Dumbing Us Down

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. –Mark Twain

John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down is a lit match in a dry thicket. It’s a feverish dream before the beginning of a long school year. It’s a wet blanket draped over the positive ideas to which you may cling concerning the effectiveness of Systems. It’s every reservation you’ve held about public education, packaged in an economical 94 pages.

The interesting thing about books is the nature of their relevance. Sometimes a book catches like wildfire and then gradually loses its power. In other instances, a book is released to crickets only later to scorch the world with its ideas.

John Taylor Gatto’s book is a slow and steady burn tailor-made for thoughtful educators concerned with the effectiveness of the public school system. Dumbing us Down was originally published in 1992, and although it isn’t the most widely read book on education out there, it definitely has a strong following. I read another book of Gatto’s years ago entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction, and it posits a truth about public education I’d never fully realized. Dumbing us Down has accomplished the same feat.

I recommend you stop reading this post, open another tab in your web browser, go to Amazon, and purchase the book right now. If you’re not ready to add another book to your Amazon Cart, or you’d like more information about Dumbing Us Down, feel free to venture forward.

The main idea sewn throughout the book is that tinkering with schools to make them better is a lost cause–we have to re-imagine what school should be. Public education was an invention of industrialism, and the main subject schools have concerned themselves with is compliance. To this end, schooling has been extremely successful. Gatto even goes so far as to divide the first chapter into seven sections that represent what he taught as a New York public school teacher for 30 years:

  1. Confusion

  2. Class Position

  3. Indifference

  4. Emotional Dependency

  5. Intellectual Dependency

  6. Provisional Self-Esteem

  7. One Can’t Hide

You’ll have to read the book to find out how these items are taught. If you do so, you’ll either be cheering for Gatto’s gumption or think he’s crazy. There’s not much middle ground in Dumbing Us Down. In fact, on page 12 and again on 61, he makes a statement with which you may or may not agree:

…the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn (Gatto 12).

He goes on to say that each content area can be easily self-taught; all it takes is the right timing, and if there’s one thing public school does not concern itself with, it’s timing.

Gatto paints a beautiful picture, but don’t let the romantic ideas fool you: Putting his thoughts into action would drastically change society. Consider the following excerpt:

Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, that of preempting the teaching function, which, in a healthy community, belongs to everyone (Gatto 16).

Does this mean he would do away with credentialed teachers altogether? It’s difficult to say. What is explicit throughout the text is his insistence that school has replaced more important community institutions such as family and church. Gatto makes a clear delineation between communities and networks. Essentially, communities are groups in which people give and receive empathy. The members have skin in the game, which leads to a healthy sense of love, perseverance, and self-reliance. Networks, on the other hand, are places of sympathy. They have no skin in the game. Even though people may feel badly for one another in a network, there’s no sustaining bond.

According to Gatto, schools are networks–soulless places that make students obey a bell (under all circumstances) and force them to another teacher every year (in most circumstances). If you’re a teacher, I challenge you to calculate the percentage of former students who hold meaningful places in your life. It’s low, right? It’s because we’re all a small part of the System.

Dumbing Us Down was written in the early ’90s, so (web based) social networks weren’t yet created. I’d really like to know what Gatto thinks about Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al. It seems to me social networks exemplify the same traits Gatto gives to “traditional” networks in the book. Facebook provides a feeling that we’re surrounded by people who have skin in the game, but we know this is false. Empathetic relationships are forged within community via closeness of proximity and investment of time–things which social media cannot replace. I think Gatto would lump schools into the same category as social media, which is to say that school is well meaning infrastructure that produces an illusion of belonging.

Twitter, the network of choice for teachers, has spread great teaching ideas while at the same time disseminated educational junk and empty platitudes. It has also propagated the idea of the importance of a PLN, which for most teachers is nothing but smoke and mirrors on Twitter. Consider the following:

When the integration of life that comes from being part of a family in a community is unattainable, the only alternative, apart from accepting a life in isolation, is to search for an artificial integration into one of the many expressions of network currently available. But it’s a bad trade! Artificial integration within the realm of human association–think of those college dorms or fraternities–appears strong but is actually quite weak; seems close-knit but in reality has only loose bonds; suggests durability but is usually transient. And it is most often badly adjusted to what people need although it masquerades as being exactly what they need (65 and 66–emphasis mine).

Am I wrong in saying this describes the false sense of “community” we’re experiencing online?

If you read Dumbing us Down, you’ll have to choose for yourself whether you agree with the following beliefs: 1) School is causing addictive and dependent personalities. 2) School is promoting a life of “accumulation as a philosophy”. 3) “Only self-teaching has lasting value” (31). 4) The theory of teaching isn’t ever discussed in classrooms and lounges. 5) “…we shouldn’t be thinking of more school, but of less.” (47).


