Monday, June 13, 2011

So - John Taylor Gatto's 7 - Lesson School Teacher

So - in one of my first posts I mention John Taylor Gatto and his article "The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher".

This article was one of the very first things I read when actively looking into homeschooling, in fact the first of his I read was an acceptance speech he made for a Teacher of the Year award (you can read it here) and it made enough of an impression on me to make me look for more of his writings, and so I came across the 7-lessons.

So - why am I writing this post when the link to the article is above?

Mainly because I've thought about them a lot of the last several years, and find it interesting that they're written by someone who is considered a very good teacher.
But I also know that many people don't always have the time to read through what can be lengthy and wordy articles, so I thought I'd take a shot at summarising the 7 - lessons he talks about in my own words and give a short quote from his article on each of them.

Before I start though there are a few things worth mentioning:
  • John Taylor Gatto has nearly 30 years experience as a teacher
  • He was named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991
  • He's written various books on education and schooling

So - What are the 7 Lessons?

Lesson 1 - Confusion

Lesson 2 - Class Position
Lesson 3 - Indifference
Lesson 4 - Emotional Dependency

Lesson 5 - Intellectual Dependency
Lesson 6 - Provisional Self-Esteem

Lesson 7 - You Can't Hide!

Looking at them listed like that they are certainly shocking, and if it's the first time you're reading them, you probably don't want to believe them, but Mr. Gatto makes compelling arguments for each one.

So before just completely dismissing them, consider what he has to say for a moment.

Lesson 1 - Confusion
Gatto talks about how quality education is considered learning about something in depth, and about how most "normal" people seek meaning in their lives.
Suprisingly though our schools teach just the opposite by a variety of means:
- They teach out of context, jumping from one subject to the next, each disconnected, there is none of the continuity or flow we find in the real world.
- They teach too many subjects & rituals, few of which bear any relation to the outside world.
- They teach lots of facts, learnt almost parrot fashion and without any deeper understanding or meaning.

I teach the un-relating of everything,
an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion;
what I do is more related to television programming than to making a scheme of order.

Lesson 2 - Class Position
Schools assign our children numbers and classes, and teaches them to "know their place".
They are taught to be envious of the better classes and have contempt for the dumb ones.
While for the most part children are expected to stay in their class, the teachers still publicly exhort them to achieve higher test success, with a transfer from the lower class as a reward, and will insinuate that future employment is dependent on these scores & tests even though in most experiences employers aren't concerned with final scores.

The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone
has a
proper place in the pyramid
and that there is no way out of your class
except by number magic.
Until that happens you must stay where you are

Lesson 3 - Indifference
So we all know the sound of the good old school bell, signalling the end of one lesson and the beginning of another.
Ever considered the effect it has on the learning experience though?
The bells teach that nothing is ever worth finishing, the bell insists you abandon whatever you were working on, no matter how interesting it may have been, and continue on to the next lesson regardless.
I teach children not to care about anything too much,
even though they want to make it appear that they do.
How I do this is very subtle.
I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation,
competing vigorously with
each other for my favor.
It's heartwarming when they do that,
impresses everyone, even me.
When I'm at my best I plan lessons very
carefully in order to produce this show of enthusiasm.
But when the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we've been working on
and proceed quickly to the next work station.
They must turn
on and off like a light switch.
Nothing important is ever finished in
my class, nor in any other class I know of.
Students never have a
complete experience except on the installment plan.

Lesson 4 - Emotional Dependency

This one is pretty easy to summarise, teachers can give and withhold rights and favours. Personal decision making is almost unheard of, even the basics like going to the toilet require permission beforehand and can be denied on a whim.

By stars and red checks,
smiles and frowns,
prizes, honors and disgraces

I teach you to surrender your will
to the predestined chain of command.
Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority,
without appeal because rights
do not exist inside a school,

not even the right of free speech,
theSupreme Court has so ruled,
unless school authorities say they do.

Lesson 5 - Intellectual Dependency

Well as Gatto says "good people wait for experts to tell them what to do"
In schools the rewarded behaviour is of those who wait upon the teacher and then carry out the command.
In this manner our children learn to think what others want them to, rather than thinking for themselves.

