Tuesday, March 10, 2009

John Taylor Gatto - Open Source Learning

While at the New Hampshire Liberty Forum this past weekend - I had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by John Taylor Gatto. He spoke about the many success stories of kids who had "dropped out" of formal government education programs (known as public school) to pursue real life learning, and who ended up establishing some pretty amazing and successful careers. These kids were nothing special - they had no particular high IQ - nor did they come from rich families. What these kids did have were drive and passion and the time to spend on developing the skills they wanted, which in turn allowed them to succeed in their pursuits.

I found that talk a pretty stark and markedly different perspective than that which came from Mr. Obama today, who spoke about education and extolled the virtues of staying in school and who also promoted the practice of longer school days and full year schooling (because summer vacations are just for farmers). And yet Mr. Obama even admitted he had to be tutored extra hours by his mother because his own formal schooling was inadequate - imagine that - he had to get up at 4:30 in the morning everyday so his mom could give him extra instruction (or so he says).

But I digress...
John Taylor Gatto spoke at length about "Open Source Education" - getting an education in life through a variety of means; from real life experience to whatever materials and resources you can get your hands on that enhance your ability to pursue making your way in life. He emphasized how these kids dropped out of school because school gave them nothing tangible - nothing real - nothing relevant. Government School was in fact a barrier, a restriction and a hindrance to them because it tried to cram into them things that they really didn't want or need. It continually told them that they would be failures by the school's standards. These kids in fact found fulfillment and success in pursuing their interests and their entrepreneurial dreams. And these were not kids with any special backgrounds or circumstance other than they were given a chance to do what they wanted and to find their own way in life. Gatto pretty much made the case that there is little justification for using "school confinement" for any practical training.

I happen to agree with him. Keeping kids in school longer will not make them any smarter or more successful achievers. Keeping kids in school when they don't want to be there is unproductive and hurts the kid in the long run. Now, I am not advocating that kids shouldn't get an education, but what I am saying is that a "one size fits all" delivery of education is failing our children. Formal education as we know it in the form of government schooling is not for everyone, and one can argue that the content being presented in government schools is sorely lacking in it's relevance and usefulness to many of America's kids. Kids should be allowed to choose and to leave a program of study that doesn't suit them and doesn't benefit them. Unfortunately, our State Boards of Education are seeking to prevent children from leaving and k-12 is beginning to look more and more like a prison sentence, and forced service.

Not every child should or even wants to go on to college. There are quite a few very successful people who never went to - or even finished college. Bill Gates and Richard Branson are two that come to mind. Gatto reminds us that Ivy League schools do not produce the most successful graduates, and that some of the world’s richest entrepreneurs are high school drop outs. Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie didn’t finish elementary school. An education matters desperately, but spending a fortune on college fees will not get you one. With the cost of college the way it is - most kids even leave school with enormous and crushing debt. of course, the answer to that from Washington DC is for the taxpayer to now pay the bill for every child to attend college .... because they claim that a college degree opens doors and increases your earning potential. Tell that to the MBA's that are waiting tables, or the high school or college drop out that has become a millionaire because of a new idea of theirs.

Gatto said that there are no significant relationships between test scores of any kind and performance on a job of any kind. He also made it clear that the quality of the school which a child attends is a very bad predictor of his or her later success, financial , social or emotional. What is a very good predictor is the quality of the child's family life.

Gatto believes that compulsory schooling cripples kids' imagination and discourages critical thinking. His latest book, Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling details that the harm school inflicts is quite rational and deliberate.
The real function of pedagogy is to render the common population manageable, remove the obligation of child care from adult workers so they are free to fuel the industrial economy and to train the next generation into subservient obedience to the state.
Gatto's presentation was amazing. He gave many instances of kids, inner city kids, who went on to pursue their interests. They did this through learning in real life situations working side by side with mentors and doing apprenticeships. They were able to come up with new solutions to problems and come up with new engineering designs based on actually working in the field rather than being tied to meaningless classroom study or chasing some sort of arbitrarily contrived credential. These were kids who became successful not because of any degree they held, but because of the ability they developed. Gatto made it very clear that degrees and credentials are meaningless in comparison to hands on and tangible ability.

Sure, people have to know how to read and write. That is easy enough to learn. But beyond that, Open Source Learning allows freedom and flexibility tailored to the child's needs and desires, not some school curriculum's desires or the desires of some superintendent or other pedagogue. Kids need challenges to help them learn to problem solve. They need imagination and no fear of failure or mockery of their ideas to tackle the problems that life hands us. They need to learn that there is not one right way to tackle a problem or to solve it. All too often government schools stifle kids thinking, and the practices in school run counter to the development of kids that can think critically, and consider different and unorthodox solutions to problems. Too many times they hear, "You can't do that", or "That's never been done" and they unfortunately learn not to ask questions, not to challenge established practice and not to speak out or hold a differing opinion. They constantly think in terms of what grade they'll get rather than learning by trying something new or even perhaps learning by being allowed to fail.

Mr. Gatto's view is that an educated person writes his own script through life, he is not a character in a government play, nor does he mouth the words of any intellectual's Utopian fantasy. He is self-determined.

I am glad to say that my kids were in some respects "Open Source Learners". They are all doing the things they love to do, and have had a mix of formal schooling and other experiences. My 17 year old has already started her own business, a music production company, and she is making business contacts and already doing the things she loves to do. She is gaining first hand experience in the music industry, and has learned vital elements about business contracts, marketing, time management and a host of other really important skills that no high school could ever teach her. She is a product of 12 years of homeschooling where the world was her classroom and freedom and flexibility in her studies allowed her to pursue her interests alongside becoming a literate and well rounded human being. That I think for us is the essence of Open Source Education.