A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving
the Crisis of
by John Taylor Gatto
reviewed by Jeremy Solomon
What is wrong with the school system to Gatto is not bad teachers, bad administrators, nor even bad parents.
Rather, it is the design of the institution altogether from inception. Instead of superficially searching for quick fix reforms, Gatto desires to see the system junked altogether.
Gatto sees most schools as prisons of
coercion, where students are regulated by a
life of fragmented knowledge, where they show obedience to strangers, where the design of education is dependency, obedience, regulation and subordination.
Schools make childhood surreal by:
• enforcing sensory deprivation
• sorting children into rigid categories (read: standardized testing)
• training children to stop at the sound of a buzzer
• keeping children under constant surveillance and depriving
them of private time and space
• assigning numbers to children which feigns the ability to
discriminate personal qualities
• insisting that every moment be filled with low level abstractions
• forbidding children to make their own intellectual discoveries
To counter this process his goals for school reforms are as follows:
• teaching needs to be deconstructed - teachers need to be centrally
involved in the development and maintenance of standards and practices, not just the drones of someone else's blueprints.
• decentralize school systems - no one right way to teach but allow
for other possibilities, such as home schooling.
• developing areas for privacy and solitude in character development
- schools are too big and too concerned with surveillance.
• less policing in schools - trim bureaucracy for more teachers.
• eliminating artificial subject divisions -students should solve real
world problems not abstractions in an interdisciplinary fashion and should
not mimic a Henry Ford assembly line with classes limited to 40 minutes.
Gatto also looks at a corollary issue: why do schools cost so much? Statistics have shown that home schooled students have higher test
scores on average than students who go to public schools. Even many
school dropouts do quite well. So why doesn't money generate into better
educated students? New York state, for example, spends 51% of its budget
on administrative costs. Local administration reduces this to only
25% spent on students. Gatto sees this a "protection money paid to the
How did this happen on a nation wide scale? Government schooling came to function as a jobs project where "the primary mission of schools and compulsion laws guaranteed an audience no matter how bad the show" (25). Indeed administrators nationally have grown 110% from 1983 to 1991 and increased spending by the federal government has only aggravated the problem rather than solving it.
How did the school system get so bad? Between 1896 and 1920 a small group of industrialists and financiers subsidized university chairs and researchers with the aim of bending schooling to the service of business and the political state. For leading industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John T. Rockefeller, public schooling was engineered to serve a modified command economy and an increasingly layered social order. And how best to do this? By copying the Prussian model of public education.
The Prussian way was to train only a leadership cadre while other students would be taught to fit in their place. Moreover, fear of European immigrants in the 1840s, specifically Catholics, made it essential to leading industrialists and educators to adopt a system based on three Prussian principles:
• The state is sovereign, the only true parents of children.
• State appointed teachers are the guardians of children.
• The schoolroom and the workplace shall be dumbed down into simplified fragments.
The Prussian systems
inordinate interest the foundations of Carnegie and Rockefeller took in
shaping early public schooling around compulsory education, which to Gatto,
has been from the beginning a scheme of indoctrination designed to
harmless proletariat held hostage by its addiction to luxury and
The Prussian school system relied heavily on the French philosopher August Comté who argued that one could create a useful proletariat by breaking connections between children and their families, their communities, their God and themselves. Rather than family enterprise and individual effort as the main agencies of personal definition, state institutions would do this better with an army of specialists.
So if the present school system is so awful, how can it be reformed? Gatto argues that there is no one way to teach, that schooling should be what the parents, community and even the children want it to be, an experiment not codified by the state. Rather than have standards set by politicians or administrators, schools should survive the market place, much like a business, with plenty of competition. Before the "Progressive" era of mid 19th century compulsory education laws there was great diversity and autonomy in education rather than one best system which was forced on everyone. Though not a proponent of vouchers, Gatto believes that a portion of school taxes should be given back to parents so they could shop around for better options than public education has to offer.
For schools to be worthwhile they need to have worthwhile goals such as:
• creating independent, resourceful and fearless citizens
• tapping the educational power of family life
• bestowing significance on personal choices
• arresting the epidemic of alienation and loneliness
• restoring democracy as a natural mission
• reversing the growing isolation of social classes
• regenerating community life
Gatto believes schools can pursue these goals and still teach reading writing and arithmetic.
Gatto, J. (2000) A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling, Berkeley Hills Books; ISBN: 1893163210
If You Want to be Rich and Happy: Don’t Go to School
In his book, Robert T. Kiyosaki (1993) has woven together compelling arguments and inspiring personal anecdotes about the destructive quality of the education system.
The education system’s inherent promise of helping young people grow up
to become adults who can realize the American Dream turns out to be an
In a world that is characterized by rapid technological and global changes, the education system has become an archaic institution that continues to cling to obsolete practices.
students are compelled to perform rote tasks of memorization and conform to classroom routines. Regardless of
their academic performance, most of these students emerge as dependent
adults who are incapable of thinking for themselves and adapting to our
According to Kiyosaki (1993), the current education system is fraught with many problems. First, educators undermine the development of creative and independent thinking in students with their emphasis on the right answer. Essentially, students are discouraged from exploring complex issues when their journey for knowledge is abruptly terminated with their discovery of the one right answer. Consequently, the students who thrive in the school system are typically skilled in rote memorization. However, they are ill-equipped to deal with the dynamic and complex realities of our society. Instead of preparing our young people to apply their thinking to changing situations, the education system has essentially produced graduates who are dependent on their superiors and limited by their lack of creativity.
Second, the education system is a competitive
institution that punishes
students for their failure to excel in their academic subjects.
The comparison between students and the categorization of students into
average and above average groups create a negative psychosocial
environment. Students who are weak in particular subjects are
identified and mocked by their peers, thus undermining their
self-esteem. At the same time, the other students lose their sense
of compassion and ethics as they are rewarded and celebrated for
“winning” at all costs (Kiyosaki, 1993).
Third, schools do not teach students about money and business. Instead, educators project the prevailing perception that money is an inherently evil thing, even though the promise of education is to provide one with a good job and financial security. However, Kiyosaki (1993) contends that money in itself is not evil. Rather, it is the people’s lack of knowledge about money that has contributed to their use or pursuit of money in self-destructive ways.
