Secrets to a Successful Education

Recently, I revisited a contemporary, classic book on education for a discussion group I participate in by John Taylor Gatto.  This reminded me of 14 educational principles he compiled from personal  research on the top, elite high schools in the US.

Gatto’s history spans a successful career teaching public school in New York for over 30 years, and in retirement advocating with a loud voice for educational reform as a writer and public speaker.  His passion for teaching sparked a personal interest to discover what exactly, if anything was different about what is taught in the elite high schools. He learned that although each school carries its own academic mark of distinction, they all share a core that proves key to their students’ success.

Gatto summarizes the core into 14 areas, which he believes provides the foundation in determining what education for success really looks like.  The programs in these elite schools genuinely equip students with skills, knowledge and tools to launch them way beyond academic success.  These schools continue to produce a large portion of today’s leaders.  This study lends a revealing yardstick of measurement to apply to institutions of learning as students resume school this fall.

 The core list is as follows:

#1 Students form a complete theory of human nature, through theology, classic literature, philosophy, and history, and interestingly enough, not through psychology.  Students reason through  the universals and particulars of man with authors who pondered and wrote about the ultimate questions, inviting them to participate in the great conversation of human existence.

#2 All the schools provide consistent and frequent opportunity for student’s to practice in the active literacies- writing, and speaking. Writing and speaking well, reinforces thinking well and is essential  in the great exchange of ideas for commerce, politics, religion etc. Think of Bacon’s quote, “reading maketh a full man, speaking a ready man, and writing makes him exact.”

#3 Students gain insight into major institutions, and the ideas that drive them by study of their form, history and hierarchy. US public schools do include US government as part of the required curriculum, but the foundation that the government was built upon is generally missed. How many students today read John Locke, and can explain that the US went the way of Locke, rather than Hobbes, two contemporary philosophers; whereas, Western Europe decidedly embraced Hobbes’s “Social Contract.”  Other important institutions in the US that would benefit student understanding might include; universities, hospitals, libraries, the Pentagon, the New York Stock Exchange and so forth.

#4 Students behavior in all the schools is reinforced with a civil tone by repeated exercise in decorum and manners.

#5 Most of the academic work is independent, what I call active learning, as opposed to passive learning. Students do not wait around for the teacher to tell them what to do, read, answer etc., but are actively engaged in directing their education.

#6 Students participate in an energetic, physical sport that Gatto says in addition to the many obvious benefits, the important two are that it helps to confer grace upon the human form, and strengthen endurance. To carry oneself well, and with confidence benefits the person and those around them.

#7 Students apply a theory of access towards gaining access to any person or place. Gatto shares many enlightening, and successful stories of his students venturing around New York City, strategically executing their plans from his classroom.

#8 Personal  responsibility in all areas is driven into the students at these schools. In fairness, the private schools are able to provide a little more opportunity here because most are boarding schools, so house tasks are shared. However, this ethic expands into taking leadership positions in clubs and such, and promoting the ideal of personal excellence in always delivering more than is asked.

#9 By the end of their 12th year, students are expected to have arrived at a personal code of behavior and morality that they’ve decided to navigate life by.

#10 All students emerge from their high school experience with comfort in the arts, both visual and performing, and architecture.

#11 Students acquire the power of accurate observation and recording that includes accurate notes as well as basic drawing. This skill was essential for the men who laid the foundation in modern science.

#12 The schools are able to meet each student with flexibility and skill because of an understanding of the individual. Each person brings with them weakness, so the schools are able to challenge a student in their weakness, so as to strengthen it.

#13 Another practice in the schools is student development and testing of their judgement, or what might be called correct thinking. We always hear about the importance of critical thinking, but a better term is correct thinking. Reasoning demands discrimination in the evaluation of things, then mental follow up on personal predictions and consistent mental correction.

#14 The last principle is an extension of the above.  It is the developing a habit of caution in drawing conclusions instead of jumping to rash ones.

Now I’m not so naive as to not know, that it is often “who you know” that can make the big difference in certain life endeavors, but mastery in the above would certainly prepare an individual to know, who to know,  how to go about knowing them, and where to find them.  It’s also noteworthy, that many of the knowledge, skills, and understanding included in the core are relationship oriented. By the time these youths graduate high school, they understandably will be at ease with the world, and ready to lead wherever life takes them. The beauty of this type of education is that it’s not just for youth, or high school, but is an educational formula that anyone can follow at anytime in their life.



Are you teaching your child to play the “grade game”? If you are…you’re not alone. Everyone in the educational institutions from the principal, to the teachers, to the students themselves have been doing the same thing…teaching your child to play the “grade game”. While grades are important as a rule, they should not be the main reason a student attends school or seeks to know something. The idea that the grade will get you where you want to go in life is flawed.  

Many parents continually harp on the idea that the student must get good grades so that he can go to a good college or university…and that graduating from a good university will guarantee him a good job. This focus on grades during the school experience of course will ultimately make for a good life. Sounds like a solid way to view education doesn’t it? And statistics relating to grades have seemed to generally bear this out prior to the last decade or so.

It seems, however, that we may have over-sold this idea to the detriment of the current and coming generations of children. Grades are focused on what you know of what you have been taught, how well you test or how well you have been prepared for the test, and how well you game the system. We even have a program coming from the Federal Department of Education called Common Core to “help” students “game the system” even more. (Common Core is a topic for another time.) Suffice it to say, it is another form of the “grade game” handed to you and your child so as to affect more control of your educational lives.

The real goal of educating ourselves should not be to obtain a grade by the least amount of effort possible. It should not be to obtain a grade at all. The real goal of our education should be the acquisition of the knowledge we can use to earn ourselves a future that is to our liking and of service to mankind. We need to understand that some knowledge is preparatory to understanding other knowledge. Students need to seek knowledge with the idea of using it for purposes known or yet to be discovered. It is the knowledge that is important…not the grade.

You must also add to the knowledge a work ethic that will use well the knowledge you have gained. In his New York Times article of May 28th 2013, Thomas L. Friedman put it this way; “Underneath the huge drop in demand that drove unemployment up to 9 percent during the recession, there’s been an important shift in the education-to-work model in America. Anyone who’s been looking for a job knows what I mean.

It is best summed up by the mantra from the Harvard education expert Tony Wagner that the world doesn’t care anymore what you know; all it cares “is what you can do with what you know.” And since jobs are evolving so quickly, with so many new tools, a bachelor’s degree is no longer considered an adequate proxy by employers for your ability to do a particular job — and, therefore, be hired. So, more employers are designing their own tests to measure applicants’ skills. And they increasingly don’t care how those skills were acquired: home schooling, an online university, a massive open online course, or Yale. They just want to know one thing: Can you add value?”  

Knowledge is key. Not grade. Focus and emphasis need to be on the gaining of knowledge and a work ethic to use it productively. As a friend of mine, Col. Eldon Bodily pointed out to me in an email relating to this topic, “it is related to the question of a coal mine owner in PA when interviewing local job applicants. “If you want to work come and see me, if you want a job go elsewhere.”

By Nicholas Pond