Have you been “schoolified?” Do you find yourself:
-Separating your personal interests, feelings, and relationships from school?
-Going through the motions to get to the end?
-Afraid of saying the wrong answer or doing something the wrong way?
-Thinking of play is as nonintellectual and work as passionless?
-Working to learn only what you are required to?
-Thinking of knowledge as something to be “consumed” by individuals?
These were the questions I posed to my class of pre-service teachers on the first day of school this year. I asked students to keep track of their answers as I read the questions aloud. At the end, I asked how many answered “yes” to all the questions. Almost every hand went up. My jaw dropped. I expected a few hands, but certainly not 95% of the students.
I decided to ask these questions because every year I have noticed more fear in my students’ eyes. Fear of failure, which leads to fear of trying, fear of taking a risk, fear of thinking their own thoughts, and ultimately, fear of learning, or, sophophobia. I typically spend about ¾ of my semester trying to undo those fears. The fact that I spend more and more time on this process each year makes me worried as well – because these students are our future teachers. Teachers who, without someone to “unschool” them, will carry these fears into the classroom and become fearful teachers. This does not bode well for the next generation of students.
The idea of asking my students if they had become “schoolified” came to me because of a presentation I had attended by teachers and students at the U School in Philadelphia, a new school which takes a personalized inquiry approach to education. They found that they had to spend the first week of school “un-schooling” new students. First year students were so used to being told what to do and being reprimanded for getting the wrong answers in their previous educational experience that they had trouble shifting to a context in which they have a choice in what to learn (and how to learn it) and where mistakes are considered an important part of a process of learning.
It certainly makes me wonder what our education system has come to if we have to “un-school” students in order to help them to learn. My pre-service students’ entire educational lives have been experienced under policies and practices shaped by No Child Left Behind and the reverberations of high-stakes testing from K through 12th grade. Yet, I want to spend less time here on my lamentations and more on what we can do about it. I’m starting with the pre-service teachers.
After I asked my students if they had been schoolified, I told them that in my class, we would be thinking a different way. It was time for them to “un-schoolify” themselves. Here were my suggestions to them:
-Bring your true self here.
-Focus on the journey, not the destination.
-Celebrate failure/mistakes as opportunities to learn.
-Play with critical intelligence and passion. This is the real work.
-Work to connect what you learn to personal desires and passions.
-Think of knowledge as something created and shared by the community.
Now I have the responsibility to create a learning environment that supports this type of work. It requires me to be different as well. Students must feel safe to be authentic and make mistakes in this environment, so I must invite this through modeling my own vulnerability. I must also consider how I provide feedback and construct assessments that help students rather than simply judge them. Truthfully, this is a work in progress, yet, my approach this year is to work with students to co-construct the assessments and to build in opportunities for personal goal-setting and self-reflection. Finally, I must be incredibly conscious of how I invite students to be themselves in the classroom and how we work together to acknowledge each others histories, perspectives, and beliefs.
This is the beginning of a longer conversation. I invite readers to write in about their efforts to shift the paradigm of fear that has shadowed schools and learning, and/or to reflect on the ways “schoolification” has affected their teaching or learning.