People do not need a complex education in order to become rich. Rich people have acquired habits and followed principles, which have enabled them to succeed in life. In Kiyosaki’s (1993) opinion, even a seven-year-old can be taught these habits and principles. Herein lies the fallacy of the education system: Although highly specialized subjects such as medicine and astronomy require tremendous education, getting rich requires little education.
In this day and age, people need to
realize that financial security is not equivalent to possessing college
degrees and well-paid jobs with solid benefits. Individuals who
have thrived in the school system by complying with its rules are
hampered by their dependence on external direction and fear in
Fundamentally, schools are destructive because they undermine the process of thinking and learning. Its rules and principles can only function in a static world. In reality, true security can only be realized when people possess the courage, independence and desire to explore new things and acquire knowledge on a daily basis (Kiyosaki, 1993).
Based on the above arguments, Kiyosaki (1993) presents an alternative education system that will increase its relevance to the needs of our
• Generalized principles: Students should acquire a set of generalized principles that will allow them to apply them to diverse situations.
• Principles of money, business and finance: Students should learn about these principles so that they can be prepared for the practical realities of adult life.
• Freedom of choice: Students should be allowed to pursue their interests in their work. The freedom of choice taps into the intrinsic passion of learning within students.
• Life-long learning: Learning is a perpetual process that does not end when people leave school. Instead of focusing on getting increased pay, people should be concentrating on acquiring knowledge.
With this book, Kiyosaki has highlighted the key issues that affect every aspect of life—education, work and financial security. Instead of preparing students for the realities of life, the education system has essentially sabotaged their natural ability to function in a world of change. Teaching students to conform and to search for the one right answer ultimately destroys their independence and their passion for learning and living. True learning does not end with graduation and a diploma. Only through the endless pursuit of knowledge in life will one achieve the promise of financial security.
Kiyosaki, R.T. (1993). If you want to be rich and happy, don’t go to school: Ensuring lifetime security for yourself and your children. Santa Rosa: Aslan Publishing Co.
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars,
Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
Reviewed by Kah Ying Choo
This book by Alfie Kohn strikes at the heart of the conventional rewards system that is entrenched in our schools and our society.
Although rewards require little effort to administer and yield immediate results, they do not address the underlying problems that will remain unresolved in the long run. Kohn identifies five key problems with the use of rewards:
According to Kohn, even praise may have a negative impact on children's performances. Fundamentally, praise cultivates the children's dependency on the opinions of others. Children who are overpraised perform in order to please their parents or other adult figures. In the long run, they lose their sense of identity and intrinsic motivation for performing activities they once enjoyed.
In contrast to the tacit control imposed by the rewards system, the three Cs - content, collaboration and choice - provide alternative guidelines for dealing with non-compliance of children. First, educators and other adults must consider whether the content is developmentally appropriate. Such content should meet the needs and interests of the children. Second, collaboration should be encouraged, thereby empowering children, and encouraging their involvement in the learning experience. Finally, choice is a component that enables children to take part in the decision-making process.
Ultimately, Kohn has painted a powerful
will grow up to become responsible and intrinsically motivated adults.
Their self-image will not be dependent on rewards and praises from
authority figures. Rather, they will possess the passion and strength necessary for their
vocation in life. This future, however, can only be realized if
the current rewards system is replaced by an alternative perspective
that truly nurtures the growth of young children.
Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Freedom and Beyond
by John Holt
The only middle school in Gainsville, Georgia, is getting ready to make some major changes to the way it educates its students. The school plans to adopt the "Programs of Choice" educational format; a format wherein students will still receive instruction in the basic academic courses as required by the state, but with a particular emphasis on linking the subjects together, and giving the students more intellectual freedom.
School officials hope that this new style of education - allowing students a greater freedom of choice concerning their academic studies - will improve academic performance, attendance, and behavior.
This method of reasoning is not new. Indeed, allowing students a greater amount of educational freedom is a central theme in John Holt's book entitled Freedom and Beyond (1972), which attacked traditional ideas concerning education, called for a restructuring of schools, and addressed several problems that are often attributed to open schools and the free schools movement. Such movements reached their peak popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s, and were largely inspired by the Summerhill School, which was created in England in 1921. At the Summerhill School, students were permitted to study the subjects of their choice, with teachers supporting their decisions.
The first part of Holt's book deals with the meaning of the word freedom, and its relation to education. Freedom, he notes, is something of which we know very little. We have been raised to believe that the only way in which our society can function is through the creation of rules and rigid structures, often imposed and created by authority figures. Holt explains the limits of freedom in education, and describes the tensions and problems faced by free schools. He warns us not to confuse freedom for unstructured education, devoid completely of any rules. Such a system, he agrees, cannot exist because, "Every human situation, however casual and unforced, has a structure." In the free schools, there is not an absence of structure, but rather, a more flexible one.
Meanwhile, in regular schools, the structure revolves around the teacher giving information and orders to the students. It is not as though free schools lack rules. In such institutions, children are aware of boundaries but still allowed space for self expression and creativity. Holt provides an example of this flexible structure by describing a British school, run by psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld, which had a special room designed for those people who wanted to make a mess, and a soundproofed room for those who wanted to make noise. However, in regular schools and in society at large, we often find rules that are vague and therefore, highly restrictive.As the title of the book suggests, Holt goes beyond the free schools movement. His book conveys the sentiment that learning is a life-long process, and should not be confined to a building, separated from outside interactions, or cut off from the real world. He also voices the argument that we must look beyond 'education reform', as we currently understand it, and examine our basic beliefs concerning schools and schooling itself.
Holt stresses that reforming our educational system means changing our conception of education, rather than simply modernizing schools and buying more equipment. In going beyond educational reform, the book also addresses the issue of schooling and its relation to poverty.
Holt argues that schooling does not necessarily end poverty, nor is poverty entirely caused by a lack of education. He argues that getting a degree will not necessarily improve a person's chance of getting a job, if his field of specialty is already overcrowded. Schooling and teachers are also damaging to the poor because they reinforce their feelings of exclusion, humiliation, and inferiority.
