Practical Ideas for a Real Education-John Taylor Gatto Part 3

Part 1: Schooling Has Nothing to Do With Real Education, Part 2:Learning What Matters Most

The tricky part outlining a “how-to” for a real education (provided you don’t want your children to have a fake one–that’s kind of tongue in cheek,just so you know), is that it takes your life, your experiences, your children and your opportunities to make it happen.

So I’m going to offer you what I’ve been using to give me inspiration, guidelines, ideas and direction about how to implement a real, living education. You may simply scour these ideas to supplement a more structured routine. Either way, this is where your comments could be SO helpful. Because the idea of a “real” education is so foreign to us, the more tangible the ideas, the better. I would personally love to hear specific ways some of you carry out these ideas.

General Thoughts:

“In centuries past, the time of a child or adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventure, and the real search for mentors who might teach what he or she really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to becoming a whole man or woman.” -Gatto, A Different Kind of Teacher


“Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. 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 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 schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so they learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cellphone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.” -Gatto, Should School Be Boring?

Gatto listed 15 Themes for Private Education I found helpful:

1. A theory of human nature (as embodied in history, philosophy, theology, literature and law).

2. Skill in the active literacies (writing, public speaking).

3. Insight into the major institutional forms (courts, corporations, military, education).

4. Repeated exercises in the forms of good manners and politeness; based on the truth that politeness and civility are the foundation of all future relationships, all future alliances, and access to places that you might want to go.

5. Independent work.

(This is an area I’m finding more difficult to wrap flesh around. My best idea is to create a springboard of questions that might ignite curiosity, having a child set out in search of the answers, hoping he gets lost in the pursuit. Or it could be a far more structured assignment with a topic of his choice, documented or completed with an essay.)

6. Energetic physical sports

7. A complete theory of access to any place and any person. (This is interesting and big.)

8. Responsibility as an utterly essential part of the curriculum; always to grab responsibility when it is offered and always to deliver more than is asked for. (Applause and standing ovation.)

9. Arrival at a personal code of standards (in production, behavior and morality).

10. To have a familiarity with, and to be at ease with, the fine arts. (cultural capital)

11. The power of accurate observation and recording. For example, sharpen the perception by being able to draw accurately. (Huge.)

12. The ability to deal with challenges of all sorts.

13. A habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions.

14. The constant development and testing of prior judgments: you make judgments, you discriminate value, and then you follow up and “keep an eye” on your predictions to see how far skewed, or how consistent, your predictions were.

15. Family  Curriculum-Gatto placed high value on family life and the inner workings of the home, the routines created there, and the dependence of family members on each other. From knowing how to set a table to being familiar with changing diapers, unlike our culture, he esteemed these as essential lessons that both bonded family members and better prepared children for families of their own. We’ve added to our routine two different children planing for and preparing supper each night. This leaves me with one night with a younger child and overseeing the others until they get the hang of different dishes. So far, everyone is excited about it. Remember too, the value children feel when they can participate in real ways, regularly, to the functioning of a home. We should verbally remind them of that value, both inherent and added as they work willingly.

My random notes:

  • Much of Gatto’s insight has helped me to relax and allow my children to spend significant time doing what they love. Solving problems happens while playing, building, creating and dreaming. Let them.
  • We have designated Friday’s as “Good Deeds Friday”, and a large part of that is writing letters to express gratitude or encouragement to those who may need it. Having a piece of writing that someone else will see encourages them to work on syntax and grammar.
  • Letting them, as young as possible, do things like make purchases, pump gas, grocery shop with a small list, use a debit card, etc. builds confidence. Often they rise to whatever challenge you treat as expected.
  • Service, whether in the form of organized volunteer work or more organic meeting of needs in your community and church cannot be underestimated for its importance both in teaching and developing important character qualities.

Real life. Equipping men and women to think, process, analyze and DO things; to work out conflict in relationships, to live lives that are a continual blessing to others; to foster a deep gratitude–a life-changing kind that transforms the way they live; to make choices grounded in wisdom; to grasp the power of contentment; to love, laugh and inherit the peace that comes with trusting in God’s will in their lives. This is the education we want for our children.


“This book changed our lives. I had no idea how I was squelching my children’s love of learning by trying to reproduce something that we already knew doesn’t work very well. Now they thrive and we’re all much happier!” -Sandra L.