Gatto argues that less school, not more, is a move in the right direction. It’s a bold statement and totally antithetical to what’s tossed about in the media, district offices, and school sites. Nevertheless, it’s a discussion worth having, and reading Dumbing Us Down is the perfect place to start. The book is remarkably quotable. I’ve actually had to restrain from posting a lot of excerpts, but I’d like to leave you with some last words written by Gatto:

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live life and how to die (67 and 68).

Human infrastructure

If your school district is contemplating a 1:1 deployment, establishing a strong Wi-Fi connection in every classroom is the first task that must be completed before proceeding. If a school doesn’t have consistent internet connectivity, and you’re trying to teach a professional development session, it’ll be a very unsettling experience. (This is compounded when you’re teaching a roomful of students and the connection keeps dropping.) Not having reliable Wi-Fi and trying to provide edtech training is like an emergency surgeon with a patient who’s bleeding out but the surgeon wants to repair the patient’s ACL first.

Once the network connection is squared away, the next step is building the human infrastructure. Without this important component, your school will have a strong internet connection and 1:1 devices that are never used. An investment in people is what’s necessary to help teachers become confident with laptops or tablets in their classrooms. This is, of course, easier said than done. Setting up routers in classrooms is fairly straightforward: You run cable, install access points, and test the Wi-Fi signal until it works. Of course there are a number of variables, but if the result is strong internet connectivity, then you know the job is done. Figuring out how to effectively support teachers with PD sessions and ongoing assistance is a little more nebulous.

Fortunately, the school district for which I work has set up a good system that I’d like to share. We’re still learning as we go, but the basics of human infrastructure that I’ll describe below have been instrumental over the last seven months since our initial deployment of Acer laptop running an ubermix operating system.

C5 Teachers

Every school in our district has one C5 Teacher. (The ‘C’ in C5 stands for Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and 1:1 Classrooms.) These teachers receive annual stipends, and their expertise is blended learning. They’re the tech leaders at the school sites who provide PD, communicate tech news from the district office to the teachers, and coach teachers in their classrooms when using the 1:1 devices, Google Apps for Education, or the myriad web-based programs with which students interact. If a teacher needs support on how to blend technology and instruction, the C5 Teacher is there to help. They’re the shining examples of how to be an effective 21st century educator in all areas.

Model Tech Teachers

Every school in our district also has a Model Tech Teacher (MTT). MTTs are the first line of defense before submitting an IT ticket. Let’s say a teacher is having trouble with a projector that’s not working. He or she can contact the MTT at the school site first before submitting an IT ticket. Oftentimes, MTTs can fix problems regarding projectors, printers, grade book issues, etc., right away. This helps the teacher immediately, and frees IT to support other teachers across the district.

MTTs have received two separate training sessions this year regarding phones, printers, network connections, and projectors. They’ve also been taught the basics about the ubermix laptops and had access to the various ‘Appy’ Hours provided throughout the district. The hope is that they have a very basic understanding of IT and are ready to step into the C5 position if necessary.


Almost every district has an IT department. IT is instrumental in setting up the Wi-Fi (or lifeblood), and they are needed for the maintenance of all the disparate pieces of technology school districts have adopted over the last 20 years. The IT department in the district for which I work has been very helpful in providing training sessions for the MTTs, and they are proactive in resolving all tech problems at school sites.

To have a successful 1:1 deployment, it is imperative that IT, MTTs, C5s, and the curriculum department are all on the same page and have similar visions as to how teachers need to be supported in the classroom. Oftentimes, all these departments meld together in the concerted effort to make sure Wi-Fi is up and running, devices are maintained, teacher and student account are functional, PD training (and ongoing PD training) are in the works, and much, much more.

Technology Media Clerk

In our school district, we have one person whom all administrators, teachers, librarians, parents, etc. can contact in order to gain information about 3rd party user accounts, 1:1 maintenance, and a whole lot of other programs; this is the Technology Media Clerk. In order to successfully aid teachers, there needs to be a person at the helm for the whole school day. Our Tech Media Clerk works 7am to 4pm and continually answers emails and field phone calls. It’s a grueling job at times because of not only the large amount of questions, but also because of the wide range of questions. The Tech Media Clerk has to be a fast learner, work well with people, and answer questions quickly. It’s arguably one of the most important jobs in a school district when it comes to 1:1 devices because if teachers can’t immediately get student accounts up and running (to GAFE, Lexia, Ren Place, etc.), then a lot of instructional time is wasted.


A website isn’t a person, but I’m including it because it fosters community–and there’s nothing more human than community. Our school district created a website entitled Teachers’ Lounge, where we house curriculum (via GAFE), provide login information, Appy Hour dates, lesson plans, PD via YouTube, a chat feature with our Tech Media Clerk, and much more.