To support this claim, Holt draws from a passage
James Herndon's book entitled
The Way It Spozed to Be
(1971). The passage describes a white teacher who claimed that,
while a young girl, she had been taught only to speak to ladies and
gentlemen, and that her black students were not, and never could be,
ladies and gentlemen. Therefore, she refused to speak to her black
students for the entire school year, and sent them away from the room if
they attempted to speak to her.
Herndon's book contends that a deschooled society would be more appropriate for the poor. Such a society would provide them with different paths of learning and advancement, rather than the singular path provided by our rigid educational system, which is too narrow and often fraught with obstacles that specifically hinder the poor. Herndon also argues that open or free school may be a waste of time and money for the poor, and further notes that, only recently have we come to accept the notion that learning best takes place in an institution. Such a notion makes education a costly endeavor for our society.
Holt goes on to argue against big budgets for education, proposing instead a more hands-on approach to learning where students are productive as they learn. Holt notes the idea proposed by social scientist Paul Goodman, who suggested paying a small salary to many kinds of workers and craftsmen - i.e. garage mechanics, carpenters, etc. - in return for which they would agree to let some children observe them working, and answer any questions about their work.
The book concludes by pointing out that schools have diverted from their principal mission: to promote the growth of the children in them. Instead, they have been relegated to a custodial function where they resemble jails instead of centers of learning. In such a system, students don't feel compelled to learn, and will often act in a way that makes it difficult for others to learn.
The book also criticizes
school sports for creating an environment of
"winners and losers"; the
indoctrination in which schools engage; and state school attendance laws, which, if they
must exist at all, should allow students to choose the days on which
they will attend. Finally, Holt implores us to end the "tyranny"
that schools exercise over our children, stating that this is the
only way we can save their souls.
Holt, J. (1972) Freedom and Beyond (Innovators in Education). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Deschooling Our Lives.
by Matt Hern
Deschooling Our Lives, a compilation of short essays by deschooling parents, advocates, and educators discusses the various aspects of alternative schooling, ranging from the philosophies of its original supporters to representatives from modern alternative schools. The compilation focuses on core issues such as:
Separated into 4 sections; 1) Looking Back: Some of the Roots of Modern Deschooling; 2) Living Fully: More Recent Analysis; 3) Just Say No: Staying Home;
4) Schools That Ain’t: Places That Work; the collection of pieces are written by individuals with experience in the field. Although divided into separate parts, this book gives a well-rounded discussion of the deschooling issue.
Part One - Looking Back: Some of the Roots of Modern Deschooling incorporates articles from authors ranging from Leo Tolstoy to John Holt, each drawing on their own experience in the educational system. Although each of the writers gives a different perspective on the issue, they each discuss the failures of the current school system as well as ideas for how to transcend them. Each writer emphasizes the need to refrain from distinguishing intellectual from physical and advocate learning as intertwined with experience. This part offers various critiques of the general school system.
Part Two – Living Fully: More Recent Analysis focuses on more recent proponents of deschooling who form the core philosophy of the deschooling movement. Writers such as Grace Llewellyn and John Taylor Gatto discuss the use of arbitrary tyrannical authority in the current school system and the negative psychological effects this method has on children. Others focus on the need to create an environment that encourages children to view life as a lifelong process of questioning, discovery, and commitment to social transformation. Each writer offers their own criticisms of the current school system and visions for the future.
This compilation effectively takes the reader from numerous deschooling philosophies to examples of ways to make them a reality. A variety of ideas and visions coupled with diverse approaches to deschooling reemphasize the notion that there is no right way to educate a child. The structure of the book represents that education should not adhere to a stagnant curriculum, but center on the child and the community. Deschooling Our Lives is an informative reader for anyone dissatisfied with the current school system or looking towards a future of deschooling for their child.
Kohn's You Know What They Say... : The Truth About Popular Beliefs
Using humor and armed with expert studies Alfie Kohn attempts to question some of most basic beliefs on a variety of subjects. With respect to education Kohn tackles some major issues and assumptions, such as do rewards motivate people? Are boys better at math than girls? Does competition build character? Do kids read less because they are addicted to television? Does grouping students by ability help them learn better? Kohn's synthesis and critique of various studies-whose attempts at science are often times dubious-prove for some surprising results.
Do rewards motivate people?
The Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner popularized the theory of positive reinforcement, which maintains that presenting a reward after a desired behavior will make that behavior more like to occur in the future. Kohn sees this assumption as problematic when trying to encourage people to be creative. In effect, when rewards are tied to behavior, they can be
Why should this be the case? Kohn uses the term "intrinsic motivation," which is what psychologists call doing what you enjoy doing. When a task that was once fun is now tied to a reward, the task often becomes tedious unless a reward mechanism is attached. Study after study has shown that people who believe they are working for a reward feel controlled by it. If we are to receive a reward for our efforts, this is tantamount to concluding that the task is unpleasant and that it is necessary to be bribed. From the youngest student to the most experienced worker, rewards force us to focus narrowly on a task, to do it as quickly as possible and to take few risks. This to Kohn "is death to innovation and artistic exploration" (33).
Are boys better at math than girls?
Recent studies have concluded that out of a total of four million subjects in over 100 published studies, that girls have a slight advantage in math during elementary and middle school. However, come High School, boys regain the advantage in the United States, which also happens when students are given some latitude in choosing their courses.
The more recent the study the
smaller the differences of mathematical ability that are measured
between the sexes. Most recent studies refute biological differences
between boys and girls. For example, in areas other than math, boys have
closed the gap in such "female" areas as language and spelling.
Studies of parental views, however, reveal that mothers still believe girls were better at reading than boys, and this may affect the way boys and girls direct their academic efforts.
Does competition build character?
Kohn is unable to find any study that supports the idea that competition builds character. Rather, available research refutes the idea. Researchers have found that athletic competition, for example, limits personal growth in some areas. Students who participate in competitive sports often suffer from depression, extreme stress and relatively shallow relationships.