22 Responses to “Practical Ideas for a Real Education-John Taylor Gatto Part 3”

  1. Laura says:

    This is exactly what I am struggling to do right now, Kelly, because most of society isn’t really geared for children to participate in normal life… For example, I have called charity after charity asking if we could volunteer as a family (like food pantry, salvation army etc) and am told that volunteers MUST be 16 and over… I only just recently found one nearby that finally said that we could all go and serve, as long as WE are responsible for the children (as if we wouldn’t be??)… Also, unless you have a farm or family business that is kid-friendly (ie not too professional/hoity-toity), WHAT is there for them to do?? We live on an in-town lot on the edge of a rather drabby town with very little in the way of businesses or other things… The only thing we have a lot of is dump trucks and trains going by all day and all night… There are strangers walking on the sidewalks in front of our house all the time and we are nervous to let kiddos play outside alone… We have one car, so once hubby goes to work, we are limited to walking distances. We have gardens, and they do help with housework and meals… and yard work… but I think this gets kind of monotonous to them after awhile… There isn’t really enough money to start anything at this point, and the Lord hasn’t led us to the country yet… And we have ALL BOYS! So it’s not like I really feel comfortable teaching them about traditionally women’s things (like quilting, knitting etc), besides they would probably hang each other with the yarn 😛 …

    • Word Warrior says:


      Yours is no doubt a tougher situation, but not without hope! One of our favorite outreach things is neighbors and nursing homes. Sometimes we try too hard. What about a plate of cookies and/or a note to a lonely neighbor or someone in a nursing home or at your church? The idea isn’t so much about creating the ideal situation but looking around, outside of ourselves, to see how we can minister to the body of Christ, even in the smallest way. Let me encourage you by this…”And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” Focus on the heart and ask the Lord to help you see what’s around you. I will pray too, that He does just that. (And I’ll let you know if anything else, practically speaking, comes to me.)

  2. shannon says:

    Hi Kelly. I’m glad you are continuing this series as I am interested in it, though not sold on it yet. I kind of figured this would be the type of education we would use at our home when my oldest is old enough to need “schooled” but your other post got me to thinking so much that it has almost pushed me in the other direction. Your 2nd part, really made me wonder what is and isn’t important? The more I have pondered it, the more it seems anything “taught” can be useful, if someone is taught HOW to apply it to his or her life. If that person is perceptive enough and/or old enough, the HOW might not even need to be taught. Using your example of the long division, I guess I am just wondering why it isn’t useful to teach it? Are we that short on precious time? Can’t we agree there are some benefits to learning it? What am I missing? I know there is something and maybe am thinking to much.

    Of course, I wholeheartedly agree with this list as well, and would focus on points 9 & 14 from a biblical point of view. I guess I don’t understand how all of these things can’t be taught IN ADDITION to “regular” schooling and better yet, just incorporated into regular schooling? Afraid to open a can of worms but I’ll ask anyway, what’s the HARM in “regular” schooling?

    Again, I say all of this not to be contrary, I promise (though I have those days at times unfortunately). It has just really got me thinking… I guess I am starting to think more that ANY information can be useful and beneficial. I do plan to read one of his books but reading a long book right now so it will be a couple months.

    Can’t add to your list just yet since my mind is stuck on your second post but I enjoy reading this series from your point of view and all the comments. You have some readers that are critical thinkers and I enjoy the challenge!

    • Word Warrior says:


      I understand exactly where you are coming from as I have vacillated all over the spectrum myself. To answer your question, “what’s the harm in regular schooling,” I have to assume you mean standard curriculum with a classroom approach.

      It’s hard to expound on the ideas briefly so I think you will be BLOWN away by Gatto’s assessment of how he sees it. He has a way of getting you to understand things that have never occurred to you before.

      For me, I want to redeem the time, realizing that there already isn’t enough time to learn everything, so I certainly want to make sure we get the important things in.

      Secondly, regular schooling has a way of squelching the once-natural joy of learning for many kids. And that’s huge for me. I want them to see learning as a way of life, not an 8-whenever period of “doing school” with a sigh. Schooling, the standard way, is saying, “I know you have interests and passions and things you want to do and learn; but those aren’t as important as what someone, somewhere, who doesn’t even know you said you should learn.” Gatto explains that “schooling” is completely disjointed and disconnected with real life, and therefore, very little of what we try to impart sticks.

      In my opinion, schooling’s purpose has much more to do with taking tests to get into college to get a job; education is more about equipping and empowering people to do whatever they want.

      You REALLY need to read his book. So good. At best, it may help you sort out your thoughts and questions better.

