Gatto’s Guide on What Not to Do


Raph here with a few thoughts on John Taylor Gatto’s 7 Lessons:

If we are to be effective teachers, noble in our cause and driven to produce free thinking individuals, I think that it’s imperative that we keep Gatto’s Seven Lessons  ingrained deep within us. Given the system in which we have to work, we should make a point to highlight these lessons and make our students aware of what actions are being taken to produce the next generation of vacant drones.

1. Make sure that the students are confused and overwhelmed. If anyone is going to have any knowledge of the world around them, if they are to understand anything about the nature of our surroundings, it should be this: The world is too big and out of control for anyone to be able to make sense out of every little thing. We must realize that by putting students in an uncomfortable position (school) where they are confused about their purpose and overwhelmed by the amount of work that they must do, that they will begin to ask questions as to why it has to be this way. We must take advantage of this system for our own benefit and allow for our students to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.

2. Gatto states that students should learn to “come to know [their] place.” We should teach them their class position. The important issue Gatto addresses here is that students should be aware that their class position is ultimately decided by them. If they do a good job, they can move up, if not, then they must accept where they have been placed. What more motivation does a person need, really?

3. I love Gatto’s statement about the “lesson of the bells.” Basically the bells state that “no lesson is worth teaching.” No matter what we discuss in our classrooms, the bells will interfere and impose the authority of those in charge. Example:

Authority Figure: “Oh really? You were learning about something that interests you? Well that’s all well and good, but the bell has wrung and there’s no time for that shit in my class!”

Basically, this lesson states that, as teachers, we should use class time to plant the seed of interest so that students will seek out the information on there own time.

4 and 5. These two lessons from Gatto go hand in hand. We must teach kids “to surrender their will” and teach them to “wait for other, better trained people to make meaning in their lives.” This is where it becomes crystal clear that this is a list of what not to do. The lesson I learned from what he addresses with emotional and intellectual dependency is that we should make students aware of their rights and make them realize that although we are the teachers, we are not the ultimate authority as to what is and what isn’t in regards to the world.

6. I found the line, “self respect should come from expert opinion,” to be quite hilarious. This statement couldn’t be any more wrong. Report cards, tests, etc. as we have all learned to an excruciating degree over the past two months, are not adequate in judging whether or not someone is smart or learning. We should instill in our students skills that allow them to function in the real world. The emphasis should not be on grades. This is one of the things SWW got right.

7. Make your students privy to the fact that Big Brother is always watching. Point out the lack of freedom in our free country and I’m sure that will get them active in seeking ways to change things.

Gatto’s points are useful in the mentioned ways. Unfortunately, it seems the system actually does promote these lessons even though they would claim otherwise. But if the system is to change, we’re going to have to work within it, which I’m assuming is what Gatto did considering the fact that he was Teacher of the Year in 1991. He has some great ideas and judging from the inherent sarcasm of this text, he has some bigger fish to fry. I especially found his look into the past very interesting. He is able to identify what went wrong in the past and relate it to what is happening now in a very clear way. This is most interesting to me because as an undergrad I wrote a paper on how our country is still recovering from the Civil War. I even quested into the idea that the civil war has not truly ended. As I learn more about the education system, I’m certain it hasn’t.

I apologize for the ranting nature of this post, but I have finally overcome my writer’s block. Thanks for your time.





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5 responses to “Gatto’s Guide on What Not to Do

  1. sunyprof

    Gatto’s “7 Lessons” is a vicious critique of course–as Raph points out. Gatto’s an activist, now retired from 30 years in public schools, critical of compulsory schooling and educational discourse in general. You can read more about his published work on wikipedia and elsewhere of course.

    I wanted us to see these “7 lessons” alongside our experiences at SWW last Tuesday. I wonder if we think SWW is interrupting the discourse Gatto sends up here. Or is it possible for ANY school to effectively do that?

    Erin Gruwell certainly worked to pose a challenge to these 7 lessons. That didn’t make her popular among her colleagues. Neither was Gatto. He tells a great story about how he went on sick leave at one point in his career in NYC schools, and when he returned they had eliminated his desk/job without letting him know.

    This website for the Odysseus Group offers some interesting perspectives on Gatto’s work. And you can read his ’03 Harpers Magazine cover story, “Against Education: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids and Why” at this site as well. Click on the link.

    You may take issue with Gatto (many before you have) but you can’t fail to find his questions about public schooling discomforting, even disturbing. KES

    P.S. Raph, I’m glad you’ve overcome your writers’ block!!

