In John Taylor Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down, he contends that compulsory education impacts children in the following ways:
#1: It confuses students.
“I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion.”
#2: It teaches kids to accept their rigid class & grade-level placement.
“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.”
#3: It makes them indifferent.
“The lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?”
#4: It makes them emotionally dependent.
“By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command.”
#5: It makes them intellectually dependent.
“We must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices.”
#6: It teaches provisional self-esteem.
“A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be.”
#7: It teaches them that they cannot hide, due to constant supervision.
“I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.”
While I don’t necessarily agree with all he writes, he makes a pretty solid case regarding these consequences of the institution of school. Despite the fact that he wrote it in 1991, we are still seeing similar consequences today.
Nonetheless, here in 2018, we have so many opportunities to address these issues, even within the construct of “compulsory schooling.” I would like to visit how we might address each one today.
#1: Confusion → Seek out inquiry & concept-based learning in which students start with the big concepts. Start with the student by provoking thinking and connections. See my list of provocations here on concepts ranging from empathy to color to how we organize ourselves. And check out Laura England’s fabulous recent example with her students’ big thinking.
#2: Accepting class/grade-level placement → Encourage student voice & global collaboration. Solicit their feedback & regularly meet in class meetings to ascertain their feelings about “how things are” and whether they have ideas on how it might be better. And if they want to talk with students or experts beyond their assigned grade level, facilitate that! See amazing examples here.
#3: Indifference → Make time for student-led projects such as Genius Hour or Passion time for students to pursue personally meaningful learning over the longterm. See AJ Juliani’s guide.
#4: Emotional dependence → Reject trinkets & prizes in favor of intrinsic motivation. See this great example of how we can do so with regards to reading from Donalyn Miller.
#5: Intellectual dependence → Put students in the driver’s seat as often as possible, from planning their day to self-regulation (see more details on getting started).
#7: Lack of privacy → Ask what parents need (& otherwise view ourselves as support/appendages to the family, rather than family as an appendage of school).
There will always be limitations within the rigid public school system. However, especially as we make advances in technology that provides more opportunities for personalized learning and agency, there will always be ways to find flexibility to help learners take more ownership over their lives as learners. It may be the next best thing to fully self-directed learning.
(added note as a result of discussion from the original post: As long as there is government-mandated curriculum & testing, fully self-directed learning is not possible. This post was primarily intended to share student agency ideas with those teachers trying to “innovate inside the box” as George Couros put it earlier this year).