      • shannon says:

        Thank you. Really looking forward to reading one of his books. I do agree the current education system is an absolute mess and that the way we teach is incredibly fragmented. I also agree that we squelch that desire to learn. My brother dropped out of H.S. when he turned 16. He hated school with a passion and was diagnosed with dyslexia in 8th grade; My husband and I graduated high school together and I was in all the advanced courses compared to him and I made much better grades. But, guess what? He is a genius compared to me. Something is wrong there.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I agree whole-heartedly. I also agree with the first commenter about how some areas can be difficult or even unsafe to take let the kids explore . With my third child I was on strict bedrest for 6 months of the pregnancy. I was pleasantly surprised that my previously lazy sons learned to do a lot around the house. Also they do gain so much confidence going to the store, pumping gas etc. My 11 year old has a good memory and has been adept at paying in stores with a variety of payment methods for several years now. Except for the baby, they can all shop alone with coupons and a list, use store reward cards, and the like. They feel great bringing bags back to the car and telling me how much we saved at the register. No reason they can’t do it! If mine can, anyone’s can.

  4. Marie H says:

    I really like your list (from Gatto)…especially the inclusion of #8 “responsibility.” Years ago I was a big fan of “unschooling” until one day when I read the 20th (25th??) anniversary issue of Growing Without Schooling, John Holt’s labor of love. This issue had many kids who had completed their schooling through what we consider high school and looked to see what they were doing now…what kind of life they had made for themselves. One young man had enlisted in the Army, but it “didn’t feel right” so his parents kept petitioning the right higher-ups until they got their precious Johnny released from his service commitment. I was so upset. Way back in 1988ish I was in Army Reserves and at that time, my basic training and pharmacy school cost the government…aka tax payers…$28,000 to fully train me. So for this young man to just welch on his deal really infuriated me. Another young lady flitted from job to job because none of them “truly fit” who she was. Uh huh. While I’m not advising that kids grow up to live uninspiring, ill-fitted lives, but I realized then and there that my kids’ education would not be just about them.

    Loving your series!

    • Word Warrior says:


      You have pointed out a very important distinction that parents should make as they peruse these waters. I think what we may be seeing in some of the examples you gave are parents who are already parenting with a wrong idea about authority and child-responsibility who are also naturally drawn to the unschooling idea.

      But I think Christian parents with a strong sense of raising responsible, diligent children can glean from the ideas of relaxed/unschooling, implementing as much or as little as they wish, but still raise kids who are taught to stick to jobs whether they like them or not. I don’t think the area of learning is the only place we can teach perseverance. We can teach them to do hard things in many different areas without giving up the joy of their pursuit of learning.

      • Marie H says:

        I wish I could just “like” your comment 🙂 I agree, that Christian parents are likely emphasizing responsibility and diligence, but Gatto is (I believe) writing from a secular perspective…so I’m thrilled with the points he is making 🙂

  5. Trudy M says:

    All the recent posts go hand in hand with 2 websites I have recently become aware of: 1. and 2. These 2 websites can help you flesh out some of John Taylor Gatto’s ideas. There is way too much contained in these 2 websites for me to adequately summarize, so check them out yourselves is your heart is drawn to doing things differently at home.

  6. 6 arrows says:

    Very good post and comments. I’ve got lots of thoughts on it all, but not enough time…

    I will say, though, that Gatto’s #12, the ability to deal with challenges of all sorts brought to mind an article I read recently regarding children’s willingness to apply themselves when challenged, based on whether they were previously praised for their innate intelligence or for their effort. The article mainly dealt with grades at school, but there are real-life applications that parents can glean from the results of the study outlined in the article.

    It’s a fairly lengthy read, but a good one, I think, for helping us parents understand how we can encourage a stick-to-it spirit of motivation we all wish to cultivate in our children, especially when doing hard things.

  7. Marie H says:

    Hey, by the way, I have two good examples for you of families who did not “do” school…at least in the elementary/middle years.

    1. only reading good books and Saxon math until 7th grade entry into public school. Result: oldest was valedictorian (as well as athlete of the year and homecoming queen) and a college graduate; middle two daughters are doing well in college, the youngest, a son, is an athlete who is not at all interested in academics (hey, Mom has to stay humble, right?) All of these children had interests they were free to pursue without the bonds of school drudgery.

