Hackschooling? A comment on Logan LaPlante’s TED talk

BY BRENT SILBY

The TEDx talk below by 13 year old Logan LaPlante 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, LaPlante 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 LaPlante’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.

LaPlante 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, LaPlante 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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