Book Review: 'Education 2.0: The Learningweb Revolution and the Transformation of the School' by Leonard J. Waks

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Boulder, CO:  Paradigm Publishers, 2014: 256 pp. $150.00: $32.95

Reviewed by Kip Kline

Leonard J. Waks has a genuine and unremitting commitment to young people. This is consistently demonstrated throughout his reimagining of schooling in the Internet Age in Education 2.0: The Learningweb Revolution and the Transformation of the School. The book takes seriously contemporary problems of schools at the discursive and policy levels, while maintaining a well-supported faith in the power of young people and the Internet. Although his case for school transformation raises questions, which I articulate below, Education 2.0 is a notable achievement. His vision for a paradigm shift in schooling, centered on an Internet-based social learning model, is thoughtful and insightful, yet it is his use of the actual needs and desires of teenagers as the originary scene of reform that separates Education 2.0 from other attempts to imagine a new kind of schooling.

One of Waks’s primary arguments is the need to dismantle and replace the industrial model high school. In the first three chapters, he establishes his defense and celebration of teenagers, discusses different kinds of teaching and learning, and traces the historical development of the high school. All of this contributes to the assertion that today’s high schools are inappropriate to today’s world and its teens. He begins with the stories of some exemplary young people who have used the Internet to achieve notoriety (e.g. in the fashion design industry), and argues that contemporary high schools do not support such pursuits. In fact, they often sit squarely in the way. He writes, ‘teens are true adults whose development is artificially inhibited by constraining institutions, especially schools’ (p. 6). Part of that constraint comes in the form of a high school designed for an industrial age – a model we continue to cling to despite its obsolescence.

In Chapters Four and Five, Waks discusses the failure of the current model of high schools in terms of academic performance, efficiency, and social and political legitimacy. He critiques major federal initiatives (e.g., A Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, and No Child Left Behind) as reactionary, and claims that they created panics regarding schooling and global economic competitiveness due to the relatively weak scores of U.S. students on international standardized tests. He argues, first, that ‘very little, if any, economic variance is explained by educational achievement as measured by standardized tests’, (p. 48), and, second, that we might not want to aspire to score at the top of these lists, since Singapore ‘consistently scores at or near the top of every international comparison’ (p. 47) and a young person there ‘can be lashed for chewing gum’ (pp. 47, 48). Instead of a manufactured crisis, we should understand the true schooling crisis to be rooted in the idea that today’s high schools have contributed to ‘broken links to adult life’ (p. 65) for teens. Waks believes that the most effective high school is one that creates a kind of appropriate ‘initiation’ to adulthood: ‘A new education must release the passions and aspirations of learners while linking their studies in direct and transparent ways to adult opportunities’ (p. 65). This new education will require a centralizing of the Internet.  

Chapters Six through Nine examine the origins of the Internet and the transition into Web 2.0, including its potential and promise for learning in general, and specifically in schools. Waks gives a concise and engaging pre-history of the Internet before a thorough discussion of Web 2.0, the commonly used moniker to describe the increased power and scope of the contemporary World Wide Web. Part of Web 2.0’s power is in its ability to create and enhance educative activity. Waks identifies the general categories of ‘Creative Self-Expression’, ‘Sharing and Exchange’, ‘Collaboration’, and ‘Collective Action’ as demonstrable ways in which a new model of schooling based on a ‘network society’ could unleash the ‘learningweb’ revolution. Next, Waks argues that the elements of the learningweb already exist, for example, ‘The Knowledgeweb’ (e.g., search engines, E-Books and E-Readers, and Open Knowledge or open-access content). Other elements include open courses (lectures or entire courses available online) and the new kinds of informal learning available through more electronically interactive libraries and museums. The section ends with an explicit discussion of the Internet and schools. Although the majority of classrooms are replete with web technology and some examples of fully virtual schools exist, the hierarchical spirit of the industrial/factory-model high school still seems to dominate – even in those schools that are ostensibly technologically progressive.