School district need a central hub where teachers can access resources and find best practices. YouTube is amazing because you can embed videos you make on websites, providing teachers with step-by-step instructions on how to work a program. It also helps give teachers a look into other classrooms–which in the past has been extremely rare because teachers can’t just up and leave their own students to visit other classes without securing substitute teachers, creating sub lesson plans, and figuring out a lot of other arrangement.

Here’s a link to a teacher explaining how to print using Google Cloud Print in Chrome. Also, here’s an embedded video that explains the new Google Drive experience:

PD is extremely important, and it’s imperative that school districts use every means possible to helps teachers be confident while blending technology and instruction.


It’s a Brave New Classroom, and while technology can be an important tool, teachers will always be the most important factor in helping students learn. Deploying 1:1 devices in classrooms must be viewed through this lens, and a human infrastructure needs to be established to help everyone be successful.

Places of education must be antifragile

I’ve written about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile in the past. If an aspiring teacher asked me which book he or she should read that would be of the greatest use in preparation for becoming an educator, Antifragile would be at the top of my list. Here’s an all-too-brief look at the book’s central idea:

Fragile: Anything that’s fragile can break easily. Think of an egg. If you drop it on the kitchen floor, it will break.

Robust: Anything that’s robust can withstand something bad without damage. Think of dropping a bowling ball on the floor.

Antifragile: Anything that’s antifragile will not just withstand damage, the contact will make it stronger.

To clarify, Taleb’s theory is that complicated systems (Wall Street, bureaucracies, a body pumped full of various medications) are weak; they can easily be destroyed by volatility, uncertainty, and slight changes in the norm. It would behoove organizations to avoid becoming (or remaining) fragile so that the slightest financial or natural event doesn’t put them out of business.

Similarly, individuals should find ways to make a living that cannot fall prey to the whims of fate. Robust organizations can be beaten up by whatever’s thrown their way and keep ticking. Of course, this is much better than fragility, and most people would assert that being robust is the ideal. In the case of a black swan event, a robust company or school district can take a hit and continue functioning properly.

According to Taleb, however, being robust is not ideal. “Antifragility” should be the aim. An antifragile organization not only can withstand the blow from an unfortunate event, it will be made stronger. A bowling ball may be robust because it wouldn’t be harmed if it were dropped on a tile floor, but if it actually grew stronger due to being dropped, then it would be antifragile.

It’s important to bring the idea of antifragility to a school district. Businesses should seriously consider ways to become antifragile, and school districts are no different. How can dropping enrollment rates actually make you stronger? How can a bond that failed to pass make you stronger? How can a lack of funds for technology or PD make you stronger?

Tightening one’s belt by budgeting and focusing on only the essentials are broad responses to the above questions, but they’re the beginning of a transformation away from fragility. I’d say almost all school districts in the U.S. are fragile, and this is because their well-being is dependent on too many entities and factors that are out of the districts’ control. Being debt-free, remaining independent, keeping things simple, having a plan (and changing that plan based upon evidence), hiring good people, and keeping a good asset allocation (in more ways than just investments) are great places to start, but I’ll admit that avoiding fragility is a tough nut to crack.

So what power do teachers have to help? 

I’d be remiss to not mention a way the philosophy of antifragility can benefit not just school districts but also the people they’re created to help: students. Taleb discusses how intervention weakens systems. For example, the U.S. meddling in the Middle East, the government meddling in private business, and cholesterol medication in the human body are all done with the best of intentions, but oftentimes these interventions create unintended consequences that leave us worse off than where we started.

It’s with this perspective that educators must approach Response to Intervention (RTI). In the field of education, we’re so quick to change the system and ‘make it better.’ We’ll throw in a half-hour intervention period two days a week and expect teachers to be able to reteach concepts to students who are behind. What we fail to perceive is that intervention periods throw off a system that has been established, and just like a medication that’s focused on changing one number on a blood test report, an RTI period could cause negative consequences on student learning. Even if teachers have a good lesson plan, are able to get failing students in their classrooms during the RTI time slot, and formative assessments are present to assess student progression, we still don’t know what unintended results could develop.

I am a huge proponent of not making organizations too complex, and this goes for school schedules as well. A school day should maximize the instruction time by allowing teachers to provide help to students during the regular schedule. For junior high and high school teachers, this would be done during the period they have the students. For elementary teachers, help should be provided during the portion of the day devoted to the content area that’s being retaught.


Intervention is viewed positively by many people. It means you’re trying–that you’re doing something. Unfortunately, that ‘something’ that’s done with the best of intentions can actually be worsening the situation. Teachers may not be able to make their school districts antifragile, but they can definitely make their classrooms antifragile, and I think RTI is a perfect place to start by maximizing instructional time with good teaching strategies and leaving schedules alone.

