Posts Tagged ‘John Taylor Gatto’

Reflections on Blogging in Education

May 29, 2010

I created this blog at the end of last year, since I intended to enter the blogging world before it became a course requirement! I hadn’t got around to using it, however, and the assessment imperative was just the incentive I needed to get going. Having made a start, I really took to the medium. Perhaps it’s the ‘blarney’ factor in my background – I certainly seem to have a lot to say. I think Meredith hits the nail on the head in her recent post, when she says that she ‘would have found it more valuable to have had direct experiences to blog about and used literature and research to inform these reflections’. There has to be some motive, and it has to be a creative one, whether one’s blog is serious and academic, or lighthearted and humorous, or artistic, and so on.

I have found blogging a very useful practice for a number of reasons. The blog is a place to:

  • formulate thoughts and reflect on texts of all kinds (i.e. develop a ‘voice’)
  • receive feedback from others
  • store resources for future reference
  • present a public face to the world (including development of a professional portfolio)
  • It is very gratifying to see that I have had so many visitors to the blog – over 800 since March, at the time of writing. And the diverse geographical distribution of the visitors is intriguing. Doubtless some of these are accidental, and the total number of visitors has been inflated by compulsory visits from classmates! But even so …

    I also like the fact that blog posts can be augmented and refined through ongoing editing. In this way, the writing can be polished and perhaps even evolve into publishable material one day. Ideas here are in the public domain, open to comment by others, and can be reworked in the light of such feedback. Jenkins puts the point well, in Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education (Part One):

    In a networked society, literacy is a social skill not simply an individual competency. Understanding how information circulates becomes as important as knowing how to put your ideas into words, sounds, or images. Creation is iterative: we reshape what we’ve created in response to critical feedback from others in an ongoing process of innovation and refinement.

    I haven’t found it difficult to establish a public voice online. I feel that I am just being myself, and not trying to present a face that doesn’t come naturally. To some extent this voice emerges from the subject matter of my blog, which tends towards the academic. I reserve my more lighthearted comments for Facebook!

    Neither has there been any problem with the technology. Being a semi-nerd probably helped! But the thoroughbred boffins have done an excellent job of making the technology very intuitive. As the constructivists would point out, it is usually a case of relating the new and unfamiliar to that which is already known. As long as one is operating within one’s Zone of Proximal Development, there is no great obstacle.

    The relationship between my blog and the course is an interesting one. As the blog took off, I realised that I wanted it to be a genuine project, rather than simply an onerous task for assessment purposes. It is also clear to me that this goes right to the heart of something fundamental to my beliefs about education – the best way to learn is to engage in real-world activities in which one has a vested interest. This is the social-constructivist position, and it is a point that has been made repeatedly by thinkers whose ideas I have referred to in several recent posts – people like Sir Ken Robinson and John Taylor Gatto. It could perhaps be summed up in the motto: if one doesn’t love it, one shouldn’t do it. The best learning happens when one is inspired by the subject, and can relate it to one’s previous experience (the constructivist position again).

    I’ve noticed that I have tended to move away from simply reflecting on course content, in favour of looking at some ‘big ideas’ in education. Often, of course, the two have overlapped, or intertwined, which is all the better. But I would rather post something that I am passionate about, that seems important, than post on every item of course content just for the sake of it, even if it costs me in assessment terms! There was much of genuine interest in the course, and it has been a great complement to my personal teaching philosophy. I have learnt many new things, and refined others with which I was already familiar. The e-language wiki is a great resource, and one that I’m certain to mine for years. But I haven’t felt the need to comment on every item here in this forum. I think it’s fair to say that my blog has been true to the spirit of the course, if not always the letter.

    Similarly with engaging with my peers in their blogs. While I can understand the need for knowledge to be demonstrated in the context of a university course, once this has been achieved there is a risk in commenting just for the sake of it. The latter is onerous and empty, and usually obvious to the reader. I think my intuitive distaste for this is behind my sometimes subversive humour! Genuine feedback, by contrast, is always welcome. This is the ideal of the Socratic dialogue.

    As is obvious from the foregoing, I have found the blogging experience to be overwhelmingly positive. Conceived in the heady days of the summer holiday, its birth was induced by course requirements, and it has finally emerged as an organic extension of my own philosophical and pedagogical tendencies, able to stand on its own two feet. I’ve no intention of neglecting it. The conclusion of the course is irrelevant to the ongoing existence of the blog – truly the baby has outgrown the incubator! That is surely the greatest compliment to the course co-ordinator, since it is the goal of the genuine teacher to make his students independent of him. I sincerely hope that I will be able to pass on this enthusiasm to students in the primary-school classes of my future. When it comes to applying the technology in the school context, I will bear in mind my own experiences as a blogger, as well as my educational philosophy, and encourage my students to blog about the things that inspire them. I think that probably has the greatest chance of success.

    Weapons of Mass Instruction

    May 29, 2010

    I can’t claim any credit for the catchy title of this post. It is taken from the 2009 book of the same name by John Taylor Gatto. The subtitle is ‘A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling’. I referred to Gatto in my earlier Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy, since he is associated with the latter term. Having got my hands on a copy of the book, I would now like to return to this topic.

