#102/111: Dumbing Us Down

At first, I had not read the book because of its sensationalist title which would have been a pity. John Gatto, former school teacher and winner of lots of teacher of the year awards, talks about what he taught in his year as a teacher. He taught in several different schools, public, privates, some in wealthy school districts, other in Brooklyn but he always saw the same. He taught: confusion, indifference and dependency.

It is reasonable to ask how one can become teacher of the year with this curriculum. Let’s start at confusion. Pupils learn bits of knowledge: they learn that Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, they learn that force equals mass multiplied by acceleration, they may learn the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But they don’t learn something in depth. They don’t understand different schools of thought, they don’t understand different approaches to learning in depth and they don’t intuitively can apply what they learned. Pupils learn bits but not the whole picture.  

What about indifference? You get into your class, learn for 45-90mins and then you get into the next class as if it isn’t worth learning for more than 90mins at a stretch. And if so, you should do it after school. You may be happy that some classes only last 50mins.

The last one I want to highlight is dependency. Kids learn that the have to please their teacher to be rewarded. “If I’m a good boy my teacher will be nice to me.” Furthermore, the teacher says what’s right. They studied their subject for years, they have to know it. They are the experts. That is, kids are emotional and intellectual depend on teachers.

You may agree but say: “Sure, that’s bad but it is necessary.” - Gatto’s recommendation is destroying the monopoly. He wants to create a diverse market place for education. He’s a proponent of unschooling (and home schooling). Kids shouldn’t be forced to learn because they don’t have to, they are natural curious and furthermore it’s damaging to their learning. Instead of learning thirty different subjects about 90mins per week for 12 years, kids should learn what their interested in. He cites studies that show that you can learn in about 200 hours the basics in how to read, write and calculate and afterwards kids should explore for themselves what they are interested in.

I will address some further implications of unschooling in later posts for other books. It’s actually pretty interesting that more recent studies show that this approach of learning is better for education that it’s alternatives.

In conclusion, I liked Dumbing Us Down. John Gatto collected several of his articles and speeches and presents his ideas in a clear manner. Some students will be relieved that a teacher understood how they felt in their schooldays.