A few weeks ago I posted Part I of a two-part review of John Taylor Gatto's book, Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling. In that first post, I gave an overview of Gatto's core thesis that the factory model of schooling that has dominated American education for 100 years is strangling the creativity and critical thinking of generations of children. Here in Part II I'll offer some reactions to Gatto's argument, focusing on the instructional implications of this critically important book.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, Weapons of Mass Instruction is long on diagnosis, but short on meaningful solutions. Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year, lays out a devastating critique of American schooling, describing a kind of institutionalized, often soul-killing learning environment that will be instantly recognizable to any honest and self-aware educator.
While I have emotional sympathy for all of these recommendations, Weapons of Mass Instruction left me feeling unsatisfied. The book felt unfinished, and I longed for a more specific set of policy and practice suggestions that might move us closer toward the bright, positive vision that is actually at the heart of Gatto's otherwise grim and pessimistic argument. That vision is revealed in Gatto's actual philosophy and practice of teaching, which he exercised with great success (he is now retired), even within the frustrating limits of traditional schooling.
Gatto's classroom was radically student-centered. Rejecting the notion that "adolescents" are irresponsible and need constant supervision, Gatto designed his high school English classes around self-driven, student-initiated learning projects that sent his pupils out into the streets of New York City to explore, inquire, research, and engage with the actual world. He developed a detailed profile of each student, and then...
With a rich profile in hand a personal course could be custom-tailored for each kid, put together in partnership with the student, flexible enough to allow constant feedback to change the design...
[T]he second step was to add a personalized Wishes and Weaknesses component. I asked each student to list three things each wanted to be knowledgeable about by the end of the year -- that was the wishes part -- and three weaknesses he or she wished to overcome...I exercised virutally no censorship and whatever the individual kid's priorities were became mine.
Gatto called his approach the "Guerilla Curriculum" because he did not ask anyone's permission and in fact kept most of his teaching activities on the down-low, quietly enlisting his students and their parents into his learning conspiracy:
"I didn't consult with a single administrator to put this program in place, nor with any other teacher -- only with parents from whom I extracted promises of silence."
The results? "I found myself showered with awards from the school establishment which had no idea how I got such results," Gatto writes.
Lest this approach sound completely disconnected from any established learning goals, Gatto notes that he did in fact have learning targets to guide his work, but not ones you expect to find in the state curriculum:
The general targets were many: independence, self-reliance, strategic planning, a good command of the active literacies of speaking and writing, courage, curiousity, an ability to write a script for one's own life.
Don't these sounds like the real skills and dispositions people are going to need in this much-anticipated 21st century? Gatto's approach to teaching echoes the message Tony Wagner brought to WKU last fall. Wagner, the author of The Global Achievement Gap, argues that our test-driven school culture is actually depriving students of the opportunities to develop critical-thinking skills, autonomy, and self-confidence.
Wagner is not nearly so radical as Gatto, but he makes a similar case, and even argues that a focus on the whole child and her intellectual development (not just her mastery of rote knowledge) will actually lead to the higher test scores, to whatever extent those tests actually measure anything meaningful (which is subject to a worthy debate also).
The bottom line is that Gatto and Wagner are challenging us to totally rethink our current approach to schooling, and to do so in a way that is far more sweeping than tinkering with our instructional strategies. The whole structure and nature of schooling needs to change. That definitely means a radical shift toward more student-centered learning strategies, but will also likely require a thorough rethinking of "how" we do "school." Project-based learning, Montessori methods, charter schools, and other mechanisms of expanding school choice may also play a role.
The bottom line is that, however much some kids may seem to be excelling in our present system of schooling, most are capable of far more. Our current modes of education are outdated, insufficient, and, Gatto would argue, harmful to children on many subtle levels. It's time to lay down our weapons of mass instruction and find a better way.