    2. hippie family I know: oldest two: daughter in masters program enroute to vet school, son a senior about to earn a business degree. The daughter could bake bread and sew clothes for her dolls by 8 and the son had real skills as well (sorry, no details there). (they entered high school as freshman and sophomores and both took a little time to “catch up”…and then quickly excelled.) The baby still at home (age 11) is quite adept at sewing, farming, etc. as well as competent academically.

    Obviously I am showing success in worldly terms–and I understand that many will homeschool through high school–but each of these 8 children are interesting to talk to, have many skills, have spent time volunteering, and have just had plenty of quality family time. Both of these families are quite close.

    Bottome line: be together–read—do math—be together—focus on skils—be together….you get it 🙂

  8. 6 arrows says:

    OK, Kelly, you asked for some tangible ideas for getting a real-life education. Here are some snapshots from the last week or so in our family. 😉

    Physics with the 9yob and 6yog: Girl wanted to pull boy around in the wagon — or maybe he talked her into it 😉 Worked fine on level ground, in spite of the fact the physically smaller one was pulling around the larger one. Then they decided they were going to go up the hill behind our house, same riding/pulling arrangement. Did I mention this is a VERY STEEP HILL? Hmmm, not working so well anymore.

    Here’s where Mom forgets she could use this as a teaching opportunity. Instead of asking them if they could figure out a way to get up that hill with the wagon, I tell them it’s not going to work. Why don’t you get out and pull the empty wagon up the hill?

    So they do. They get up to the top, spend some time in the wooden lookout their dad and older siblings had built several years earlier, then gather a few things like leaves, rocks, etc., put them in the wagon, and want to head back down the hill. Then they ask me to help them get the wagon back down the hill. (They know from prior experience an empty wagon easily gets out of control when they run down a hill with it.) 🙂

    This time Mom wises up and declines to assist them, but says, “Why don’t you guys see if you can figure out a way to get that wagon down the hill without it going too fast?”

    So they experiment with where they can stand (in front pulling it? off to the side or at the back adding a little resistance?), and down the hill they went, carefully, controlled, with no one getting knocked over and the wagon never flying down the hill unaccompanied. 🙂 And yes, they were very pleased to learn that they could indeed do that without Mom’s help.

    End of physics lesson. 😉

    And a couple other brief tips in real-life learning:

    Buy field guides and use them when out in nature. My 6-year-old saw what she thought was a fat worm the other day. After closer observation, she discovered it was actually a caterpillar. We pulled out our caterpillar field guide and identified it as a sphinx moth caterpillar. So then she wanted to read more about it…which led her to read more descriptions of other caterpillars and moths and butterflies… Let them see the real thing, then the information about what they’ve experienced adds to their knowledge and interest. If knowledge is presented before any real-life experience with the general subject matter, it isn’t as likely to be studied with delight or remembered.

    Along those lines, after my daughter had found that caterpillar, and an injured butterfly, and other miscellaneous creatures around our front porch steps, I pulled out for her the Christian Liberty Nature Readers I’d purchased many years ago. She knows how to read, so two days ago she started Book One, reading out loud to me about many creatures she’d already seen, and some she hadn’t. She read and read and read! After more reading yesterday, and some again today, she finished the book — 148 pages of text! 😀

    So to summarize: teach them to read, get them outside, give them tools and general resources like field guides, and let them create a lot of their own learning while they solve the problems that naturally come up.

  9. Laura says:

    Here are some non-traditional “schooling” ideas that have worked for our family over the years.
    > lots of family read aloud books(fun ones, historical, non- fiction, fiction, biographies, etc.)
    > projects (building birdhouses, gardening, picking apples making applesauce, going to an auction, building ‘volcanoes’, raising animals, growing a garden, collecting shells, collecting leaves, etc.)
    >using everyday aspects of life to learn skills(laundry, meal prep, baking, gift making, sewing, cleaning, pets, farm chores, etc.)
    > as children have very specific interests utilize that without “making” them do lots of other ‘school’ work(we had one child interested in natural health so we supplied her with many resources to use, one son had an interest in taxidermy, one child with a desire to pursue horse training, you get the idea!).
    > field trips
    > involvement in our family business (I know not everyone has this available)
    > starting there own small business (selling eggs, giving riding lessons, giving music lessons, teaching others to sew, etc.)
    Our children like to hunt this incorporates many skills including habitat of specific animals, learning marksmanship, ‘biology & anatomy’ of the game, safety. The list could go on.

