Hackschooling?

BY BRENT SILBY

The TEDx talk below by 13 year old Logan LaPlant is spreading around various sites dedicated to “unschooling”. It is being promoted as an argument for alternative approaches to education. I am impressed with the articulation and confidence this young person demonstrates. But does he make a rationally convincing argument?

When talking about writing, LaPlant claims that he was turned off because “my teachers used to make me write about butterflies and rainbows, but I wanted to write about skiing”. I wonder if he’s being entirely honest here. Every teacher I know encourages students to write about what they know. He might be referring to that imaginary classroom that often comes up in these sorts of presentations. This imaginary classroom constitutes part of an often used strawman argument that characterizes schools as authoritarian institutions in which children are strapped into their seats with teachers shoehorning information into their heads.

I agree with LaPlant’s point about there being more to education than readiness for work. Ken Robinson could learn from this point. Robinson basically argues that businesses need certain types of people (e.g. creative, innovative, entrepreneurial thinkers) so education should shift in order to meet that need. We might call it the new factory model. He forgets about the value of knowledge for its own sake.

LaPlant refers to Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk. He asks why, if several million people have watched Robinson’s talk, there aren’t more kids like him. Well, it could be that few people agree with Robinson. Just because someone watches a talk doesn’t mean they agree with its contents. Robinson is evangelical and passionate in his approach, but I suspect that society as a whole has a certain degree of immunity against indoctrination. I certainly have confidence in people’s ability to exercise skepticism.

During the talk, LaPlant tells us that children his age have an under-developed frontal cortex and therefore have impaired decision making ability. He also slips in the suggestion that since kids have more neurons, they are more creative than adults. This second point is false, but what I find interesting is that if he believes his stage of cortex development means he has un-developed decision making ability, how can he know that his education decisions are good ones? On the one hand he is telling us that he has impaired decision making ability, and on the other hand he is telling us that he has made good decisions about his education. If his first point is correct, perhaps he would be better to leave decisions on education to adults with fully formed frontal cortex.

This short talk reminds me of a weight loss informercial. It’s rich in personal anecdotes and cute stories, but hugely lacking in supporting evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Where is the evidence? What trials have been carried out? How do we know that this is an effective alternative to classroom education? A cute presentation by a cute kid does not a robust argument make.

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4 Comments

Filed under Criticism of theories, General

4 responses to “Hackschooling?

  1. Thanks for this critique which raises some excellent points. If we’re not careful, the young speaker’s impressive poise and rhetorical flourish can easily distract us from weaknesses in his argument, just as you suggest.

    In a post on her blog Hack Education, Audrey Watters similarly encourages us to sharpen our thinking about presentations like this:

    … once something becomes a TED Talk, it becomes oddly unassailable. The video, the speech, the idea, the applause — there too often stops our critical faculties. We don’t interrupt. We don’t jeer. We don’t ask any follow-up questions.
    They lecture. We listen ….
    You are not supposed to interrogate a TED Talk. You’re supposed to share the talk on Facebook. But I have questions ….
    The future that TED Talks paint doesn’t want us to think too deeply as we ask these questions. But what happens when we “hack education” in such a way that our public institutions are dismantled? What happens to that public good? What happens to community? What happens to local economies? What happens to social justice?

  2. I don’t think that laying stress on creativity is seriously being meant as an educational system, but more as an important addition to already existing educational systems, because good education should be available for all kids, not just kids with a happy and healthy social network.
    This is a short and spontaneous comment. I have just seen that TEDx speech and visited some websites.
    Goetz Grubert
    Translater, Carpenter, Odd-Job Man

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree that creativity should be part of an education system. The question is, does the existing education system not already include/encourage creativity? Art, music, creative technologies form significant parts of the curriculum. In fact, creative writing is woven fully through subjects like English. Theorists like Robinson seem to be arguing for something that already exists, and in doing so, they are creating a strawman version of the current education system – a caricature of the classroom that obviously no-one would want.

      • That’s what happens when I spontaneously comment. I miss the question. Probably because I just remembered the sixties when I was a (rather passive) part of the (german) education system (as a pupil/student), and there wasn’t much room for creativity then.
        And I didn’t read Brent Silby’s article above.
        Now I did and I’ll educate myself further before I post anymore comments.
        (Corporate America – whaddaya know.)

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