Kohn sees as ludicrous that character-as defined by tenacity or discipline-is forged by engaging in activities where one person or team can become successful at the expense of the other. Indeed, competition can destroy self confidence. A 1981 study revealed that competitive teenagers are less likely than their peers to believe that they can control the events that affect their lives. Children tend to have higher self esteem when they can cooperate with each other rather than competing against one another. According to Kohn, study after study shows that "competition produces people who are less generous and empathetic, less trusting and sensitive to the needs of others, less likely to see things from someone else's point of view, and less likely to use higher moral reasoning than those who are not competing" (83).
Do kids read less because they are addicted to television?
Kohn's analysis of various studies steers to the same conclusion: despite "demeaning, vapid and violent" programming that may contribute to increased aggressiveness and obesity, television has no effect on reading nor academic achievement.
In studies conducted in the 1980s with over two million children, the two activities (reading and television viewing) were rarely substituted for one another. However, a 1982 compilation of twenty-three studies did show that to a limited degree for girls and children, grades went down if television
viewing was over ten hours per week. As a side note, watching fewer hours of television was associated with better performance in school than watching none at all.
The idea that television is a mindless form of entertainment has little empirical support. Kohn argues that most studies conclude that young children do not watch television passively but generally stay mentally active while doing so.
Perhaps the most striking result of
television viewing is that the more it is
watched the more likely that person has a dismal view of human
Despite this increase in cynicism, an absence of television viewing
correlate with an increase in reading.
Does grouping kids by ability help them to learn better?
Kohn does not hold back any punches when he maintains that grouping students by ability is a "terrible idea" (166). Both national and international studies have shown that overall school achievement does not go up when students are segregated by ability. Some research does show marginal academic improvement when kids are placed in the top groups. Kohn attributes this to a more enriched curriculum and to better teachers. However, students placed in the lowest groups tend to "live down" to expectations of their achievement, or rather, lack of achievement. Students from the same socio-economic backgrounds tend to perform better in mixed academic groups than homogenous ones.
If this system is so counterproductive and unfair, then why is it so prevalent in American schools? The answer may be that upper level teachers and the parents of upper track students prefer it this way. Nevertheless, hundreds of studies have shown that children who are encouraged to help each other learn-rather than work individually or compete against one another-end up achieving more.
Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense
Reviewed by Kah Ying Choo
As a public high school English teacher, David Guterson possesses an insider glimpse into the problems of our education system. One of the core weaknesses of the education system is the restriction of learning within the four walls of the classroom.
In his book, Guterson (1993) not only justifies his decision to homeschool his children, but also explores the critical role of homeschooling in challenging the premises of public education.
Although people choose to homeschool their children for a variety of reasons, one of the key reasons is their disillusionment with public education. With its standardized curriculum that is designated for the masses, the education system imposes its stamp of uniformity on every student, with little respect to their distinctive strengths and weaknesses.
In contrast, homeschooling offers a child-centered
curriculum that promotes the children’s pursuit of their interests.
Rather than impose their expectations of education on their children,
parents allow their children to take the initiative in the learning
process by guiding them in the right direction.
Guterson and his children follow the latter’s interest by going on excursions and exploring topics such as salmon or flight in detail. This type of education is premised on the belief that children are spontaneous learners who are intrinsically motivated to learn in a conducive environment. Instead of educating their children for future employment, homeschoolers are concerned with the cultivation of the love of learning by igniting all of the body’s senses (Guterson, 1993).
In spite of its orthodox methods of learning, homeschooling has shown that it is academically superior to public education. According to Guterson’s father (who is described in the book), a criminal lawyer who has defended homeschoolers in many cases, homeschoolers have higher test scores than their counterparts in public education. Although the public is concerned that many of the parents are not certified for teaching, Guterson, Sr. points out that that homeschoolers perform equally well on the standardized tests, regardless of their parents’ academic levels and credentials (in Guterson, 1993).
Guterson (1993) also addresses another prevalent concern that homeschoolers are not given adequate opportunities to socialize with their peers. According to Guterson (1993), schools often provide a negative social environment with its emphasis on forming cliques, competition and tracking. On the other hand, homeschoolers are liberated from the pressures of school life to form their own perceptions in their interaction with people of all ages within the community. Without the negative influences, properly taught homeschoolers are more likely than their counterparts in public education to develop sympathy and compassion towards others.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that Guterson (1993) is not a
completely biased author who paints an idyllic portrait of homeschooling. In Chapter Seven,
he depicts the economic sacrifices made
by homeschoolers who have to devote a substantial amount of time and
energy in their children’s education. Because they homeschool
their children, homeschooling parents do not have a two-person
income. Thus, the decision to homeschool one’s children involves a
serious undertaking that affects other aspects of life.
In order to overcome financial difficulties and obstacles, Guterson (1993) highlights the use of the Internet, public libraries and low-cost community resources that can be integrated into the education. At the same time, he also proposes an interesting idea that brings homeschoolers and public schools together by allowing homeschoolers to use public school resources.
Ultimately, Guterson’s work is a celebration of an alternative
conception of education and learning. He believes that homeschooling offers an education that extends beyond the artificial environment of schools and exposes children to the real world that abounds with learning opportunities. Even more significantly, he supports homeschooling as a parent and a teacher because it combines the best of both worlds (family and school): “[Parents of my students] love their children with a depth I can’t match, finally; and finally teaching is an act of love before it is anything else” (p. 10).
Guterson, D. (1993). Family matters: Why homeschooling makes sense. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
No Contest: The Case
by Alfie Kohn (1986) challenges the celebration of competition in American society.
In his view, competition is a negative concept that undermines individual growth and development, as well as human relationships.
The damaging quality of competition lies in the fundamental fact that competition involves the success of an individual and the concomitant failure of another. Kohn (1986) coins the term “mutually exclusive goal attainment” to explain how competition allows only one party to attain the goal at the expense of others.
According to Kohn (1986), the high valuation of competition in this society is based on four myths. One of the commonly quoted phrases, “survival of the fittest,” as derived from Darwin’s theory of natural selection, has been misinterpreted to mean that only the strongest will triumph over others in the perpetual struggle among various members of the species. In actuality, this phrase refers to the community’s concern for the generation of surviving offspring that will in turn reproduce to maintain the existence of the species. Therefore, instead of celebrating competition and struggle, Darwin highlights the need for different members of the community cooperate with one another in order to ensure the survival of the species.