This power to control what children will think lets me separate
successful students from failures very easily.
Successful children do the thinking I appoint them
with a minimum of resistance and decent show of enthusiasm.
Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide
what few we have time for,
or it is decided by my faceless employer.
The choices are his, why should I argue?
Curiosity has no important place in my work,
only conformity.

Lesson 6 - Provisional Self-Esteem
School going children are continually evaluated, judged and marked, and their reports are sent home to show everyone just how good or bad they are down to a point!
Gatto talks about how little time and thought actually goes into these reports but yet they are often an important part of what makes our children arrive at certain decisions & judgements of themselves.

Self-evaluation,the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet,
is never a factor in these things.

The lesson of report cards, grades,
and tests is that children should

not trust themselves or their parents,
but need to rely on the
evaluation of certified officials.
People need to be told what they are

Lesson 7 - You Can't Hide!
Our children have no privacy in schools, no private spaces, no private time.
Tattle telling is encouraged, on other students and even one's own family.
Homework takes care of the free time they might have had at home
Surveillance is an
ancient urgency among certain influential thinkers, a central
prescription set down Republic, in City of God, in Institutes of the
Christian Religion, in New Atlantis, in Leviathan and many other places.

All these childless men who wrote these books discovered the same thing:
children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under

tight central control. Children will follow a private drummer if you
can't get them into a uniformed marching band.

After all that typing, I've realised Gatto is far more eloquent than I am!
There is a lot more to this specific article and I hope that maybe the above has whet your appetite enough to go read the whole thing, especially as I only covered the very basics.
So head on over to his articles if you agree, disagree or just want to find out more.

If not there is however a quote which impacted me and I want to share:

Fortunately there are
procedures to break the will of those who resist; it is more difficult,
naturally, if the kid has respectable parents who come to his aid, but
that happens less and less in spite of the bad reputation of schools.

Nobody in the middle class I ever met actually believes that their kid's
school is one of the bad ones. Not a single parent in 26 years of
teaching. That's amazing and probably the best testimony to what
happens to families when mother and father have been well-schooled
themselves, learning the seven lessons.

Just one final quote to finish it's the last one I promise ;)
School is like starting life
with a 12-year jail sentence
in which bad habits are the
only curriculum truly learned.
I teach school and win awards doing it.

I should know.

- John Taylor Gatto


  1. :( How sad and pathetic. :( What concerns me most, and I would sound like a broken record if you knew me. Is the fact that parents are SO willing to hand off their rights and responsibilities of schooling/educating their children to 'educational insistution's.'

    Schooling in today's accepted norm has only been around 200 years, before that the mother would educate her child. It was normal, and expected. ;)

  2. Mick, I think that most people don't even know or think there is a viable alternative.
    Also I don't think the intent in teachers & even whole schools is bad, rather that's it's a system that doesn't really work but because we're mostly products of the system it's hard to consider there is another,or better way.
    I agree with you though that it's a relatively new system, and I do find it amazing that so few people can understand how a child could possibly be educated without it!

  3. Mick, I'd have to agree with you that yes parents are so willing to hand off their rights. And if we have the time to teach, why aren't we? Why are we entrusting STRANGERS to do it for us?! Yet we get offended when these strangers do what the state/government tells them to do. How sad.

    It has taken me years to finally take that step and believe in myself enough to homeschool. I went to public school and so I was convinced that because of that, I couldn't and shouldn't HS. But alas, public schooling failed me. I want SO much more for my kids. I want them to learn and enjoy it and now that we're HSing, they will.

    Tanja, agreed. The government has convinced us that we're doing the better thing by sending our children off to public/private schools and trusting these strangers to care enough to make sure that our children actually learn. It takes awhile and sometimes it takes getting angry, to finally realize that there IS an alternative and it IS do-able. I wish that more people would choose to home-school.

    I greatly enjoyed this read. John Taylor Gatto is a genius.

  4. I found your blog while trying to find a copy of this article that I could Pin. Love it! Thanks for all the hard work you've put in here. :)