Is there an inherent problem with modern day schooling?
The John Taylor Gatto Series
“Weapons of Mass Instruction is probably his best yet. Gatto’s storytelling skill shines as he relates tales of real people who fled the school system and succeeded in spite of the popular wisdom that insists on diplomas, degrees, and credentials. If you are just beginning to suspect there may be a problem with schooling (as opposed to educating as Gatto would say), then you’ll not likely find a better exposé of the problem than Weapons of Mass Instruction.” Cathy Duffy Reviews
Next up in the Gatto Series is a focus on his book, Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling.
This book is both a history of schooling (how it came to be, why it is the way it is), and how classroom and education policy have changed over the years. Gatto pulls no punches and shines a light on the indefensible situation government-mandated schooling has created.
As he notes (and as I can attest from personal experience) the red-tape is long. Teacher’s must do what the state standards dictate. They need to stay within the parameters set by the system. There is a push for testing and data and “proof” that the children are learning what the boards of education have approved as meaningful. Schools have report cards and the pressure on administrative staff and school leaders is immense.
Gatto rightly points out that many teachers do not even realize that they have signed up for “a social experiment'“. He details this thoroughly in the first chapter, Everything You Know about Schools is Wrong.
The following quote jumped out to me because he combines the problem with the system, highlights the best qualities of children, and offers a solution all in one breath. Not to mention this part: “help kids take an education rather than merely receive schooling”. That is a powerful distinction, don’t you think?
If we wanted we could easily and inexpensively jettison the old, stupid structures and helps kids take an education rather than merely receiving schooling. We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness— curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising thought—simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student the autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.
-John Taylor Gatto
Yes! The best qualities of youthfulness:
Capacity for surprising thought
He’s right. We do squander these beautiful, innate characteristics in favor of canned curriculum and standardization. We rub off the edges of our children, sand them down and place them neatly inside of classrooms and at desks. Orderly. Smoothed over. Sameness.
This might be a normalized system, but it is far from a natural one.
Reading Gatto’s work many years ago solidified my dedication to unschooling. It made me realize that our choice to live outside of the school system was a way for my children to capitalize on the best qualities of their youth. It allowed them to move from rest to play, from play to rest. They learned to listen to their bodies. They were able to really sleep and recharge because their sleep cycles were not interrupted by alarms and an impersonal schedule. Not to mention all the activities and ideas they pursued that spoke to their souls.
Gatto recognized that for children to understand their strengths and work on their weaknesses, they needed real life experiences. He challenged the classroom setup as a setup for failure. I argue that there is a place and time to learn directly from someone. Participating in lectures are not in and of themselves wrong or inherently bad. It is that being lectured to day in and day out while ignoring or, worse, preventing real world experience is not the best way for children to gain knowledge and valuable skills that can support their forward trajectory. The classroom set up can stifle growth instead of spurring it on.
If you opt out of schooling are you saying yes to a true education?
Like Gatto, I believe children deserve to be free to adventure, to follow their curiosity, and to fail and try again. I believe they should be moving their bodies and interacting with the natural world. I also think they should not be put in situations that cause stress and worry about being marked down, belittled, or shamed for their failures based on arbitrary standards that change from state to state. It is through trial and error that children are able to expand their abilities and to test themselves. We forget that children automatically test themselves and self-correct all the time. When they make a mistake, they tend to retool. Some of this retooling happens because of natural consequences and some because of the laws of physics. Neither have anything to do with an adult teaching, telling, or imparting their opinions or insights.
For example, if your child is riding his skateboard down a hill and he hits a rock, which causes him to abruptly fly off of his board, he won’t need to do that again to understand the laws of motion. If your daughter is drawing a picture with markers and the cat knocks over a water glass that spills onto her drawing, she will learn how water causes the ink to spread (and that curious cats enjoy knocking over water glasses so avoid that set up or pay more attention next time). On the flip side, she may love that the water made the ink bleed and become more interested in watercolors.
BEING in the world teaches all sorts of truths about how the world works.
I love what the authors of A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century says:
“Humans are antifragile; exposure to discomfort and uncertainty-physical, emotional, and intellectual-is necessary. Preparing students to understand risk encourages them to expand their worldviews, and embrace experiences that lead to maturity. This does, however, come at a cost: understanding risk cannot completely protect individuals from danger.
Adults may believe the classroom is the best option for children because it is “safe”. Yet we all know, if we are being honest, that it’s a situation perpetuated for adult convenience not based on the science of how humans learn and what children need.
Instead of impersonal grading systems, we could start mentoring. What if we stopped stifling adventure and curiosity and gave children space to develop their unique talents and abilities without continually comparing them to their same-aged peers? We do not live in a world segregated by age so why do we think it is necessary for children to be segregated based on the year they were born?
If we moved from marking children down to empowering them to know thyself, to improve their skill sets, and to pull forth their natural talents, wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to support education? Children would be better served if we did not push them towards despondency or perfection. Neither of these extremes is helpful on the road to reaching one’s full potential.
However, as Gatto points out in his Prologue,
“What if there is not a “problem” with our schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively flying in the face of common sense and long experience in how children learn things, not because they are doing something wrong, but because they are doing something right?”