Educational technology

Throughout history, there have been prospectors for gold, oil, and many other commodities. In 2015, the rush will be for a market share in educational technology.

It’s important to note there are organizations devoted to promoting learning for free. The two that quickly come to mind are Khan Academy and Gooru. Helping students and educators at no cost is an extremely noble endeavor, and I hope Khan and Gooru thrive during the upcoming year.

However, for most who have tossed their hats into the fray, it’s a fact that they’ve gotta hustle if they wanna make a dollar. On one hand, I have a lot of respect for companies such as Edmodo, Illuminate Education, LearnZillion, and the many other entities who are hustling for a foothold in districts across the nation. They’re all fulfilling niches that may very well be needed as schools adopt personal devices for students. On the other hand, if I worked for a company that wanted to service school districts, I would feel constant unease due to the fact that educators usually want (or need) services for free, and districts are continually looking for the cheapest alternative–many times at the expense of quality.

But, as we all know, there’s high risk in all business endeavors. I’ve stated the obvious in the above paragraph, but it’s a good way to frame an educational technology conversation in which the following three questions are discussed:

1. For what purpose does an educational technology company exist? 

2. What do schools and districts need? 

3. What do teachers need in their classrooms? 

These questions may seem simple, but their answers are fraught with a high degree of complexity. Too often school districts follow sales representatives down a rabbit hole that leads to nothing but unused products and wasted money. To compound this reality, many companies are trying to find success through a grass roots campaign of making their services free for teachers but not free at a school and district level. This creates a disunited educator base where every teacher finds her favorite platform and fights for its adoption because it’s the ‘right’ choice.

I’d like to address the three above questions. It’ll be an incomplete analysis, but at least it’s a start in the edutech dialogue.

For what purpose does an educational technology company exist?

All great organizations have members who are introspective and want to exist in order to bring value in a field in which their services are needed. It’s also important for school districts to ask what the purpose is for a service. Finding a product’s necessity is only possible after a district has already answered many important questions, such as: Do we want fully digital curriculum? What, exactly, is a learning management system (LMS)? Do we want our LMS to house student information, take attendance, function as a grade book, and contain district made curriculum? Does the same LMS need to perform all these functions? Is there a difference between an LMS at the school and district level compared with the classroom level? (I’d answer with a resounding ‘yes’ to this last question–more on that in a bit.)

A district can probably grasp why an educational technology company exists, but it’s hard to figure out if the service is necessary, which leads me to the second question:

What do schools and districts really need? 

At a school or district level, the technological services most in need are on four fronts: how to house digital curriculum, how to track student performance on formative assessments, attendance, and a grade book. (I will leave out programs used by payroll and special services, mainly because I’m not familiar with these divisions.)

Digital curriculum: To the chagrin of many, digital curriculum is coming. Districts need to figure out whether they will continue the traditional textbook adoption or transfer to a service that provides content in a web-based solution. Also, will districts create their own curriculum and publish it with the web 2.0 tools that are available for free, or will they pay for curriculum that is created by an outside company?

Student performance: The importance of formative assessments within education may be unparalleled, and it would behoove the school or district that promotes this type of checking for understanding by finding a service that not only assesses students quickly and efficiently, but also provides teachers and principals with easily discernible data that can drive instruction. There’s a lot of wasted PLC hours every school year, and a way to gauge whether or not students are learning is in high demand (or at least should be).

Attendance and grade book: These two are much more straightforward than how to solve the digital curriculum and gauging student performance quandaries. The hard questions lie in how students will be assessed, especially when studies show that grades hinder student learning. (Feedback, on the other hand, it extremely important and not the same as a traditional grade.)

Schools and districts have their work cut out for them. There are no easy answers, but fortunately, I think the answer for what’s needed in the classroom is a lot easier to solve.

What do teachers really need in their classrooms? 

Simply put, they need ‘digital infrastructure’. What I mean is teachers need a way to assign assignments digitally, collect assignments digitally, flip the classroom with video, and administer efficient common formative assessments with an LMS that provides easily discernible data for student achievement. So, if you’re a teacher who’s wondering what’s needed in an LMS, follow this checklist:

  • Does the LMS assign assignments easily?
  • Does the LMS collect assignments easily?
  • Can you provide the students with links to videos–especially videos that can be watched at home?
  • Can you administer common formative assessments easily and share data painlessly with colleagues during your PLC meetings?

If there is a ‘no’ to any of these question, look for another LMS.


This post barely scratches the surface for what’s facing districts, schools, and teachers in regard to educational technology. Nevertheless, the questions posed are necessary when evaluating nascent services that are attempting to capitalize on 1:1 devices trickling into classrooms. There’s a lot at stake, and as always, we need to offer more questions than answers before making big decisions regarding how students will learn and produce work in 2015 and beyond.