  2. mandygrl101

    Raph: Thanks for you post. I was reading this article, and I kept putting question marks next to all of Gatto’s 7 points, wondering “is this guy for real?” I kept flipping back to the front of the article thinking I must have missed something important when I began reading. Finally, I realized that the text was overflowing with sarcasm, and that my critical evaluation of this teacher of the year was really a critical evaluation of the education system in the U.S.

    Gatto’s seven main points are useful tools for observing, critiquing and evaluating each of the schools that we will all encounter in our careers. In comparison to the school I currently observe at, I truly think that SWW is interrupting the discourse that Gatto describes in his article through actively trying to address and change these traditional and widespread practices.


  3. allison

    Raph, thank you for your post on Gatto. I really enjoyed reading this article because it was SO surprising. There were a few points that really got me worked up. These were the points about confusion and thos about the bells.

    I found myself getting quite surprised that Gatto would want to confuse his students. He is a teacher, and he is supposed to be helping his students understand the currents of the world around them. I understand that the world has become confusing with all of the “disconnections.” In my opinion, the less-educated person will feel more “disconnected.” The solution is to educate students to make sense of the world. To attempt to organize anything that’s thrown at them and fit it into a larger context. I realize that things seem incredibly disjointed when you’re a student, but I think teachers can add some stability. One thing I did like about this section was the sense of immersion in life that Gatto creates. At the end of the section, Gatto states that he first teaches “how to accept confusion as your destiny.” Here is where Gatto and I seem to agree. This prepares them to take on the outside world, as does the bells method.

    At first, I did not like the bells method. How frustrating that students must be interrupted by bells. They must immediately switch gears and do something else. The real world is like this, though, much to everyone’s frustration. For example, would I have liked to finish my workout this morning instead of having to switch gears in the middle and get to work? Of course. Yesterday, would I have liked to finish the chapter I was reading before I had to go observe at school? Yes. I have suddenly realized that these interruptions are everywhere. Sometimes it’s not even interruptions; sometimes you don’t even get to start. For example, I’ve been dying to do some personal reading (I haven’t read anything besides class texts in two months blahh) and I’ve been dying to start writing a short story that has been floating around in my head. But I haven’t had any time. Lucky for me, I learned when I was in high school that our lives are governed by bells and the priorities of “other people, better trained than ourselves” (intellectual indifference). As much as I hate Gatto’s points, I realize he is correct.

    Thank you all for listening to my rant. I apologize for the whining 🙂

  4. jexter1


    I too agree with the majority of Gatto’s theories in his 7 Lessons. However, I did not interpret the meaning of Class Position in the same way. Gatto states, “The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class.” Gatto believes that the students should essentially be the ones deciding on their position and roles in the classroom, but I do not think Gatto sees this happening. Gatto is describing a hypothetical situation in which students have the freedom to discover the themselves and “place,” while in reality the school system and U.S. government are determining their places.

    On a lighter note, I did not consider the positive end of overwhelming and therefore confusing students. Overwhelming might be too strong of a word, but it is certainly a great lesson to be taught: the world is overwhelmed with questions and obstacles that cannot all be answered and deciphered. With confusion and struggle, young adults will learn how to adapt to complex ideas and scenarios.

    Thank you for your perspective.

  5. Darren

    Quote:With confusion and struggle, young adults will learn how to adapt to complex ideas and scenarios.

    I am a high school student and in my experience this isn’t that way. When we ask the teachers, why we learn so many ‘disconnected’ stuff, so many subjects, they usually don’t have some decent answer. And that actually creates a wrong perception of the world for us.
    WE CAN’T LEARN TO ADAPT COMPLEX IDEAS AND SCENARIOS. Not even simple ones! Why? Most of us only copy notes from the board. We usually don’t have any way to ‘think for ourselves’. The teachers think instead us in school, and then we have to repeat like parrots what they said.

    I really can’t agree with your point because it’s not that way in our schools to my experience.

    Overwhelming might be too strong of a word, but it is certainly a great lesson to be taught: the world is overwhelmed with questions and obstacles that cannot all be answered and deciphered.

    You mean information overhelming? Yes, our world is fill with information. And we must filter that information, which one is useful for us and which is not. I don’t think there are many questions that are not answered, they are, but in form of many ‘theories’. Every ‘expert’ has his own ‘theory’ (example: how was the mankind created). The worst part is that those theories are taught as FACTS in our schools. See for yourself. How crazy is that?!?!
    Critical thinking is the way of filtering information. But we aren’t taught that in public school. The message they give us is: Learn what is it in the textbook, and that’s enough. And that is totally opposite of critical thinking.
    I believe every high school student would agree with me.

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