The second myth is the belief that
competition builds character. In
Kohn’s (1986) opinion, only people with low self-esteem requires winning
in competitions to bolster their insecurity about their abilities. Essentially, people with high esteem do not feel the need to prove
themselves by winning in competitions and beating others.
Kohn (1986) cites research studies to show that cooperative learning actually lead to higher levels of self-esteem than competitive settings. Rather, competitive situations can be detrimental to the development of self-esteem because it depends on the triumph of one individual (thus feeding their false sense of superiority) and the humiliation of the “loser.”
Kohn (1986) also attacks the myth that
competition is fun. Although the original concept of play
emphasizes process before outcome, it has become lost in the competitive
nature of many games and sports in contemporary society.
As they grow older, American children have lost their natural and spontaneous love of playing. Instead, they have forgotten how to enjoy the game with their focus on winning. Kohn (1986) cites an interesting study in which four- and five-year olds cooperate with one another in order to win a chess game. In contrast, their older counterparts sought to beat the opposing players.
Finally, the myth that competition increases productivity is also debunked in this book. In his meta-analysis of 122 studies on this topic, Kohn (1986) found that 65 studies showed that cooperation led to higher levels of achievement than competition while 36 studies did not indicate any statistical difference.
With his discussion, Kohn (1986) has illuminated the fallacies of competition. Nonetheless, the transformation of societal perceptions about competition will be a great challenge. Our belief in the benefits of competition has permeated our consciousness. Its assumptions and practices have become an entrenched part of our education, our business and politics. In order for our society to flourish in the future, it is vital for our contemporary society to eradicate this misguided perspective.
Kohn, A. (1986). No contest: The case against competition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
How Children Fail
by John Holt
Reviewed by Kah Ying Choo
In his groundbreaking book, John Holt, draws upon his observations of children both in school and at play to identify ways in which our traditional educational system predestines our young people for failure.
Holt argues that children fail primarily "because they are afraid, bored, and confused." This, combined with misguided teaching strategies and a school environment that is disconnected from reality and "real learning", results in a school system that kills children’s innate desire to learn.
The following is a summary of the author’s conclusions:
1. Fear and failure: Schools promote an
atmosphere of fear – fear of failure, fear of humiliation,
fear of disapproval - that most severely affects a student's capacity
for intellectual growth. External motivation – rewards such as
grades and gold stars – reinforces children’s fears of failing exams and
receiving disapproval from the adults in their lives. Rather than learning the actual content of the lessons, students
learn how to avoid embarrassment. This atmosphere of fear not only
quells a child's love of learning and suppresses his native curiosity,
but also makes him afraid of taking chances and risks which may be
necessary for true learning to occur.
2. Boredom: Boredom serves as another major obstacle, blocking both the child’s innate motivation to learn and his love of learning. Before attending school, children feel free to explore and discover those things that interest them. But once the child becomes part of our modern school system, both the institutions and the parents unknowingly sabotage their child’s education. Schools demand that children perform dull, repetitive tasks which make limited demands on their wide range of capabilities; such demands may or may not be suitable to a particular child’s interests or needs.
Schools provide a
‘cookie-cutter’ education, which compels
children to vie "for petty and contemptible
rewards", rather than cultivate their intrinsic love of learning, which
would serve to enhance their individual gifts and talents. Rather
that forcing our children to adapt to a system which makes them consider
learning a dreary and painful task, Holt advocates that children be
encouraged to learn by following their natural curiosities and
interests, without fear and guilt.
3. Confusion: Once enrolled in school, the child often founds himself being taught things that contradict what he has learned from his parents or other adults. Furthermore, the adults at school treat him very differently than the ones at home. This confusion is further exacerbated when a child, who is taught at home that curiosity is a positive and commendable thing, faces mockery and contempt from both teachers and fellow students for asking a question. Through his research, Holt has observed that most children – largely for fear of such ridicule – cease to ask questions by age ten.
4. Real Learning: Holt believes that "real learning" does not necessarily equate to mastering the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but rather, occurs when a child is encouraged to develop his own gifts and talents. Every expert has different views on what should be included in a child’s curriculum, and furthermore, much of what is taught in our schools is outdated by the time children need to apply that knowledge to real life. This simply reinforces Holt's belief that there is no single body of information that all children should learn.
Taking a quote directly from the author, "The proper place and best place for children to learn whatever they need or want to know is the place where, until very recently, almost all children learned it: in the world itself."
5. Strategies: Current teaching
strategies cultivate a fear of
humiliation in children, and do more to harm young people than they do to meet their needs. Such fear drives students to develop various coping strategies or defense mechanisms - mumbling, acting like they don't understand, acting overly enthusiastic so they won't be called upon, etc - to dodge the demands placed upon them by adults, or to avoid being humiliated in front of their peers.
Holt concludes that there is a vast difference between what children really know, and what they only appear to know. Rather than learning the content of a lesson, children learn how to perform, or how to survive by deflecting the teacher’s questions with the least possible amount of embarrassment. Almost everything we do in our schools tends to make children ‘answer-centered’, rather than ‘problem centered’, which inadvertently deprives them of the skills that they need to function in the real world.
From the time of birth until the age of three years, children have a "tremendous capacity for learning, understanding, and creating." Adults – either through their own actions, or through excessively dictating their children’s actions - destroy most of the this intellectual and creative capacity. Most frequently, we destroy this capacity by making our children afraid; afraid of being wrong. Holt’s examination of our present educational system is a critical and insightful study, one which forces us to look more closely at the lessons that we are unwittingly imparting to our young ones.
Holt, J. How Children Fail - Classics in Child Development (September 1995) Perseus Pr; ISBN: 0201484021
Reviewed by Kah Ying Choo
In his book, Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, Alfie Kohn (1996) shatters the traditional assumptions and practices of classroom management.