    This post also links with another thread in the blog. In my last post, I embedded a talk by Sir Ken Robinson, in which he spoke of the need to move away from an industrial model of education to a more organic one: education must be customised and personalised to the people who are being taught. This sentiment is very much in keeping with Gatto.

    Gatto contends that the roots of compulsory schooling lie in a model of social engineering developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rather than in the professed ideals of universal education. By contrast with earlier eras (even the immediately preceding one of independent school authorities), modern compulsory schooling is concerned with uniformity, with grouping by ‘class’, and all with the force of the law. Consider the following extract:

    contemporary school planners treat children as categories: black, white, Hispanic, other; gifted and talented, special progress, mainstream, special education; rich, middle-class, poor, and with multiple subdivisions of each imaginable category, rather than as specific individuals with specific intellectual, social, psychological and physical needs.

    The rhetoric of collectivization leads quickly to treating groups and sub-groups as averages. This makes managerial labor much easier, but guarantees bad results no matter how many resources are devoted to improving the lot of the group … The logic of collectivization seeks to disconnect each child from his or her own unique constellation, particular circumstances, traditions, aspirations, past experiences, families, and to treat each as the representative of a type. (129)

    Compulsory schooling as a form of social engineering is inseparable from an economy based on consumption and, by implication, the avoidance of over-production. By removing children from their family and community contexts, and forcing them to remain in a classroom as part of a group of age-peers, school induces passivity and what Gatto calls the ‘artificial extension of childhood’:

    The same young people we confine to classrooms these days once cleared this continent when it was a wilderness, built roads, canals, cities; whipped the greatest military power of earth not once but twice, sold ice to faraway India before refrigeration, and produced so many miracles — from the six-shooter to the steamboat to manned flight — that America spread glimmerings of what open-source creativity could do all around the planet.

    In those days Americans weren’t burdened by a concept of the phony stage of life called ‘adolescence,’ or any other artificial extension of childhood. About the age of seven you added value to the world around you, or you were a parasite. Like all sane people, so-called kids wanted to grow up as soon as possible — that’s why old photos show boys and girls looking like men and women. All that takes is carrying your share of the load, and a few open-source adventures and presto! You are grown up. (39-40)

    The book gives many examples of individuals who, one way or another, escaped the tyranny of compulsory schooling and forged lives of independence and success. From George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Warren Buffet and Richard Branson, to name some of the more celebrated cases. Chapter 2 contains many others and I am grateful to New Society Publishers for permission to copy this chapter and link it to this post (see below).

    Prior to his resignation, Gatto was a multi-award-winning high-school teacher of thirty-years experience, and his views carry the weight of that experience. There are many anecdotes from his career, including several humbling ones where he acknowledges the lessons that particular students taught him. Although he resigned out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the schooling system, he does provide some positive suggestions intended to minimise the harm done by compulsory schooling.

    Chapter 6, for example, begins with a critique of television and computer entertainment as factors that help to maintain children in a state of passivity and consumption. Gatto realised that merely exhorting children to avoid such devices would have no effect. In order to combat the tendency, he developed what he calls his Guerrilla Curriculum. The principle was that by keeping children actively involved in real-world experiences, they would come to see their erstwhile spectator roles as less interesting. It should be understood that this was no attempt to create ‘engaging’ lessons in the conventional sense:

    Plunging kids into the nerve-wracking, but exhilarating waters of real life — sending them on expeditions across the state, opening the court systems to their lawsuits, and the economy to their businesses, filling public forums with their speeches and political action — made them realize, without lectures, how much of their time was customarily wasted sitting in the dark. And as that realization took hold, their dependence on the electronic doll houses diminished. (93)

    From Gatto’s description, what we have here is more of an induction into the adult world of action than the schooling to which we have grown accustomed. And it worked!

    The biggest surprise for me was how easy this was to accomplish, it took neither talent nor money; anyone could duplicate my results, I won’t deny its hard work to try to pull off the trick with 130 kids a year, but a lot of effort is wasted in finding ways to circumvent the dead hand of school administration. In a system more congenial to learning (and less to social control) the thrill of doing the labor would more than outweigh the effort required. And, of course, if everyone in the society were on the same page about the necessity of developing intellect and character in the young (not weighting them down with chains), the work would be … child’s play.

    Over the years my students launched so many useful projects and earned so many plaudits and prizes that I found myself showered with awards from the school establishment which had no idea how I got such results. When I tried to explain to the awards committees how little I had to do with the achievements, I suspect it was discounted as obligatory modesty, but these days when I have nothing more to prove to myself about who I am, I sincerely hope you’ll believe me. Take your boot off the downtrodden necks of your children, study their needs not your own, don’t be intimidated by experts, re-connect your kids to primary experience, give off the game of winners and losers for a while, and you’ll get the same results I did. Maybe better. (96)

    Gatto tells us that he ‘stumbled upon a formula to change the destiny of students, one at a time’ (101). The first step was to build a personal profile for each student, relying not on school records but on data from ‘parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and enemies — anyone who could provide intimate information to the emerging personal narrative’ (101-2).

