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Thoughts on Gatto, pt. 3 – position and indifference September 9, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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This is the third in a series of posts discussing my thoughts on John Taylor Gatto’s Seven Lesson Schoolteacher.

Gatto’s second lesson is that one is anchored (or ought to be) to their position. In a classroom, this basically means showing subordination to the teacher. During the rest of the school day, one learns the social pecking order and that they must stick with it. The third lesson is indifference: one must not become so involved in an idea that they resist changing or giving into the will of the authority.

I think that, of all the lessons, these two were profoundly real for me, personally. I remember transferring to a new high school in the middle of my sophomore year. I was taking chemistry, which was not a big deal in and of itself. However, when I went into my new chemistry class, I could not figure out why I was the only sophomore among juniors. Things were so confused that I was even assumed to be a junior by the other students and given an invite to attend prom. To this day, I still have friends confused about my graduation date because I had several friends graduate the year before me.

This was because the principal looked at my address and put me in the “terminal” chemistry class. Despite the fact that sophomores who took chem were generally put into one class because they would likely be taking more science, I was assumed to be taking my last science class based on the location of my domicile (a very poor area of town). The same happened with math. All through my high school career, I was told that I shouldn’t try too hard or take too many classes or hard classes or college classes. Even with an acceptance letter from Caltech in hand, the school counselors had the audacity to suggest I would be better off at a tech school.

Indifference was also something that I noticed and came to resent. I truly enjoyed the activities in which I participated after school. I got to learn programming, build my own musical instruments based on principles of physics, and learn from other people how life *really* was in their home country. I won’t say all classes and teachers encouraged indifference. I mentioned my Spanish teaching allowing me to spend hours in the resource room every day after school. I worked on art projects for hours and hours that most people slapped together in five hours during class time. And my physics teacher in high school started giving me books on quantum mechanics and particle physics…which I really wish I’d understood better.

On the other hand, I remember a programming class where we learned logo. I completed the given assignment and then spent a lot of my time learning how to draw “3D” shapes using angles and other things. This seriously annoyed my teacher because he wanted me to spend all that time on the assignment, which I had finished and done a fairly good job on. I wanted to learn more, and he was more concerned about me spending my time on busy work.

I think that, for some people, many of whom are teachers, having their kids ‘fit’ into society is very important. Position is important. People shouldn’t care about ideas but more about what people think. And it’s very obvious that this is of primary importance for most kids. The emphasis on materialism and superficiality is pretty obvious just walking into any school, especially high school.

Avoiding these lessons is easy as a homeschooler. Giving time kids to pursue their interests is one method. Allowing them to study areas in depth is another. If you are like me, you also agree that there is some ‘jumping of hoops’ involved in getting that piece of paper which states you are formally educated. I’m very honest with my kids about it: there are things that are really worth pursuing, and there are things that need to be done. Only you can decide for yourself which is which, but don’t waste more time than necessary on arbitrary requirements (no matter how justified someone thinks they may be) if they take you away from your passions and interests.

And position is easy if you’re the only one: you’re the best, but you’re also the worst. You can only compete against one person: yourself. Working with other people becomes much easier when you aren’t constantly trying to show them up and impress the teacher; it becomes genuine collaboration.

In contrast, these are two of the most difficult things to deal with in a classroom environment. Students are supposed to earn grades, which makes them compete against each other. Many are aiming for the top, which is admirable. However, they’re doing so while also living with the notion that ideas and academics aren’t important. Social status is far more important. Is it any wonder that students care more about their grades than the actual content of the course?

I think undoing the lesson of position in a classroom is nearly impossible. Probably the best way of doing so is creating a more socratic environment. I have seen this done, even in technical classes. Having students read papers and collaboratively present the material, discussion of different approaches, etc. Admittedly, these work far better in a smaller classroom. In larger classrooms, I think the best way is by incorporating things like Twitter into the classroom, allowing students to interact with the professor during class time, rather than reinforcing the notion of the teacher as authority because he/she is standing and lecturing in front of and down to the students. The point is that students need to be allowed to interact intellectually with professors to really begin to undo this lesson…something which is difficult as that is how the system was built.

Another point is creating a collaborative classroom environment instead of one in which students go for the jugular. I have noticed that this takes different forms depending on the type of classroom, but the larger the classroom, the more likely to have an environment where people are trying to show each other up. I also find that the same is true in a male-dominated classroom. Finding ways to get people to collaborate without competing is an awesome idea, although horribly difficult to implement.

On the other hand, I think colleges are one of the best places to begin to undo indifference. This is where students will finally get to focus on their passions. One of the best things a professor can do is to be passionate about what they are teaching. Nothing kills joy of learning like someone who couldn’t care less about helping a person learn. Teachers who instill interest will not just teach facts but find ways to show how their topic is relevant and compelling, giving a student a real desire to go beyond the lecture material when outside of class.

Class projects are one of the best ways of doing this. Whenever you get someone to talk about a project they did, such as a capstone, they always seem to talk about how much they learned and how much time they spent on it. Not everyone is this way, of course, but many people are. When they are encouraged (and sometimes forced) to learn a topic with significant depth, they find joy in the knowledge and the challenge.

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Comments»

1. Chris Gammell - September 9, 2010

Perhaps you should buy cherishtheprofessor.net as well. Regardless of whether you do, “Cherish the Professor” gives me hope for future generations, be it just your son you’re educating or college students at large. Seems like you’ve got the principles down pat.

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2. Fluxor - September 9, 2010

“Collaborative environment”. How “female” of you. If this is anything to go by, when WOMENZ eventually rule the planet, it’ll be a much more collaborative place indeed. 😉

Joking aside, there’s friendly competition, which can be an excellent motivator, and then there’s destructive competition, in which, as the famous sport saying goes, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

I’m certainly not sold on the idea of collaboration without competition. I think there’s a healthy balance somewhere in between. Practically speaking, that optimal balance is different for each individual. Thus, no matter how well designed the class, the fact that there exists a class at all means that it cannot be optimal for all students.

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