Conventionally, teachers work within a
“teacher-directed model” by controlling the children’s behavior either
by punishment or rewards. Instead of acknowledging the possible problems
of a dull curriculum or poor instructional methods, teachers place
complete blame on children for their negative behavior. Apart
from critiquing traditional classroom method, Kohn (1996) offers an
alternative method, a “student-directed model” that transforms the
classroom into a democratic community that recognizes the needs and
interests of both teachers and students.
The underlying flaw with using the traditional classroom management system is that it can only succeed in eliciting temporary compliance from the students. The use of extrinsic rewards and sanctions does not teach students to become caring and responsible individuals who will be able to act appropriately without external supervision or coercion.
With punishments, children only learn the lesson that they will suffer dire consequences when they are caught misbehaving. With rewards, students will learn how to respond positively only in order to win a prize or praise. Therefore, both punishments and rewards do not cultivate long-lasting moral values within children. In fact, Kohn (1996) cites supportive research to show that children who are taught with traditional classroom methods tend to be more selfish and uncooperative than those who are taught with alternative methods.
In contrast, Kohn (1996) believes
that the implementation of a new classroom management system that
incorporates students in the decision-making processes will exert a
positive impact on the students and eliminate behavioral problems.
Kohn (1996) highlights five ways for classroom management system that incorporates students in the decision-making processes will exert a positive impact on the creating a democratic community within the classroom:
book, Kohn (1996) has challenged the traditional assumptions of classroom management that has dominated the
school system for centuries. Although educators believe that the
education system should help children become caring and responsible
individuals, they have upheld a system designed to create unthinking and
compliant students. Therefore, it is time for educators to recognize the
significance of Kohn’s vision of an alternative classroom by answering
this question: What kind of future do we want for our children?
Reference Kohn, A. (1996). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World as Your Child’s
Classroom by Mary Griffith
Reviewed by Rebecca Uchill
Mary Griffith surveys unschooling families and compiles their responses. She reports on the theories behind and implications of Unschooling, and provides suggestions for general concerns and specific academic subjects:
Present-day Americans have difficulty imagining education that does not resemble school. But until the 1850’s “common school” movement, school was mostly optional. Most knowledge children needed to become competent adults was acquired through doing tasks along with adults and knowing that this work was essential to their livelihood. Along with the establishment of public schools and compulsory attendance laws came a general belief that school was essential for children to become modern-day citizens. There was little discussion about whether school was indeed an indispensable institution.
In the 1970’s,
educator John Holt used the term “unschooling” to describe the act of homeschooling. The term now refers to the specific style of
child-centered learning advocated by Holt. Today this method occupies
between ten and fifty percent of the homeschooling movement.
Unschooling in Practice:
Unschooling is an informal approach to education based on the premise that people who make their own decisions perform more competently than those whose behavior is controlled or judged by others. Unschoolers take issue with conventional education: If you take responsibility away from children, they have no stake in the outcome and learn to follow orders over problem-solving. How is one neat package of information the authoritative “education”? School puts parents in conflict with teachers. Unschooling is easier for parents because they need not plan lessons or grade tests but more difficult in that learning is ever-present and collaborative.
Unschoolers are curious and natural learners at any time or in any setting. They know people acquire skills at different paces and ages. They are interested in and tolerant of a wide variety of people. They are confident. They are critical thinkers.
When deciding whether to practice unschooling, weigh practical considerations such as legal, financial, and scheduling issues.
Every thing your children interface with is an implement for their learning. Supply books that respond to the children’s interests, not textbooks but “real” books written by and for people with an interest in the subject. Help them learn to search for those books, this will help them to think and read critically. Gardening, game playing, working with art supplies, and music are all good resources; it is not important to spend a lot of money or buy “kits”.
Technology can be a part of unschooling in the forms of television, computer and internet. Just because a TV program or computer software is not designated as “educational” does not mean that it offers no potential for learning.
Your child may need an outside instructor to teach a subject that you are unfamiliar with. Unschooled children may adapt well to courses where instruction is “sequenced to develop physical skills” such as with ballet or martial arts. They may not enjoy group lessons which require strict or product-oriented curricula, where other children are uninterested, and may be frustrated by inattention or misbehavior of less focused students. If you choose a private tutor, allow your child to be involved with the selection process.
Comparisons with “Schooled” Peers:
Both parents and children worry about “keeping up” with schooled peers. Remind them that schools teach different topics at different grades and encourage unnecessary competition and verification of learning through testing. Unschoolers can keep records other than or in addition to those required by states law in the form of grids, journals, portfolios, or informal transcripts. Not many unschoolers use tests as a way of measuring ability.
Kids might want to try going to school; sometimes an experimental week in a classroom satisfies their curiosity. If they choose to attend school full time, the family may need to adjust. Unschoolers who go to school tend to do well because they want to learn, it was their choice to attend, and they are aware school is not their only option.
Children will learn to read if allowed to do so at their own pace and in the way which works best for them. Read to your children to set the example and garner enthusiasm for reading. Children will learn to write along with learning to read and development of fine motor skills. Many parents downplay concerns about penmanship in exchange for encouraging content by becoming scribes or using the computer as a tool. Projects or email can promote writing skills.
Math can be taught through cooking, money, games, books. Often unschoolers with no formal training in math acquire mathematics through real world applications or can catch up with formally instructed peers easily. You do not need to keep up with your child in math, she is the one doing the learning.
Science is a “matter of attitude.” It involves observation, prediction and experimentation. Studies of nature or toys like pulleys, magnifying glasses, or binoculars are all ways for unschoolers to explore science. Older teens who desire a more formal “lab science” equivalent might want a textbook or mentor.
History need not be learned in chronological order or require memorization of dates and names. Maps and timelines can assist in teaching non-chronological history. Books, movies, family genealogy, environmental living programs and travel can all be vehicles to exploring history.
In a traditional school’s once a week regimen, focus on product, neatness, and “talent” in the arts can subdue the enthusiasm of children. Unschoolers tend to continue with enjoyed activities beyond a traditional school age. Because they are unaccustomed to “prescriptive” instruction, they may have an easier time experimenting or purely enjoying their informal arts activities. Most children prefer professional supplies to children’s kits. Some may desire formal instruction at a certain point. If so, talk with your children about lessons first -- what are their objectives? Would they like reminders to practice?
