Can You Get an Education in Spite of School?

A few weeks ago my family and I attended a large homeschooling conference in St. Charles, IL. This is the 13th year this conference has been held and it is attended by hundreds of homeschooling parents and children.

The featured speaker this year was John Taylor Gatto, a former New York state public school teacher who now speaks out against traditional schooling. The values he espouses are very much in line with Montessori philosophy; you can read my take on the Montessori/ Gatto connection in my previous post If John Taylor Gatto and Maria Montessori Could Meet.

Mr. Gatto is a hero of mine, and I was thrilled to hear him speak. I got to shake his hand and talk to him briefly afterward, which was very exciting. The topic of his talk was “How to Get an Education in Spite of School”, which immediately tells you where he’s at when it comes to education.

Mr. Gatto’s thoughts are radical and he makes no apology for that fact. I most appreciate that he calls us to question our long-held assumptions about education and learning. He finds interesting information from unlikely sources.

What’s Really Important for College?

Gatto has spent some time talking to the admissions directors for both Harvard and Princeton. They told him that every year they turn away hundreds of students who have perfect SAT scores and perfect GPAs. What are they looking for, then? The answer might surprise you.

At both schools, they are looking for evidence that the student in question made a difference to society (as one of the admissions directors put it, “Special people usually distinguish themselves before the age of 18”). They look at hobbies and special interests, because that’s where children make their own choices about what they do with their free time.

How can someone under the age of 18 make a meaningful contribution to society? Some ways include:

  • starting and running a successful business
  • serving in the community
  • founding an organization that serves others (especially those in need)
  • completing an apprenticeship

Mr. Gatto repeatedly says that there is no significant correlation between grades, test scores, and real life achievement. He listed many extremely successful people who dropped out of school at some point and didn’t attend college, including Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen, co-founders of Microsoft; Michael Dell (founder of Dell Computers); and Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook).

Life Skills that Really Matter

He also suggests that we re-think what we teach children based on our own life experiences. He asked us to take a week or two to reflect on the skills that have served us best in life, and then make sure we are introducing children to those skills and giving them a chance to exercise them.

Some of his top life skills include:

1. Being able to successfully convey yourself through the written and (publicly) spoken word
2. Being able to spend time in solitude without feeling uncomfortable
3. Finding ways to be useful to others
4. Developing connections with other people that can be used for their benefit and your own
5. Being able to read at a high level (not just the skill of reading but being able to understand what you’re reading and internalize it)

As he points out, the things that serve us best in life are often not taught in school. Children often graduate without these life-skills, having instead spent dreary hours memorizing dates and filling in workbook pages.

Real Life Lessons

He also shared some remarkable examples of how he gave students a chance to really “stand out from the crowd” even within the confines of the New York public school system. For example, one girl in his class dropped a glass bottle with a note inside into the water off of Coney Island. The bottle was found by a New York police chief who read the note and contacted the girl.

With help from Mr. Gatto, the girl met with the police chief to discuss environmental issues like littering. Seeing where her bottle ended up was a practical lesson for her, and her meeting with the police chief was covered by a local newspaper which led to a meeting with the head of an environmental action group.

He had children running up and down New York state completing internships with politicians, businesspeople, newscasters, and all sorts of other accomplished people. Children in his classes influenced legislation, mobilized public opinion, wrote newspaper columns, and volunteered in their communities.

What Makes a Person Educated?

Mr. Gatto ended his presentation by talking about traits that a truly educated person possesses; they bear little resemblance to traditional school curriculums:

  • An educated person writes his/her own script in life; destiny is self-determined
  • An educated person is never at a loss for what to do with his/her time
  • An educated person has a blueprint for personal values, a philosophy
  • An educated person understands his/her own mortality and learns throughout life, right until the end
  • An educated person has the capacity to create new things, new experiences, and new ideas

Even as a Montessorian, I was inspired to re-think how I approach education. I never want my focus to be on “achievement” in things that are easily measurable. Real life skills are harder to measure, harder to pin down, but so much more beneficial.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Mr. Gatto’s ideas and how they might be compatible (or contradict) the Montessori method.

Helpful links:

The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher
Things You Really Need to Learn
The College (and High School) Dropouts Hall of Fame

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16 Responses to “Can You Get an Education in Spite of School?”

