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7 signs that traditional education is broken.
Based on John Taylor Gatto.
A few weeks ago, I had a call with Michael Strong, the founder of The Socratic Experience. In the midst of our conversation, he mentioned a speech called “The 7 Lesson Schoolteacher” by John Taylor Gatto.
Now, in my short career, I’ve abided by some basic, yet unchangeable rules, one of them being:
If someone you admire mentions a resource, no matter what kind, you consume it.
The moment we hung up the call, I googled it and started to read it. It’s part of an amazing book, filled with Gatto’s essays on education, called “Dumbing Us Down”.
John was a great teacher, having won prizes for his work. People knew him to be, not only a scholar and reference in the field of education but also someone very critical of the current educational system.
In a very ironic, humorous, satirical way, he wrote this speech, pointing out 7 lessons that he, as a teacher, taught his students. However, these are actually 7 very critical arguments against how school is designed, showing that it does not aim at giving a good learning experience to students, but to follow protocols that don’t make any sense.
Today, I want to present and review each of the 7 lessons:
“You can’t hide”
Lesson 1 - Confusion
Have you ever stopped to notice how so many things in the regular educational system are actually scattered across a multitude of different areas and subjects with no connection between them?
Isn’t that confusing?
Even the best schools, once close examined (curriculum-wise), lack coherence in their sequences of learning. Think about it, you’re supposed to change from one subject to another, without a clear connection between them.
You’re having English and suddenly you’re having Geography. History followed by Math. Sciences followed by Music. It just doesn’t make sense.
Fortunately for the current system, young children lack the means to describe (or even, define) the “panic and anger” coming from feeling this violation of natural order and sequence of things.
The logic of the school-mind is that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, natural sciences and so on that to leave with one genuine enthusiasm. But quality education entails learning about something in depth.
Sane human beings strive for “non-disconnected facts”, yet, schools provide them with the opposite of this.
Education can be defined as a set of codes to process raw information into meaningful one. However, that’s not what schools are focused on. They’re focused on sequences, facts, and theories: sizeable pieces of information that can be quickly examined.
If we observe natural sequences like learning how to walk, the progression of light from sunrise to sunset, anything growing on a farm, or seeing a musical piece being played live, all of these follow a specific path. All of the parts are in harmony with each other, with the previous action justifying the next one. That’s not the case with school subjects.
Finally, it’s important to question why this confusion is being taught.
A theory is that it may be a deliberate way to perpetuate an eternal state of confusion that starts with the absence of “home”.
Since parents spend way less time with their children, leaving them to deal with a lot of the issues of growing up using their own resources or other people (like babysitters or tutors), teenagers and young children get confused.
School is a way for them to become familiar with it, propelling it into the future.
Lesson 2 - Class Position
As a student, you need to understand something: you should stay where you belong.
To make this process easier we, teachers and educators, give you, the student, a number, making sure you’re stripped from your humanity by replacing your name with it.
Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human being plainly under the burden of number he carries.
We make sure to limit student’s imagination, in a way that makes them want to stay where they are because they can’t even dream of an alternative. The perpetuity of, what Carol Decker calls a “Scarcity Mindset” and the full acceptance to stay where you belong.
Lesson 3 - Indifference
This is one of the biggest topics in school and we teach it in very subtle ways.
We demand engagement from students in our lessons. They must participate and compete for our appreciation by doing whatever we ask. However, when a certain bell rings, we insist that they stop whatever they’re doing and move to the next workstation.
Once we do this enough times, students realize that there’s no point in any of the subjects.
Indeed, the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care deeply about anything?
The ever-changing context, prompted by bells, is the bread and butter of the current educational system. Is through these bells that time is destroyed and fragmented into intervals with the same kind of meaningless outcomes.
Why care about anything at all when this is the reality we know?
Lesson 4 - Emotional Dependency
We are beings of habits, moved by both pleasure and pain. If students spend most of their time in school, then, the patterns regarding both of these forces will dictate a lot of their behavior.
So, educators come up with a series of rituals and permissions in the form of red checks, smiles, prizes, or punishments, teaching students how to surrender their will to a chain of command.
Rights do not exist inside a school, or they can, at least, be manipulated by the ruling forces, depending on the context.
Can you imagine a school where every student has the right to free speech? It would resemble a jungle, right? So, we don’t allow students to speak whenever they want, much less to say whatever they want.
So, as the main emotional drivers in a classroom, we, teachers, intervene based on our own whims and make a bunch of personal decisions, allowing for certain things and punishing others based on our own worldview and need for control.
There are some students who try to break this emotional dependency by raising their individuality but we end up bringing them down. After all, individuality is a contradiction in a class. We want more compliance, not more freedom.
Children sneak away for a private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels; they trick me out for a private instant in the hallway on the grounds that they need water. I know they don’t but I allow them to deceive me because this conditions them to depend on my favors.
Now, there are moments when free will appears. It comes in the form of children that are angry, depressed, or even happy about things that happened outside of class. These are very dangerous students and we need to quickly control them and make this situation disappear.
Tolerating these kinds of behavior would be an admission and validation that, whatever’s happening outside of class is good enough to interfere with whatever’s happening inside of it, and that would be too powerful.
Lesson 5 - Intellectual Dependency
Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meaning of our lives.
This lesson is the fundamental step to make sure the whole world keeps functioning according to the same principles that have been governing it for the last few years.