Unschooling as a Lifestyle:
Unschooling is a way of life that has many advantages over conventional schooling. It tailors learning to the needs of children and families. Unschooled children are more in touch with themselves and have a fire to learn that can otherwise be vanquished in school. Unschooling can reweave family and community. It does not arbitrarily categorize areas or levels of learning. It empowers its practitioners in their own uniqueness and so encourages tolerance of all uniqueness. It encourages the pursuit of passions and joy. A full society of unschoolers would be a better society.
The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World as Your Child’s Classroom by Mary Griffith. 1998, Prima Publishing, Rosewood California.
The Psychology of optimal Experience
Steps toward enhancing the quality of life.
A book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
For more than two decades, the author has been studying states of "optimal experience" (happiness, in plain English) - those times when people report feelings of concentration and deep enjoyment.
These investigations have revealed that what makes experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow - a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity.
experiences flow from time to time and will recognize its
characteristics: People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless
control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. Both
the sense of time and the emotional problems seem to disappear, and
there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence.
This feeling can be controlled, and not just left to chance, by setting ourselves challenges - tasks that are neither too difficult nor too simple for our abilities. With such goals, we learn to order the information that enters consciousness and thereby improve the quality of our lives.
Flow is interrupted by internal conflict and a preoccupation with socially conditioned desires. People in a state of flow are alert and attentive, constantly processing information from their surroundings. The focus is still set by the person's goal, but is open enough to notice and adapt to external events. The total involvement with the environment is described as "expanded consciousness" by people who practice meditation.
The rock climber Yvon Chouinard described one of his ascents on the fearsome El Capitan in Yosemite: "Each individual crystal in the granite stood out in bold relief. The varied shapes of the clouds never ceased to attract our attention. For the first time, we noticed tiny bugs that were all over the walls, so tiny that they were barely noticeable. I stared at one for fifteen minutes, watching him move and admiring his brilliant red color.
"How could one ever be bored with so many good things to see and feel! This unity with our joyous surroundings, this ultra-penetrating perception, gave us a feeling that we had not had for years."
Children experience flow in the freedom of play. Play has been called: "the work of childhood." The importance of healthy social play in child development should not be underestimated.
Lifelong flow depends on self-knowledge, which is a process of continuous discovery. Out of that self-knowledge can come a passion for a special interest that can develop into an important part of the advancement of civilization.
At some point, for most people, our present educational system interrupts flow. Internal gratification is replaced by external judgment and "hope," that fraudulent lie that if you suffer in the present, you will be happy in the future.
There is absolutely no justification for an educational system interfering with flow. Absolutely none. To do that blocks real learning and real happiness.
One of the reasons that home schooled children are more successful than institutionally schooled children is that the rigid structure that blocks the flow is absent. It would be wonderful if society could appreciate this process and allow the two systems to merge.
Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial, 1991, ISBN 0-06-092043-2
All The Time
Author: John Caldwell Holt
Reviewed By: Erica Fagnan
“…children, without being coerced or manipulated, or being put in exotic specially prepared environments, or having their thinking planned for them, can, will, and do pick up from the world around them important information about what we call the basics.”--Holt
“Learning All the Time” advances the idea that children are not passive beings, waiting to be taught basic skills by adults. Much rather these skills emerge as a function of adaptation to their world, where they pick up the ability to communicate and solve myriad problems. As such, children are natural speakers, scientists, writers, and problem solvers absorbing information from their surroundings at an alarming rate. Children learn to speak and translate this knowledge into reading and writing naturally (it is estimated that when properly guided [not taught] children can learn to read in 30 hours or less). Further, the solving of intellectual problems comes to children quite easily when approached from a conceptual viewpoint where relationships between ideas are demonstrated, and children quite readily extrapolate from these relationships.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are functions that children will derive with the help of a supportive environment and their innate critical thinking abilities.
The decrease in word complexity and the increase in the picture content in books is in part responsible for the difficulty young students have in learning to read. Holt demonstrates that the ability to read is inherent in youth, and can be attained not through intensive elementary school instruction, but through individual attention and support given to children when needed.
Writing is merely the visual expression of language, children will learn it through associations they make in their daily lives and being exposed to large amounts of print, not pictures. The integration of larger amounts of printed material into children’s education will thus prove to be more effective than lessons on writing that are currently being given.
Arithmetic is often taught to students in the form of rote memorization, e.g. 2+2=4, 2+4=6 with no demonstration of the connection between the facts being memorized. Such rote methods do little to inspire interest or learning in young students, who naturally turn to number games and other distractions when faced with such mundane lessons. Rather, relationships and fundamental ideas should be taught to encourage students to learn to see connections and underlying patterns in numbers. This does much more to establish mathematical problem-solving ability and form the foundation for learning higher mathematics.
In addition to the commentary on natural learning processes and the educational system’s impediment thereof, the text notes some fundamental viewpoints commonly held by schools that may serve as an obstacle to reform.
School as a Factory
Students are bottles to be filled with information, regardless of the shape, size, or consistency of the bottle. Educational officials decide what should be “squirted in” to the bottles, and what should be done with those that do not have openings for the information.
School as a Carrot and Stick Game
Students are laboratory animals given rewards for performing “tricks,” most often ones they will not need to know devised by distant lab scientists. Students receive carrots if they do the trick correctly, and sticks (e.g. an “F”) if they fail.
School as Mental Institution
Students are “patients” sent to the institution to be corrected. When learning takes place, the schools get the credit, and when it does not, blame is eagerly parceled out to students.
It is more useful to view children (and learners of all ages) as individuals who absorb and process information naturally, and perpetually learn from almost every experience.
To reiterate, children are young scientists with an eye toward understanding their surroundings; such curiosity is only natural. When given the opportunity, even babies will search out their environments for clues as to how things work. The point is that parents and teachers need to let them.
Learning is Perpetual
There is a flip side to the discourse: although the learning curve is the steepest when one is young, it certainly does not taper off when one ages. Learning is, and should be, a continuing process, but that does not mean that one must align all leaning experiences with an educational institution. Much rather, learning should be independent and in most cases occurs naturally, with every new experience.