In Waks’s Education 2.0, in contrast to existing models, education is understood as ‘initiation [into adult life]’, and learners are conceived as ‘autonomous, autopoetic (self-shaping), emergent individuals already motivated to learn by goals inherent in their biological and cultural conditioning’ (pp. 122, 123). In the face of the current American landscape of high-stakes, standardized testing in high schools, Education 2.0 ‘denies that the most important results of learning are analyzable and measurable. What matters most lies beyond analysis and measurement because it is emergent’ (p. 125).

In the next section (Chapters 10-13), Waks unveils the particulars of the educational paradigm shift necessary for Education 2.0, and articulates in detail his vision of the high school as an open learning center. At the heart of the paradigm shift is the transition away from top-down, hierarchical control. The most notable (and perhaps promising) feature of the shift is the endorsement of complexity theory. Again, in sharp contrast with the approaches of the factory model of schooling, complexity theory ‘offers guidelines for harnessing the inherent complexity of learning organizations in the network environment by embracing complexity and provoking phase transitions on the edge of chaos. This allows new, more adaptive teaching-learning strategies to emerge from self-organization’ (p. 158).

Chapter 12 of Education 2.0 offers the specifics of Waks’s vision of the high school as an open learning center. It begins with biographical anecdotes of the education of Thelonious Monk and Mark Salzman, both of whom came to reject the traditional institutional models of school, but achieved exceptional levels of success through other means (a supportive community center in Monk’s case and teachers willing to work outside the factory model and guide him in independent study in the case of Salzman). These stories feed the fundamental ideas of Education 2.0 because they are about teachers and learners who embody an ‘adaptive, improvising spirit’ that is ‘a key feature of education as initiation in a network society’ (p. 159). The rest of the chapter details Waks’s Open Learning Centers. These reimagined high schools ‘turn their back on standard means to predefined, measurable standard ends. Instead they set teachers and learners free to interact and devise local learning projects with their own emergent ends’ (p. 166). To this end, the centers employ ‘Professional Educators’ in four categories (mentors, media guides, academic teachers, and focus teachers). In addition, the open learning centers have ‘open staffing’ that allows for a kind of short-term contract work for educators or experts as the needs arise, organically.

Waks makes arguments about the efficacy of his ideas and gives specific advice to various constituents (i.e., parents, teachers, young people) about what they can do to bring about the learningweb revolution in the book’s final section.

Education 2.0 is a thoughtful and precise vision of a new education. But some questions arise in the argument for and imagining of a learningweb revolution. Waks uses stories of exceptionally successful (young) people for whom the path to achievement did not lead through factory model high schools. In fact, traditional forms of schooling stood in the way of their eventual accomplishments. So, would the replacement of traditional high schools with open learning centers necessarily give the world more Thelonious Monks? Open learning centers are preferable on moral grounds, but they do not provide sufficient conditions for the fostering of genius. Waks’s examples of Monk and Salzman demonstrate that open learning centers are not even a necessary condition for the flourishing of exceptionality in young people. And this leads to another question about the centrality of the Internet in Waks’s arguments. Is the Internet the most important aspect of the answer to the problems of hierarchical forms of learning? Certainly any paradigm shift in the conception of high schools will include Web 2.0, but in our contemporary moment we have evidence that it is rather easily hijacked by hierarchy and those who prefer top-down forms of teaching and learning. Waks celebrates Glogster as a site that is ‘devoted specifically to youthful creative self-expression’ (p. 87), but at the time of writing this, Glogster’s site proudly boasts its Common Core alignment and resources. It could be that leading with an educationally relevant complexity theory might be more central to reimagining a high school with a spirit of adaptation and improvisation than structuring a new vision around Web 2.0. In any case, Education 2.0 is an unequivocally desirable vision of education because it boldly accepts that learning often takes place on the edge of chaos and it firmly believes in the autonomous and auto-poetic nature of young people.

 

Correspondence: Kip Kline, College of Education, Lewis University, One University Parkway, Romeoville, IL 60446-2200, USA.

Email: klinech@lewisu.edu

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