Saturday, June 25, 2011

Class Position: Lesson 2 from John Taylor Gatto

Last week I wrote about confusion as being the first lesson that is taught in schools in America, according to John Taylor Gatto. I am thinking about how these lessons relate to my experience in Australia.

I have been reflecting on his second lesson, Class Position.

Gatto writes:
I teach that students must stay in the class where they belong. I don't know who decides they belong there, but that's not my business. The children are numbered so that if they get away they can be returned to the right class.
Students are encouraged to do better in tests... but they have a 1% chance of moving to a higher class.

Students are told that an employer will hire them based on their grades...

Students are taught fear and envy the upper classes and contempt for the "dumb" classes.

Students are taught their place.

My experience? I can only tell it in terms of class position.

1. My first lesson was in English. I languished for the first year of high school in the lowest class of English because I had done badly in the school entrance exams. My teacher looked at me sympathetically when he saw that I was bored out of my brains, but for a whole year I was not moved. What a waste.

2. I was a slightly above average student in all subjects except in maths where I lived on the far left side of the bell curve. For my last years of school, I could have chosen to do the medium level maths, but would have been at the bottom of the class. I didn't want to risk a low HSC* score and be jobless, so I chose the much safer "maths in space" (for those of use who had vacuums in our heads?). It was humiliating for a while, but the score was the main thing.

3. In year 10, I miraculously topped a physics exam for the year and my physics teacher tried to encourage me to take physics for the HSC. Knowing that I was a dunce at maths, I didn't want to risk a low score by doing more challenging physics, so 'bang' I never studied physics again.

In these three instances, because of the reinforcement of "class position" in schools, I:

a) wasted a year being stuck in a class way below my capabilities
b) didn't challenge myself at maths and continued to think that I was a dunce at it.
c) missed an opportunity to extend my knowledge for fear of not doing well.

Now you might say that the above three points arise out of my faults and anxieties, but let's think about it in terms of homeschooling.

If I was homeschooled I would have:

a) never been in the position of working below my capabilities in English, as I would have worked at my own pace with virtually 100% attention from my teacher who was not constrained by the need to number her students.
b) addressed my difficulties with maths through one-on-one tuition that I never received at school.
c) possibly taken on the challenge of physics as I would not have been constrained by a fear of failure that school teaches.

d) or I might have done none of the above and undertaken a whole different approach to learning by studying one subject in depth, being involved with the local community, running a small business... you get the idea.

So, yes, I agree with John Taylor Gatto that school teaches class position. Do you?

* For readers not in the know, the Higher School Certificate (HSC) was the leaving exam for high school in NSW when I was at school. Your score determined what course you could do at university.

Read about Lesson 1: Confusion here


Therese said...

I completely agree with you Sarah. I was very good at maths but only average at other subjects. I thought I would not be able to pass so left school and went to business college. I wasn't discouraged by what people saud but my thoughts of what they thought. I thought they didn't believe I could pass. I don't know now if they really did believe this or not.

Vicky said...

I love John Taylor Gatto's books, Sarah - he was one of the writers who inspired me to focus on our children's strengths and encourage their passions. My eldest daughter is a third year student teacher and she's discovering the truth of all this for herself now - it's a bit of an eye-opener for a homeschool graduate.

Sarah said...

Therese,thanks for your comment! I wonder what would have happened if you had been able to clarify what people really thought about your ability to pass? Perhaps if you had been homeschooled you would have had a much clearer idea of your capabilities? Sarah

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah said...

Hi Vicky! Very interesting that your daughter will be a teacher! I come from an English language teaching background myself and while I taught adults I know how it is virtually impossible to address all the student's needs.While I don't approve of all of his methods I also find Gatto to be very inspirational.