Underlying the discourse, as the above points may have already hinted, is the idea that living is learning, and learning is a naturally occurring process. Rather than assuming they need to intervene, parents and teachers must guide and facilitate the absorption of information that is already occurring in youngsters. In addition, they must not obstruct it with artificially simplified teaching guides, forcing-feeding memorization of facts, and in general “teaching” with an air of condescension and disdain toward students. Indeed, children are capable of quite a lot more than we think they are, and it is time we start acting like it.
Learning All The Time by John Caldwell Holt. Pub. Date: August 1990. Publisher: Perseus Publishing. ISDN: 0201550911
A Record Of A Grassroots Movement
Author: John Caldwell Holt
Reviewed By: Akram A. Jaouni
Growing Without Schooling: A Record of a Grassroots Movement is a compilation of the first 12 budding issues of the newsletter ‘Growing Without Schooling.’ These Newsletters were published between 1977-1979 in an effort to promote ‘unschooling’, a term used by GWS to aid definition of education reform. Unschooling, From a legal perspective, this term refers to the “changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people i.e. to make lasting official public judgments about them.” (P.17)
The beginning of each new issue offers the publisher’s
updates and pertinent news regarding the ‘Unschooling’ movement,
in addition to data concerning the newsletter such as distribution,
subscription information and publication developments. Following
these brief updates comes a profusion of insightful ‘tidbits’ or
pieces of information compiled by the publisher and written by seemingly
wise everyday people. The issues covered include letters, stories,
informed opinions, and narratives on just about anything ranging
from social change in issue #1 to court ruling in issue #11. All
such cultural excerpts being evidence and indicators of the need
for education reform and unschooling.
In a nutshell, ‘Growing Without Schooling’, outlines the grass roots movement of education reform under several broad categories among others not listed here. The categories are scattered throughout the issues in easily digestible portions making the reading quite entertaining and informative. Among the major categories are the following:
All in all, Growing Without Schooling
is indeed a record of a Grass Roots Movement. It gathers and
collects information about an alternative means to education and
documents it in the classic information archive known as a book.
This is no regular book however, it is no novel, not a textbook,
nor a journal or a collection of articles. GWS is a compilation
of wisdom about a type of education that is simply not adequately
addressed by some major school systems. It is therefore a priceless
record of knowledge not to be underestimated or under-acknowledged
by conventional knowledge systems.
Growing Without Schooling: A Record Of A Grassroots Movement by John Caldwell Holt. Pub. Date: February 1997. Publisher: Holt Associates. ISDN: 0913677108
Challenging the Giant
Created to provide a voice for the alternative education community, Mary Leue’s
vol. I: The Best of Skole,
(1992) the Journal of Alternative Education consists of diverse writings from teachers, students and academics.
More than a compilation of individual articles, this book captures the unique characteristics, the independent philosophy and creative methods, which have defined alternative education over the last four decades:
• The empowerment of students, parents and teachers;
• The recognition of the need to educate the intellectual, physical and
emotional aspects of each individual;
• The acknowledgement of individuality and diversity in learning styles
and personal character; and
• The emphasis of human relationships and thus, the creation of a
For many of these educators, their valiant
struggle to create an
alternative type of education sprang
from their frustration with traditional methods of education that
destroys the students’ intuitive passion for learning. Even more
significantly, Leue’s (1992) anthology is a celebration of the vision of
extraordinary individuals who wanted to create an alternative to the
current society that is characterized by overconsumption,
disillusionment and the death of community life.
Reflecting the democratic orientation and the communal quality of an alternative educational institution, this anthology is divided into several sections: 1) Profiled schools that highlight the challenging beginnings of several alternative schools; 2) Articles written by prominent educators that espouse the philosophy of alternative education; 3) Poems that feature poetry produced by the students who play an integral role in the alternative education movement; 4) Studies that analyze and validate the effectiveness of alternative education; and 5) Book Reviews showcasing books that have contributed to the development of alternative education.
Although these individual articles have been written by different educators with their distinctive experiences, they are interwoven with common threads that have created the unusual and incredible tapestry of alternative education. In “History of the Free School,” Mary Leue (1992) depicts the controversial and difficult creation of the Free School.
Based on a learner-centered model,
the Free School sought to provide the children with an exciting place
for learning without imposing its
structure on them. More significantly, the Free School challenged
the social and economic prejudices of a capitalist society by creating
an alternative society. By acquiring several buildings in a dilapidated
area, Leue used the Free School to transform a downtrodden neighborhood
into a tightly-knit community that helped its members and shared
The “village” that revolved around the Free School was not only able to provide housing and education for the members of its community, but was also able to provide medical and legal assistance. Essentially, by overcoming seemingly insurmountably challenges and difficulties, Leue (1992) and her supporters were able to realize a vision of an ideal community that brought out the best in humanity.
This belief that the quality of education lies at
the heart of the society is
also illuminated in writings
such as John Taylor Gatto’s (1992) article, “Why Schools Don’t Educate.” According to Gatto (1992), the crisis of drugs, sex, violence and
overconsumption is a result of the traditional education system that has
failed to allow children to learn and grow. In the artificial school
environment that emphasizes student conformity and divides learning into
discrete subjects, students cannot learn about their strengths and
weaknesses. Furthermore, their learning is out-of-touch with reality. Thus, Gatto (1992) believes that students should be given a conducive
environment for independent study and exposed to apprenticeships in
various organizations, as well as community service.
Even though these two writings constitute merely a small sample of
the anthology, they reflect the passion and commitment of individuals who have dedicated their lives towards creating a new type of education and a new world. In spite of public apathy and opposition, participants in the alternative education movement have made personal sacrifices and have forged ahead with their vision. Unfortunately, they represent only a minority of people who have dared to voice the fundamental reality that the current education system is detrimental to the growth of our children and future of our society. Thus, this anthology offers a valuable forum for educators to spread their message and save future generations of children from being victimized by the current education system.
Leue, M. (Ed.). (1992). Challenging the giant, vol. I: The best of Skole, the journal of alternative education. Ashfield: Down-to-Earth Books.