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Joe Farrell would invariably begin his graduate classes with this question: How would you know a school anywhere in the world?

"It would have four walls," his students would answer. "There'd be a teacher at the front, a blackboard, and it would have many desks."

"Don't be so sure!" he'd respond. "Why are you so convinced learning would be the same anywhere in the world?"

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A leader in the field of comparative education, Farrell founded the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre (CIDEC) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto. During the 40 years he taught there, he served as a mentor to scores of fellow instructors and researchers, as well as students.

His work on alternative schools in the developing world, educational planning and equity in education informed practice and scholarship here and abroad. He believed that while it is possible to plan education and even to teach, it is not possible to plan and control learning.

As a past president of the Comparative and International Education Society and a member of the Education Sub-Committee for UNESCO, he was a top consultant with U.S. AID, CIDA, UNICEF and the World Bank. He was honorary fellow of the Comparative, International and Education Society in the United States.

Joseph Farrell died on Dec. 8 in Toronto of septicemia. He was 73.

Born in DeKalb, Ill., in 1939, he was the only child of Irish immigrant parents. His mother, Agnes, worked at the Northern Illinois University library, no doubt fostering her son's love of learning. His father, Raymond, ran a small cab company in town and worked stints as a truck driver.

Farrell's unwavering vocation as a comparative and international educator had its roots at a scout jamboree when he was 15 and surrounded by hundreds of other curious, innovative young people from around the globe. "I was profoundly moved by that experience," he recalled, "and returned home with a burning desire to learn more about other cultures, how people lived and learned in them – a desire that never left me."

He kept up solid links with the scouting movement his entire life, drawing analogies between the informal learning among the children in the organization and his work among developing nations.

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Farrell received his BA from Northern Illinois University and after working as a primary schoolteacher for a few years completed a PhD in education at Syracuse University in 1968. He moved to Canada after graduation and joined the newly established education faculty at OISE in Toronto.

He quickly became a familiar presence there – grinning from behind his guitar while serenading students, or behind a lectern, or sharing memories about camping in the Andes beneath the shadow of a condor.

Early on and throughout his career he supported non-formal methods of teaching, particularly for marginalized young people in developing countries.

Quoting Niccolo Machiavelli and applying it to contemporary times, Farrell said there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain of success than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things.

He took risks and pushed boundaries but knew that effective change in educational methods takes time: from child to child; teacher to teacher; school to school; and community to community.

This so-called "quiet revolution in schooling" reshaped the educational framework in Latin America, Bangladesh, Egypt and many countries in Africa. But his most intense work occurred more than 40 years ago, during the Popular Unity government in Chile under Salvador Allende.

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In 1970, Farrell and his wife, Joan, moved to Chile with their four-year-old son Michael and infant daughter Jennifer. Hired to advise the Chilean Ministry of Education, he later published Eight Years of their Lives chronicling a group of Chilean school children from 1970 to 1978.

Also in 1978, five years after Allende's government had been overthrown by dictator Augusto Pinochet, Farrell slipped back into Chile.

"Not a leaf turns in Chile without my permission," Pinochet once famously quipped.

But Farrell challenged him, returning to Canada several months later with a handful of refugees, students he sheltered for several months in his Toronto basement.

Daughter Jennifer vividly recalls sharing meals and conversations with these young men before they headed off to class at OISE under the tutelage of her father, whose work on education in Chile was officially recognized in 1994 by then-president Eduardo Frei Fuiz-Tagle.

Farrell believed that traditional schooling restricts a child's learning potential while non-formal educational methods unleash it. The Egyptian and Bangladeshi programs, for example, specifically target girls – the most disadvantaged group in these countries. Boys are free to enroll only if space allows.

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His colleague at OISE, Mick Connelly, worked with him on girls' schools in Egypt. He recalls one-room buildings constructed from bricks of dung, topped with tin roofs and glassless windows.

Local people collected broken bits of plastic and Styrofoam from the streets of Cairo and used this litter as teaching aids for the children: studying numbers, for example, from ragged egg cartons and pizza boxes.

"[Farrell's] focus was very much on supporting strengths that he saw in the other systems and working with those," said Connelly. "His essays show him to be a renaissance man of educational letters."

In Colombia, there is an innovative and successful educational system called "Escuela Nueva" (New School). This is referred to as the grandmother of alternative models in developing countries.

It started on a small scale in the late 1970s and has grown to about 35,000 schools.

This model has been adopted in at least 10 other Latin American nations and has been used to develop new educational programs in many parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

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These programs focus on locally adapted changes in the school day or school year, for instance making room for important community events such as coffee harvests, when children are routinely pulled from the classroom to help out.

As Farrell routinely noted, there is less emphasis on teaching and more emphasis on learning.

This quiet pedagogical revolution has spread to Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Farrell kept abreast of these alternatives in various ways, always humbly advising, observing, and reporting on their successes.

"Part of the problem with this man is he was very self-effacing," says Karen Mundy, associate dean of research and a Canada Research Chair at OISE. "He was larger than life in a social sense but he never made students read his work, which was a very rare thing among accomplished academics."

But, she added, he imbued his teaching with these core ideas: What's the meaning of equity in education? What kind of learning beings are humans? And are schools suited to the nature of our learning, our capacity to learn, or do they stymie it?

In 2008, Farrell retired from OISE, although he continued to teach one course on comparative education. He also still sang folk ballads to meandering education students up in that monstrously tall building overlooking Bloor Street.

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Joseph Farrell leaves his mother Agnes, wife Joan, son Michael, daughter Jennifer and grandchildren Guinevere, Gavin and Mabel Ray.

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