Chapter 2: Life in Schools


This chapter characterises three different kinds of educational experience: didactic, authentic and transformative.

Didactic education is relatively old, with roots as old as writing. However, it came to near-universal prominence as a mode of learning in the mass, institutionalised education that emerged almost everywhere in the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. The experience of didactic education is still common today, for a variety of social, cultural and, at times, practical reasons. Mass, institutionalised education allows parents to work while schools take care of children, imparting the basics of reading and writing. Perhaps more importantly, however, didactic teaching inculcates in children a sense of discipline and order. It has teachers and textbooks telling, learners absorbing what they are told, and when it comes to the test, students getting their lessons right or wrong. In the didactic classroom, the teacher establishes a pattern of relationships in which students learn to accept received facts and moral truths, comply with commands issued by the teacher and absorb the authoritative knowledge presented in the curriculum. In these classroom settings, students learn to get used to a balance of agency in which they are relatively powerless to make knowledge themselves or to act autonomously.

Authentic education movements emerged in the 20th century, in part as a reaction to the culture of order and control characteristic of didactic education. The major principles of authentic education are that learners should take a more active part in their learning, and that this learning should be closely and practically connected to their life experiences. Authentic education is more child-centred, focusing on internalised understanding rather than formal repetition of the ‘right’ answers. But does it necessarily have the effect of changing a child’s life chances? Or is it at times overly ‘practical’, accepting that unequal life chances are inevitable? Authentic education’s critics argue that, all too often, it does not fulfil the promise of education.

Transformative education focuses on the learner and learning. As such, it sets out deliberately to transform students’ life chances and play an active role in changing social conditions. It changes the balance of agency in learning relationships by encouraging learners to build their own knowledge in a supportive learning environment, to work with others in lateral knowledge-making relationships (peers, parents and community members), to negotiate local and global differences, and to extend the breadth and scope of their education beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.

Understanding these educational traditions matters as they are woven into everyday classroom practices. Many classrooms use a variety of these approaches. Educators should know the power of each, its historical and cultural purposes, when to deploy it, how it works when it does, and when it fails learners and society.


  • Thinking through paradigms

  • Didactic education: The modern past

  • Authentic education: More recent times

  • Transformative education: Towards New Learning