  • Laura Zarate Miller said at April 6th, 2010 at 4:14 pm :

    This article reminds me of a book that I read recently called “Do Hard Things” by the Harris brothers.
    In their book, Alex and Brett challenge teens to do more than what is expected of them in society.

  • Bill said at April 6th, 2010 at 4:56 pm :

    When I was 9 my parents divorced and my father effectively disappeared. When I was 13, my mother was killed in a car accident and I was reunited with a very different father who seemed to disapprove of everything I did. When I turned 18, he threw me out. I was always the smartest kid in my school, but my grades averaged a B-.

    I got into an Ivy League school on the basis of my test scores (not my grades) and a legacy admission policy. I flunked out two years later — at the time I was extremely rebellious and my interests centered solely around socializing, drugs, and women. It took me 20 years to get back to school.

    All it would have taken at any point from the time my parents began fighting (and my until-then-perfect grades made a sudden drop) was for one person who cared to make the connection between my home life and my abysmal performance. Just one person. But while many people — my parents, “guidance” counselors, teachers — commented on the vast gulf between my performance and my grades, every one of them wanted to know what was wrong with ME. Why was I so lazy? Why was I so unmotivated? Why was I squandering my talents? What the hell was wrong with ME?

    It took me 25 years of work on myself to get to where I should have been at 18 years old, no thanks to any of them. Many of them did their best to block my progress at every turn, refusing to acknowledge that I had changed and trying to force me back into the old mold. They belittled my efforts.

    So when I read about Ivy League schools who reject people with perfect scores and/or perfect grades because they haven’t “done something special,” I want to scream. All this advice is wonderful for wealthy, happy families: they can rocket their children even further beyond those who aren’t so lucky.

    Why isn’t anyone asking why someone with perfect test scores or grades HASN’T done something special by the time they’re 18? Why is it that children who have had a hard life are further penalized and blamed for their own victimization?

    Stop blaming the victims! Stop depending on broken families and broken people to parent unbroken kids and *do something about it*. My father’s life made mine look like a walk in the park. He did the best he could. *Where were the “professionals” when it counted?*

    What a pathetic society we live in.

  • Jan said at April 6th, 2010 at 6:20 pm :

    Hi Bill,
    I read your heartfelt story with intense interest as I am a teacher and an advocate for reaching into the child and finding out what their needs are first and foremost to support them through their schooling and life. With that in mind I also believe that our life experiences lead us to who we ultimately become, having had a rough childhood myself. These experiences have given you great credence and have been your education, tough as it was, unconventional yes, but the life skills tremendous. I don’t know what you do these days, but I hope it circumvents those precious skills to helps others, so that you may be that ‘one person’ in the life of another. That kind of insight is experiential… and greatly needed in our society.

  • Lori Bourne said at April 6th, 2010 at 6:44 pm :

    Hi, Laura! I haven’t heard of that book but I will look for it – sounds interesting. I’m glad that many people are starting to “get it” as far as what’s really important in a child’s education. Glad to see you here!

    Bill, your story is heartbreaking and I am sorry for what you went through. You were failed by the system – but that’s exactly why John Taylor Gatto thinks the system should change. Teachers are bound by bureaucracy and stifled by rules and they can’t break away from it to help someone like you who needed some special intervention.

    You might be interested to know that Mr. Gatto’s classes in New York state were not wealthy, privileged kids. They were inner city kids (we would call them “at-risk” today) who were given a chance to prove themselves because he challenged them to do special things. I recall from one of his books that he only made them come to school two days a week to give them time to pursue their community service, apprenticeships, etc. They created opportunities for themselves through persistence and hard work, not money or connections.

    What you’ve written is to me, proof that changes in the system are needed. If the school system can’t help children in need (like you were) then something is wrong. Never have I ever heard Mr. Gatto blame children for the sorry state of traditional education – he always places the blame squarely where it belongs, on the government and the people who set up the public school system to purposely create mindless consumers that are easy to control.