    I believe we need to rethink what an education really entails. Why are we all so certain that the “Dept. of Education” and ‘bureaucrats’ have a true understanding of “what we all need to know”. THERE IS NO QUESTION that there are certain basics(like reading & math) that unlock our ability to learn and assimilate information so we an use it, but our society has placed a very high expectation on material that should be ‘learned’, when in reality we can never learn everything.
    For our family, we are so busy doing real life, we MUST incorporate learning with it! Sorry for such a long post, but I hope this helps.

    • Word Warrior says:


      You have spoken well and practical and these are great ideas. It is time for parents to stop assuming a one-size-fits-all model is for their unique child. Life is what we’re preparing for. Shouldn’t that be what we spend the most time on?

  10. […] Practical Idea for a Real Education John Taylor Gatto from Generation Cedar — This is part three but I recommend them all. I am reading my second Gatto book now and am rapt. […]

  11. 6 arrows says:

    I’m still chewing on this post…and probably will be for years to come. 😉

    I’ve been thinking so much about that point #15, curriculum of the family. One area in which our family struggles, and in which we would welcome input from any “cleanies” out there (we’re ALL messies here, unfortunately) is in working together to keep the house clean. Most of us are not serving each other well in this area (or in the words of #8, too few of us are consistently taking responsibility and going above and beyond, delivering more than is expected).

    We’ve tried establishing cleaning routines, having lists of things to do daily, weekly, monthly, etc., but there is SO MUCH to do that we get overwhelmed just looking at the list and usually give up long before we’ve even made a dent! Then things get worse than ever.

    My husband and I also want the children to be attentive to what needs doing without always needing reminders. How do you instill that attentiveness when you’ve got kids who ask you where their favorite shirt is while they’re literally STANDING RIGHT ON IT and don’t even know!!! Someone please tell me we’re not the only family who’s like this!

    Anyway, back to talking about the feeling of overwhelm looking at and following chore lists, my teenage daughter recently suggested scrapping the lists entirely and trying to rely on our eyes to determine what needs doing. I was game for that, but so far it’s not working as well as I’d hoped. We have a lot of bad habits to overcome, and I probably haven’t given it enough time to see results. Or I’m not training my kids (or myself) right. Has anyone tried this, cleaning according to need rather than according to a schedule or chore chart?

    It seems that cleaning as needed instead of on a timetable is a more natural way to develop that attentiveness my husband really wants to see, but maybe that’s my disorganized brain failing to see what the real solution is? Most everyone seems pretty content to just ignore the messes, and honestly, sometimes I think I’d go insane if I didn’t learn to block it out; it’s just too much.

    I’m open to suggestions (if anyone sees this) on how we can cultivate attentiveness and a sense of duty to the family so that a huge burden doesn’t fall on the shoulders of one or a few within a pretty large family.

    • 6 arrows says:

      But the good news is, tonight, after typing this post, two of my girls teamed up to do something needful that I had not asked them to do, working together until past their bedtime to get it finished.

      Progress! And a lot of prayer, patience, and one day at a time 😉

    • Word Warrior says:

      6 arrows,

      I do think every family struggles, and the more people, the bigger the messes. But, when you DO get everyone on board, there are more hands too.

      Have you tried “zones?” Sometimes it can work well, and help train the eyes, if each person is assigned a zone/area that is there’s to keep tidy. Say a couple of times a day you declare “clean your zone.” A lot of it is reminding, unfortunately, and some are naturally more inclined than others. Nothing brilliant comes to mind just now; I’m still in the stage of training so many little people. I will tell you that having a melt down over the pile of shoes at the doorway is NOT very effective 😉

      • 6 arrows says:

        LOL! And the inside-out, balled-up wad of socks along with them 😉

        We did do something like “zones” way back when. I’m not sure why we stopped. I might have to revisit that now with the younger bunch who probably weren’t in on it. Thanks for the reminder.

        I think the big issue here is the clutter — we just have too much stuff, and a relatively small home for a family our size to store it all. Yet, it gets expensive having to buy things to replace items we’ve discarded because of lack of space. It’s a tricky balancing act, knowing how much to keep, when there are financial, space, and time issues involved in maintaining what we have. And, of course, assessing its true value for our family, and being willing to throw one item when another similar item is brought home, is something at which we are decidedly not very good!

        But we’d probably have more energy to get to actual cleaning if we weren’t expending so much effort on keeping clutter at bay.

        Anyway, I’m rambling and getting off the topic of this post now. Time for me to just go and “do the next thing”. 😉 Thank you for your input, Kelly.

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