Week 5- Cunningham v. Waks

This week’s readings got a change-up.  In addition to our assigned chapters from Education 2.0, we also had to read Dr. Cunningham’s critique of the text in Educational Theory, Dr. Waks’s response to Cunningham, and Cunningham’s follow-up to Waks.

The Issue in Question

One point that has been knocking around in my head from Dr. Cunningham’s critique has to do with Waks’s assertion that Education 2.0 should be guided primarily by student interest.  In this regard, Cunningham is suspicious of what he reads as Waks’s relying on the “invisible hand” and the potential deepening of inequity in our already greatly inequitable society.

“Waks’s conception of teaching with new technologies is radical, but substantially incomplete. What’s more, he advocates embracing student choice about what to learn in a way that would likely exacerbate social inequalities…. While it is true that some extraordinary young people are able — without the guidance of a set curriculum and without explicit teaching — to organize their activities in ways that extend their interests and lead to growth (and marketable skills), many are drawn, instead, to dissipative distractions and mindless entertainment….  It seems that the ‘natural learning’ he adores may really only apply  to the upper classes.  If we allow student choice to determine what students learn in school, aren’t we inevitably resigning ourselves to reproducing the huge and growing social inequalities our society faces today?”  (Cunningham, Educational Theory 2014)


Two Caveats

First, I should note that my reading of Education 2.0 to date is up through chapter 11.  So if Waks addresses particular items between chapters 12 and 15 that are raised here, what I have written here should be taken accordingly.  Second, I have made some assumptions about Dr. Cunningham’s critique.  One assumption is about what he means by “natural learning” only applying to the upper classes.  If by “only applying” he means “having easy and regular access to technology” that the economically disadvantaged do not always have, then his point about reproducing inequality has merit.  Certainly, there are brilliant young people who are also socioeconomically disadvantaged who could educate themselves and build marketable skills based on their own choices if they have the same technological affordances and educational supports as the wealthy.  Yet there are related social obstacles poor students of color face, in particular, which I will briefly explore below.  The other assumption is that he did not mean upper class children are more capable of working in progressive, self-directed learning environments whereas lower class children require “structure”, “discipline”, and “limited choices” in order to learn.

Agreement with Cunningham

I agree with Cunningham, that it is far more likely that a learning model based on student-determined education with the learningweb as a central mechanism for that education would reinforce societal inequalities.  Technological and educational affordances would be likely to follow the lines of social capital into which students are born.  Let’s even assume for the moment the oft-touted hierarchy-flattening, democratic tendencies of the internet to be real for all who access it — a very large assumption.  There’s still no guarantee that poor students of color will have the same self-guided learning experiences in light of the social obstacles many face even beyond those of technological accessibility and personal “grit” to learn.  For instance, many students work during traditional after-school hours to help provide for their families.  If they are not in a traditional school setting, might their families consider their online learning time negotiable and thus available as time for producing income?  Also, poor students of color often face negative peer pressure when they are seen to actively or enthusiastically pursue learning.  They are derided as an “Oreo” or a “sellout” or trying to “be white” — a kind of peer pressure wealthy students do not encounter to the same degree or with the same resonance.  To what extent would such race-shaming from friends and family members dissuade black and brown students from putting their hearts and souls into learning compared to their racial and socioeconomic counterparts?  Additionally, many poor African-American and Hispanic families represent generations of limited formal education.  Not only that, but the limited school experiences of family elders were often in hostile learning environments and negatively frame their adult perceptions of their children’s school experiences.  Many parents and grandparents in said families do understand that education is crucial.  Yet they lack the time, mindsets, and skills to adequately support the cognitive and academic behaviors their students need to develop in order to be successful.  In most cases, these parents and guardians depend quite heavily on teachers, formal school structures, and their children’s own (developing, inconsistent, and often unregulated) self-discipline in order to inculcate those skills in their children.  Given such complicated dynamics, what might the self-guided learning experience be for a young person in West Garfield Park who comes from just such a family, compared to a student from Lake Forest, both of whose parents have master’s degrees?

Lacking the social supports described above combined with inconsistent access to state of the art technology that money affords, I have every confidence that the hypothetical student from West Garfield Park will be sucked into far more “dissipative distractions” — whether those distractions are caused by online content, undeveloped academic skills, or technology and accessibility obstacles.  Sadly, when faced with such struggles — struggles that the hypothetical Lake Forest counterpart mostly will not face in either quantity or degree —  they will be far less likely to experience “the joy of self-directed learning that accompanies an uncharted excursion on the learning web”  (Cunningham, Educational Theory 2014) consistently enough to actually attain a useful education.  Furthermore, how will they connect with others outside their social milieu and strengthen their connections and accrue their own social capital — social capital and connections their wealthy counterpart is born into?

Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda

Absolutely, Waks should not have avoided addressing issues of inequality that are likely to result from Education 2.0.  In fact, I’d consider not explicitly addressing it a major weakness of his project in its current articulation, particularly in this age marked by the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter.  As is evident in Education 2.0, Cunningham’s critique, and Waks’s rebuttal, Waks does believe there are still important roles for teachers and schools to play.  As such, he could have avoided this very legitimate critique had he included more details, more specifics of how the roles he reserves for the schools (mentoring, learning guidance and support, facilitating community connections, open-networked learning centers, etc.)  would dovetail with students’ self-selected, online learning (Cunningham, Educational Theory 2014).  For instance, in what proportions do students learn on their own versus in the learning centers?  How much time is devoted to the various activities reserved for the learning centers?  How is it apportioned?  Who makes those decisions?  And vitally, how will the school side of the equation both guard against and disrupt the entrenched inequities of our highly inequitable society?  Answers to such questions might have spared him this particular focus of Cunningham’s critique.  

credit: Wikimedia

By not answering such questions, Waks also left himself open to Cunningham’s insertion of the invisible hand as part of the mechanism for Education 2.0.  And with it the associated inferences that said hand is invisible because there is no such thing and that free markets by themselves do not always act in the interest of the greater good.  While there are some very exciting elements  in Education 2.0 — likely even predictive — there is also a utopic air to the project which unfortunately allows room for the more pragmatic educator take it less seriously.  Besides, utopias have a way of turning dystopic when all the actors in the complex system begin to act in unforeseen ways.  Clearly, the inclusion of an entire chapter about complexity theory was not enough to shield Waks from the criticism that he’s leaving far too much open to chance and the likelihood that inequities will persist.


By directly addressing equity as a part of the project, Waks could have presented a stronger argument for the positive disruptive effect Education 2.0 could have both in evolving education and improving our society.  Instead, the project is vulnerable to accusations of relying on too many complex systems that will only reinforce inequities and not overturn them.  Worse yet, these complex systems are types of free markets:  Those of education, of the wilds of the internet, of student interests, and of the caprices of young people in the process of growing their pre-frontal cortices.

Cunningham, C. (2014). Book Reviews. Educational Theory, 64(4), 409.

Waks, L. J. (2016). Education 2.0: The learningweb revolution and the transformation of the school. New York, NY: Routledge.

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