    I’m so glad to hear that you made it through your challenges. And if you ever get a chance to pick up one of Mr. Gatto’s books, please do. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  • Annicles said at April 7th, 2010 at 11:24 am :

    Bill, I was moved by your life story and happy to hear that you did get to where you needed to be despite your bad start. I do not think it is unusual that people take longer than 18 years to prove themselves to society. I had a fairly normal, middleclass, uneventful upbringing and I feel that I have grown into myself only in the past 5 years (I am 34). I needed much more than 18 years of living to become a person that I am,at least sometimes, proud to have become. Have I changed the world? No. Have I made a contribution to society? Yes. I believe I have and I do, conciously, on a daily basis. I needed life experience to make it meaningful though.

  • Dana Lookadoo said at April 7th, 2010 at 8:47 pm :

    I agree with Mr. Gatto’s conclusions. As an only child who started an Amway business at 17 and one whose social security check paid our rent since my father’s death when I was 4, I agree. It’s been many years since I was 18; however, I remember not relating to my peers. I had 5 scholarships upon graduating from high school and could have gone anywhere. But, initially, community college was the choice, because there were so many things to take care of in “real life.”

    Later, when I taught at the university-level, I noticed that many PhDs didn’t have common sense. I could not imagine many of my co-workers being able to hold down a job that required focus on ROI. Common sense doesn’t come with education.

    Top 5 Life Skills are spot on! Often, what develops those life skills are challenges and a lot of motivation. As he said, “things that serve us best in life are often not taught in school.”

  • Lori Bourne said at April 7th, 2010 at 9:31 pm :

    Annicles – thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree, it can take a long time to become the person we’re meant to be.

    Dana, always lovely to see you! I didn’t know about your early years; it sounds like you have had some difficult (and interesting) life experiences which explains why you’re such a good listener and communicator. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  • bob said at April 11th, 2010 at 2:32 am :

    Hi all,

    Now, as I move into my ‘autumn years’, I have the chance to work with a lot of teachers and observe a very small speck of the impact of the ‘education’ they provide.

    I wouldn’t claim to have anything like the depth of understanding of the author or of many commentators – I’m not particularly ‘educated’, no degree etc. but I have been a teacher for 30 years and have spent the last 5 years working with 30+ schools (30,000 pupils) so hopefully that gives me a ‘perspective’.

    I feel sure that ‘education’ isn’t easy. There are a LOT of very clever people working on it and clearly we are a very long way from getting it sorted out. I am very skeptical of ‘quick fixes’ and bullet point lists. That said I find the article very interesting and – if it gets people talking then so much the better.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Kyra said at April 18th, 2010 at 6:42 pm :

    I just began doing a little bit of research into the Montessori method after learning that it was originally developed primarily for use with special needs children (I have a special needs son).

    As the daughter of two teachers, I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Gatto’s assessment of the current weaknesses in the traditional system; however, I should note that my own well-rounded education, as well as that of my brilliant peers, was the result of over a decade of private, Catholic schooling. My Catholic college experience was overwhelmingly positive as well as academically challenging.

    Though my alma mater, the University of San Diego, is not an Ivy League university (1600 SAT, 4.2 GPA, etc.), admissions is quite competitive. In addition, the majority of my school peers have gone on to have quite successful careers in a myriad of fields – precisely, I believe, because we all possess those traits Mr. Gatto outlined above. Specifically, the majority of students had a history of numerous leadership and community service activities.

    In the seven years since my college graduation, I have routinely found myself on interviews during which my potential employer inquires about my alma mater with extreme interest. At one time or another they have all conveyed that they were so impressed not just with my subject knowledge but my ability to articulately and concisely communicate my viewpoints that they “just had to know…where did I receive my education?” My college peers have had quite similar experiences, regardless of our degrees (engineering, communication, music, business, literature).

    We have deduced that the common denominators in our cases relate to the qualities mentioned above: we were students chosen due to our possessing the qualities in the first list (that of life skills) and we were supremely blessed to be able to attend a university that poured every cent and minute into ensuring we continued to develop the qualities in the second list (that is, a real education).

    Here are some items I feel were integral to my education, that seem to be absent from today’s curriculum:

    1) Learn how to write! (as Mr. Gatto mentions). It is shocking to me the number of high-ranking professionals who cannot whip out something as simple as formal correspondence. I think that at least one attempt at a scholarly research paper format and a business plan format should be attempted at the high school level, as these formats are the ones most often seen in the “real world”.

