An Unlikely Hero: Reflections on John Taylor Gatto, Sir Ken Robinson and the Education Revolution


It may seem untenable to some that a school teacher can hold someone like John Taylor Gatto in high esteem. After all, he was the inspiration for the ‘unschooling’ movement – advocating that schools do so much damage to young minds and that they’re so out of touch with the needs of the ‘real world’ that it is better to keep kids out of the system altogether. But I am actually deeply inspired by what Mr Gatto identified as the problems with schools, even though I disagree with his conclusion.

In the modern world, many families simply cannot afford to home-school their kids… and I think home-schooling can create as many problems as it solves. The trick in education reform is to try to push for change at the very heart of the system, rather than running away from it.

John Taylor Gatto identifies the following among his many reasons why schools are failing:

  • They’re out of touch with the skills demanded of young people when they enter the workplace and the wider world.
  • Schools over-emphasise ‘knowledge’ and under-value intellect, resourcefulness, creativity, and independence. In fact, schools may well be quashing these essential attributes in students.
  • They force kids to start school too early.
  • School drags on for too long.
  • Most teachers subscribe to the ‘blank slate’ model of education, and do not try to harness and nurture kids’ ‘inner destiny’.
  • Schools demand too little of students, where they are capable of far more.
  • School syllabi are too narrow.
  • Schools take on a type of brain-washing function in the interests of the State.

Any thinking teacher can tell you that this is all true. Beyond any doubt. And when I read these thoughts for the first time about 8 years ago, I was floored. I did not try to rationalize what I did. I tried to change it. I felt like I was the only one doing this, for a very long time…

Until I watched Sir Ken Robinson’s legendary TED Talk on how schools are killing creativity. And then I read his book ‘Out of Our Minds’… and the solutions jumped out at me. Sir Ken is taking on the very system John Taylor Gatto wanted us all to abandon, and he advocates changing schools, not disbanding them. His words and thoughts have played a pivotal role for me since then, as I try to ferment my own small revolution. By pure chance, I joined Twitter in 2012, and realized how many like-minded teachers there were out in the world.


We can change the system. For the very reasons John Talyor Gatto suggests… we don’t have to abandon our schools, we just need to evolve them. Here’s how (from John Talyor Gatto himself):

  • School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers.
  • School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently.
  • Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff school teachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues.
  • Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can. First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants.
  • After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.

Add to this my own thoughts on what schools and learning should become (sublimated from a great range of sources):

  • Schools need to teach ‘skills’, not ‘things’.
  • We need to teach HOW to think, not WHAT to think.
  • Knowledge must not be imposed; instead, schools must make their main priority one which encourages self-realization and personal growth.
  • Lessons must focus on questions and options, not only on fixed, rigid answers.
  • We must allow students to make mistakes and to learn from them.
  • We must place greater emphasis on learning to learn. Every class is a thinking class.
  • Students need to develop the ability to think critically and creatively.
  • More than marks and rote memorization, students must be encouraged to innovate and provide insight.
  • Most importantly, students need to be assisted in developing confidence in their own abilities to do all of these things.

In short, we need to develop the ability to think differently… not just so that we can cope, but so that we can unlock our creative potentials to help create a better world. And school needs to form the foundation of our abilities to meet this challenge. Add to all of this what Ken Robinson has to say, and you have the perfect model for better schools.
It just takes a little bit of courage, fortitude, and leadership.

And the enthusiasm not to quit…


Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter:


  1. I appreciate your honesty about disagreeing with Gatto’s conclusions. Having been (public) schooled and now homeschooling our children, it is not easy to think outside the programmed paradigm. I came across a website that had many of the projects that John Gatto allowed/encouraged his students (ages 13-15?) do. Some actually seemed dangerous (see “Classrooms of the Heart” on Youtube), and yet were powerful experiences for his students. I’ve not come across any school (alternative even) doing what Gatto describes here:



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