-based learning, power dynamics, self-determination, decolonisation


Pedagogy is central for the development of our understanding of “self”, of others, and how we relate to them, so in order to achieve social justice it is imperative to question the relationship between the mainstream pedagogy at the base of contemporary school institutions, and power.

Schooling has been provocatively defined “the white man’s last burden” to mark the continuity with its role in colonial times: by legitimising certain forms of knowledge and disclaiming others (Giroux, 1992), this system still operates on the assumption that the use of coercive means to elicit compliance is justified by the alleged superior interest of the children to receive an education that opens a way out of backwardness, poverty etc. Education aid projects and institutions still perform this colonising role in so-called developing countries through the obliteration of indigenous worldviews and practices in favour of a dominant, homogenized, normative framework based on Western capitalism. Non-white minorities in European and American schools suffer from this colonial gaze as well: it has been observed that “standardised tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies” (Kendi, 2017).

Secondly, research has highlighted the continuation of “practices of oppression” through the structure of school itself, which is based on a patriarchal, top-down, one-way knowledge transfer, on the undermining of children’s sense of autonomy and self-determination, on control and constant evaluation (Freire, 1970). This is detrimental to the learning process and disruptive to mental health as feelings of danger and threat are repeatedly triggered. Thus, schooling as a colonialist device is not only pathological but pathogenic (Fanos, 2004), as it reproduces the “coloniality of power” (Quijano, 2020) in all spheres of social life, from family to labour exploitation.

Finally, the narrow, market-based definition of success schools promote (wealth, power, position) is harmful from an environmental, social, and psychological point of view, with effects ranging from childhood depression and substance abuse (Gray, 2011) to climate crisis.

This panel focuses on critical unschooling theory and practices as one of the most radical and promising challenges to the colonial system of education of institutionalised schooling. Unschooling can be defined as education without a formal curriculum, utilizing a student’s strengths, interests, and internal motivations (Gray & Riley, 2013). By combining the respectful and empowering dimension of self-directed learning (which refuses teacher-centred instruction, imposed curricula, assessment measures, and the fragmentation of knowledge into bounded disciplines – Holt 1964, 1967 and Riley, 2020) with a call to reimagining and transforming the relationships within family and society in a more respectful, consent-based, equitable way in order to reflect and reproduce justice (Romero, 2018), critical unschooling is both a lifestyle choice and a collective struggle for liberation (Richards 2020).

We invite contributions across all disciplines in order to shed light, gain insight, and reflect on the many ways critical unschooling can challenge the colonizing effects of institutionalized education.


Guidelines and abstracts submission