    2) Learn how to speak! Again, a crucial real world skill regardless of college major. Whether a student intends to become a salesperson, news broadcaster, professional athlete or engineer, he/she should be able to stand up in front of a group and engage them in an articulate manner.

    3) To quote Warren Buffet, “read, read, read”. More specifically, non-fiction as well as current events publications that are not geared to a sixth-grade reading level. For example, part of our high school curriculum as freshman included pop quizzes and discussions on the front section of the NY Times every single week. I should note here that of the individuals I consider to be my most brilliant and successful friends, two did not complete high school. Yet they, along with the others, are voracious readers. But how can we be sure students who are reading are actually comprehending? See below.

    4) The Interactive Classroom – Here is (I think) where some Montessori may come into play. There is no greater enemy of “real education” today than that of the “lecture and note-taking” class format. When I consider that most graduate courses are comprised of a small number of minds and a “facilitator” – as opposed to a huge number of drones and a teacher – it occurs to me that there is no reason why such a model should be limited to those at the doctoral level. There is no real reason why middle school age children can’t be sitting in a circle discussing a work, or taking turns presenting while the teacher gently “facilitates” in the background. Since I have no elementary-high school teaching experience maybe I am somewhat naive on this point. Would some barriers include class size and testing regulations? is it even possible for teachers to organize their classes in such a manner?

    Why is it that a group of children could get together at a pizza parlor and exchange a series of brilliant insights, but in the classroom that same group of children becomes a set of cookie cutter information sponges pleading “just tell me what I need to know to get an A”??

  • Lori Bourne said at April 18th, 2010 at 8:09 pm :

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Kyra! You are correct that private schools often (but not always) tend to make sure that students learn what’s really important. They often have smaller classrooms and parents who are paying tuition for their child’s education are often more involved in school because of their investment. All of those things add up.

    Your point number 4 is excellent, and is indeed one of the main reasons that Montessori succeeds in producing children who love to learn and know how to learn. I believe that many public schools have taken on some of the practices of Montessori (multi-age classrooms, discussion groups rather than lectures) but it needs to continue.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Maliviwe said at November 19th, 2010 at 4:33 pm :

    I’m a South African citizen living and studying in the US. I agree with Mr. Gatto – there is a big difference between schooling programs and education. In schooling programs, I feel like I’m forced to memorize things that I don’t understand. Most students reflect on questions in a similar manner; there is no uniqueness at all. School books for me are not inspiring because I hardly find their relation to my life and to things that I value most. In my classes I became mute most of the time because when I begin to speak I always share my thoughts from a different perspective that is not generally expected in the class. My inspiration in life is not at school, but it comes from my critical thinking, natural reasoning and it comes from the material that i study for personal growth. It is a challenge more especially here in the US. Most people here wants you to say things according to their thoughts and expectations. If you are different and you express your thoughts as a free thinker, most people here consider you rude.


  • Lori Bourne said at November 19th, 2010 at 5:45 pm :

    Hi, Maliviwe! You are making some great observations about the difference between school and education.

    As people like Mr. Gatto continue to spread the word, I hope more people’s eyes are opened to the dangers of having children blindly study and memorize things they don’t even care about.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Salena Tucker said at June 2nd, 2011 at 11:55 pm :

    You taught children to dance like butterflies,
    when you knew they would much rather
    roar like lions,
    because lions are hard to
    discipline and butterflies aren’t.

    All activity in the Kindergarten
    must be quiet, unexciting.
    All of it was designed to prepare children
    for the long years of discipline ahead.

    Kindergarten got them ready
    to be bamboozled by the first grade. – Carolyn Pratt

  • Lori Bourne said at June 3rd, 2011 at 6:55 am :

    Wow, Salena! That poem really strikes to the heart of the problem with traditional education. I’ve never heard it before. Thank you for sharing!

  • Naz said at July 20th, 2011 at 3:49 am :

    As an alternative to the factory model please look into a properly accredited Montessori School. Many schools are till grade 8. Be careful because the word “Montessori” is used by many schools that are doing non-Montessori education and just using the label so the schools valid accreditation is important.

  • Lori Bourne said at July 21st, 2011 at 1:32 pm :

    Naz, absolutely! Not all schools that call themselves “Montessori” are following the Montessori method. It’s important that parents observe the school firsthand and talk to other parents to make sure they are getting a quality Montessori school.