The power to control children's thoughts is a fundamental step in the current world. It also facilitates a clear, easy separation of successful students from failures.
Those who do what we say, as teachers, are the “true” students. They do it with enthusiasm, without any questioning, deserving to be rewarded.
We teach whatever the system decides is best and we make our students believe that these are the things they should be learning. After all, “curiosity has no important place” in schools and should be replaced, at any moment, by conformity.
Unfortunately for the system, there are bad kids.
These students question why should they learn X instead of Y, and, in the typical fashion of an outlier, demand the power to make their own intellectual decisions. Things like what will they learn and how will they learn it.
Fortunately for the system, there are ways to break the will of those who resist. Even though, as Gatto points out, “it is more difficult, naturally, if the kid has respectable parents who come to his aid”. However, with a bit of luck, most of the parents were students, which means they learned the 7 lessons, which makes it less likely for a teacher to be dealing with such resistance.
This lesson is mandatory to keep the status quo. We use the control of information to shape reality according to a set of principles that we did not define as teachers, but blindly accept, encouraging (forcing) students to do the same.
Good people wait for an expert to tell them what to do. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned.
Lesson 6 - Provisional Self-Esteem
The self-image of any human being is a fundamental part of the way they’ll act in the world. Because of it, is really important that we find a way to make students question their own abilities and skills.
If you ever tried to wrestle a kid into line whose parent have convinced him to believe they’ll love him in spite of anything, you know how impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform. Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long so I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion.
Schools do this in a very discrete, yet, productive way: grade reports.
Think about it: a grade report is nothing but an indicator that signals how much approval is the school giving a student. By osmosis, it influences how much approval should parents give their children. And we all know how important the love of a parent is to a child…
This has such an influence on both children and parents that it compels them to make certain decisions about themselves and their future, based, it bears repeating, on the judgment of an external party. A pattern that will end up being perpetuated throughout their adult life.
This “dissatisfaction” is critical to good schooling.
Lesson 7 - You can’t hide
This is the final lesson, designed to instill the idea that, at any given moment, you can be watched, which serves a very unique purpose throughout all of our lives: to worry about what others (the experts) may think.
We create a system where students are encouraged to tell on each other, sometimes, even their parents. We want children to let us know how their peers and parents behave, and we want parents and peers to do the same.
A family trained to snitch on each other isn’t likely to be able to conceal any dangerous secrets.
Information is power since it allows for the crafting of a narrative reinforcing all of the previous lessons.
During school time, is fairly obvious how we should go about this surveillance. But what about all the time a student spends outside of school? How can we make sure we keep this surveillance?
The answer is a dark, but simple one: homework.
Homework is a type of extended schooling, traveling into private households, designed to reinforce all of the ideas we’ve mentioned previously. Students, when left with no connection to the school, could otherwise do or learn something with their parents or some wise person in their lives. Of course, for us, this would be devastating.
So, by offering a continuation of the schooling experience in the comfort of their homes, we remind them of our presence and guiding principles. We force them to comply with our rules, even when they’re outside of our context.
That’s why the school will follow you everywhere. We don’t know boundaries or have limits.
Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under tigh central control (…), they will follow a private drummer if you can’t get them into a uniformed marching band.
Reading these lessons and reflecting on your own journey through the educational system may ignite a feeling of revolt. I know it does to me.
The problem is that there’s no clear answer to this problem.
In one of my Problem-Solving classes, I explained to students that the first step to solving a problem is to actually figure out what the problem is instead of what it seems to be.
It’s hard to state the problem with the educational system without sounding like a conspiracy theorist, stating that there are forces that want to maintain the current system the way it’s operating. Nevertheless, I do think a step forward is to find alternatives to each one of these lessons, with a plan that goes beyond just stating the opposite.
Homework may be a good thing, just not in the current models. Having a teacher give you proper feedback as a way to grow your own self-confidence is a great thing, not an example of emotional dependency. Finally, supplying Intellectual Independency may be a good concept but it’s hard to actually understand how to do so.
I remember reading the conclusion of “Bullshit Jobs” by David Graeber and laughing while he pointed out that he, purposely, would not present a solution to the problem presented. Instead, he wanted to lay light on a new idea, and try to start a new discourse without (and this is me saying it), the accountability of being proven wrong.
I want to do the opposite.
I want to bring a concrete solution to each of these lessons.
However, I won’t do it alone. I need help, maybe your help.
If this resonates with you and you think you may have concrete alternatives, let me know through comments or emails. I’m getting ready to launch an Interinetllect Salon Series where we’ll have a discussion about each one of the lessons and try to come up with concrete solutions. Be on the lookout for that on their website.
Finally, I’ve said many times before that the key to a Modern Golden Age is education. A (true) reform will allow for it to emerge.
Building (and failing) What Drives Youth was my attempt to start that, in Portugal.
Building (and succeeding) Entrepreneurial Gym still is my attempt to start that.
Working with Michael at “The Socratic Experience” or organizing Kubrio’s Problem-Solving Club…All of these are my attempt to try to understand what are the elements that actually compose an alternative to everything we have right now in the traditional educational system.
I’m looking forward to whatever the future hold and one thing I’m certain of: I’m not alone in the fight for a different approach, one where students see in their education a key aspect to live a better life. As Gatto points out:
The primary goal of real education is not to deliver facts but to guide students to the truths that will allow them to take responsibility for their lives.
Armed with his vision, we shall march forward.
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