    Once a profile was created, the 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, deficiencies which led to humiliation (I get beat up all the time) or failures of opportunity (I want to do modeling work but only the rich kids know how to present themselves to get that) — that was the weaknesses part. I exercised virtually no censorship and whatever the individual kid’s priorities were became mine. I didn’t consult with a single school administrator to put this program in place, nor with any other teacher — only with parents from whom I extracted promises of silence.

    I know this sounds like a hideous amount of effort, and politically impossible in a large urban school, but it was neither: it required only will, imagination, resourcefulness, and a determination to scrap any rules which stood in the way … Acting in my favor was the fact that with this new curriculum each kid was motivated, worked much harder than I legally could have asked him or her to do, and recruited outside assistance with resources no classroom teacher could match. And now for the first time each had a personal reason to work hard, one that was self-grading. (Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, 102)

    Finally, Gatto (in an echo of Ivan Illich — see Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy) sees some hope in the emerging social phenomenon of online interconnectivity:

    Thanks to a 24-year-old college dropout named Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook, and others like him who founded YouTube, MySpace and other social networks still unmonitored by political authorities or academics, thanks to the World Wide Web and the Internet as platforms for individually generated connections, the power of school as a great dis-connector has been weakened.

    These vehicles enable people without any particular status, to hook up with one another; they even allow mixtures of nobodies and somebodies to exchange ideas and plans; they provide a fountain of information which replenishes itself constantly; they encourage creativity among masses consigned by schooling to become reliable consumers. Even though this new force is still in early childhood, already it has caused governments to surrender a great deal of power over their own currencies. It has emboldened accumulations of capital to move at the speed of light from one country to another, destabilizing conventional markets, making national loyalties conditional and patriotism questionable. Thanks to the vast new ball of connections, official truth in every conceivable area is subject to verification by a promiscuous collection of uncertified critics armed with the tools to back up their contrarian critiques.

    Thanks to the Internet, the concept of mass schooling by experts is nearly exhausted. (113)

    Weapons of Mass Instruction is distributed in Australia by Footprint Books. I purchased my copy from The Book Depository.

    Chapter 2 can be viewed, printed or downloaded from here:

    Weapons of Mass Instruction – Gatto (Chapter 2)

    Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy

    May 10, 2010

    As teachers, we are encouraged to instil in our students a critical attitude towards the text (in the multi-modal sense, including television, film, web pages, music, art and other forms of expression). This attitude is covered by the term Critical Literacy. Such a critical approach is what we expect of all functioning members of a democratic society, which is why we want our young people to imbibe it. By the same token, therefore, we teachers should adopt a critical attitude to our own profession and our working practices. Unsurprisingly, there is already a body of literature devoted to this topic, which is referred to as Critical Pedagogy.

    Critical Pedagogy reminds us that all institutions are marked by relations of power: this applies to education as much as to government, industry, the military and the media. Indeed, it could be argued that education plays a special role in the transmission of power relations to future generations, given the immaturity and malleability of the minds in question. The power that teachers exercise over their students is easily recognised, but there are also power relations between junior and senior teachers, between teachers and the principal, between the principal and the school council or board, and between the individual school and the system to which it belongs. This is not to say that power is bad in itself, just that we need to take a critical attitude towards its exercise, whether by ourselves or by others.

    I was reminded of this by an interview with John Taylor Gatto. Gatto spent thirty years teaching in the New York public schooling system, and was named New York City Teacher of the year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Gatto is critical of compulsory schooling, defends homeschooling and unschooling, and has published books with titles like Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992), The Underground History of American Education (2001), and Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2008). A basic summary of his ideas, in his own words, can be found here.

    John Taylor Gatto

    John Taylor Gatto (1935-): American author, former school teacher, and social critic

    This in turn brought to mind a book I read when I was studying philosophy in Dublin twenty years ago. Ivan Illich first published Deschooling Society forty years ago this year. The book still sits in my bookcase, but the Wikipedia article reminds me that Chapter 6 is entitled ‘Learning Webs’ and suggests the use of computer technology to support independent learning:

    The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.

    A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

    Ivan Illich

    Ivan Illich (1926-2002): Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and social critic

    Illich died in 2002, and so survived long enough to witness the development of the Internet, but a quick search fails to find any specific comments by him on it. One blog post opts for a negative verdict, while a 4 May comment on the Facebook page devoted to Illich, suggests a more positive interpretation – Leigh Blackall asks:

    Tell me Illicheans.. what would he say about social media and networked learning through such popular internet? On the one hand I see him as dismissing it as false, but on the other, in particular chapter 6 of Deschooling, he would surely embrace it?

    And Christian St responds:

    This came to my mind instantly when reading Deschooling society. Illich proposes computer-aided peer matching based on the common interest to discuss a certain book, article, film etc… In my opinion, this has Web2.0 written all over it. The next step after peer matching is to arrange a face-to-face educational meeting. I wonder if providing the possibility to “meet” via chat or videoconference is somehow contrary to Illich’s vision. Surely face-to-face communication is ideal, but it severely limits the choice of potential peers.