UNSchoolification: Confronting Sophophobia (Fear of Learning) in Teacher Education

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:

UNSchoolify yourself:
-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.


After a little “unschoolification,” pre-service teachers developed new ways of exploring children’s literature through play. This group created Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Game.


2 thoughts on “UNSchoolification: Confronting Sophophobia (Fear of Learning) in Teacher Education

  1. Glad to hear that U School and Arcadia are pushing back against the anti-intellectualism.

    I think some of this has to do with No Child Left Behind and the ironically more invasive and neo-liberal Race to the Top. Since around 2008, I started to notice that more of my lovely students were increasingly anxious and agitated about achievement, success, and high grades. There’s a larger narrative here, and it has something to do with status acquisition, the relentless “college and career” mantra,* and high-stakes standardized tests.

    It’s as if there is this Machiavellian scheme to vilify teachers, undermine our civic infrastructure, and create artificial conflicts between students and their teachers. I even had one parent tell me “If my daughter doesn’t pass the [Pa state biology] Keystone exam, I will hold you accountable.” As if the test was actually a good measure of her daughter’s authentic learning. Or the test was more important than her daughter’s relationship with science. Or I was somehow responsible for the independent choices that this relatively wealthy high school student was making. Who owns this?

    The contrived dysfunction is personal, and it is an affront to the teaching profession.

    It’s possible for a teacher to be tempted to divest, or burn out, or go crazy, but I found a terrific book that helps teachers manage the absurdity: “Cultivating Teacher Renewal,” by Barbara Larrivee. I’m also enjoying Catherine O’Brien’s “Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being.” In both cases, well-being is an affirming form of political resistance.

    I’ve also found that authentic professional learning communities have incredible potential to transform and sustain. Teacher-led groups like Teachers Lead Philly, Teacher Action Group – Philadelphia, Caucus of Working Educations, PhilaSoup, and others are doing the good work of supporting colleagues through collaboration and shared sense of purpose.

    * vs. “democracy and engagement”

    • Gamal – Thanks for getting the ball rolling with this conversation. As you know I am in whole-hearted agreement with you about the role of professional learning communities in teachers’ lives – in fact, I think that participating in such groups provides a layer of “safety in numbers” for teachers to innovate and speak out about important issues. It also provides a context in which teachers can share, take risks, and reflect with each other outside of what a favorite scholar of mine calls the “emotional regime” of a school (which can sometimes be supportive, but far to often, is not). Thanks for the tips on the books- I’ll certainly check them out. Self-care seems to be a huge theme for this time, and for teachers especially. It’s something I hope to explore more with my pre-service teachers through our work.

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