Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

“What is Schooliness?” – Discursus and Open Thread (Clay Burell guest-post 2)

Colbert Poster

I Love Learning. I Hate Schooliness.

–this is my motto. It’s one of the reasons I wrote (in a post, “On Leaving Teaching to Become a Teacher,” with about 70 comments now),

I’m not sure how much longer I want to work for schools. I’d so much rather teach.

So what is “schooliness”?

I have no idea. But that’s not a problem:  I’m a teacher.  I’m quite comfortable speaking with confidence on subjects I know next to nothing about.

Fans of Stephen Colbert will note that “schooliness” riffs on Colbert’s “truthiness,” which won the Word of the Year awards from the American Dialect Society in 2005, and from Merriam-Webster in 2006.

Colbert, in a serious interview as himself, instead of as his Bill O’Reilly satire persona, had this to say about “truthiness”:

Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don’t mean the argument over who came up with the word…

It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist. It’s the fact that he’s certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?…

Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.

I’ve never tried to define “schooliness,” but so many people are quoting it as “Clay’s idea,” I feel it’s time to try – and to ask for your help in the Open Thread invitation at the end of this post.

The Birth of Schooliness

I first used the word “schooliness” in March 2007 – my third month of blogging – in one of a series of posts on “how to save blogging from teachers.” (I still worry about that danger, and still think-aloud about that challenge a year later.) I was envisioning a future in which all the edtech evangelists got what they wanted: schools full of teachers in every classroom using blogging with their students. But rather than seeing a utopia to celebrate, I saw a bleak dystopia: Blogging as “just another way to turn in homework.” Blogging, like thinking, creativity, and other joys, turned into an aversive horror by the forces of schooliness:

. . . . what reader will ever return to a blog that’s full of homework posts? If Stephen Colbert were here, he’d say such a blog smelled of this: “Schooliness.”

Like Colbert’s “truthiness,” “schooliness” stuck with me. It was a word without a dictionary definition that still seemed to identify something we all know, all too well.

Schooly Student Leadership

The next time I used the term was this past September. With a few other teachers around the world, I’ve started a Green Schools movement called Project Global Cooling. The project’s purpose is for student members to research waste-reduction measures, and their cost benefits for the school, and then present them for adoption in a formal proposal to the school administration – and to have, ideally, an Earth Day concert in cities around the world, student-promoted, on the same day, which will be filmed and uploaded to the Project Global Cooling website (it’s ugly right now, but it’s starting, finally, to grow legs – see my blog for future focus on this as it nears its April 19 climax).

One of the PGC students, a student council member, was ordered by the student council teacher-leaders to drop our club. It conflicted with the student council meeting times. That sent me into my second rage against the schooly in my post, “Student Council: Creating Tomorrow’s Followers (or, “Smells Like School Spirit”)“:

Me: “So what are you guys going to be planning in the Student Council that’s so important she’s forcing you to drop all other activities?”

Student: “The Haunted House for Halloween. And the next Student Assembly.”

Me: “The Haunted House….so, like, getting the pumpkins and doing some Halloween thing in the gym?”

Student: “Yeah.”

Me: “And the Student Assembly: what are you planning for that?”

Student: “Introducing the Sports teams. And raising school spirit.”

Me: “And how many people do you have meeting twice a week to plan a Haunted House and a 40-minute assembly to introduce the basketball players and give a few speeches and such?”

Student: “Seventeen.”

Me: “Seventeen?”

Student: “Yeah.”

Me: “Seventeen people meeting twice a week for the next 20 weeks to plan a haunted house in the gym, and an assembly to introduce sports teams? How long can it take to come up with a plan to introduce sports teams?”

Student: “I know.”

Me: “I hate school. Look at how trivial it makes you, even when you want to make a difference in the real world.”

Student: “I don’t have any choice. The Student Council teachers won’t let me out.”

Me: “And look how powerless you suddenly are. You’re 17. You’re a young adult. You know physics, calculus, and history far more than most of your teachers, but have zero power in school despite that. ‘They won’t let me.’ I hate school.”

* * *

So, your advice: I want to suggest he quit Student Council, since it’s clearly one very school-blindered, trivial waste of time for all these poor students seeking election in order to show they can handle power effectively – like adults do.

Another idea is to instead advise him to wage a bit of a rebellion inside the Student Council, by asking the very sensible question – “Is this the best we can do? Jack-o-lanterns and basketballs? Can we give the StuCo some teeth? Extend it into the real world? Isn’t it pathetically fay right now? Trivial? Irrelevant? Infantile?”

The sad thing is, it’s institutionalized. The Rat-Race for college admissions puts a high premium on silly bullets like holding a class office. College counselors, administrators, parents, students, teachers – the whole school culture – treat the Student Council like it’s an honorable thing. In reality, it limits the horizons of the 17 most motivated leaders from each grade level to the paltry world of the schoolhouse. It’s outrageously trivial and infantile.

I don’t know if it’s “consensus trance,” blind traditionalism, or winking condescension (”Let the kids play like they have power”), but it smells really bad to me.

Schooly Ethics

Schooliness raised its ugly head again when I considered the moral “offenses” schools choose to punish at school. Drive a gas-guzzler? Promote the bloody diamond trade with your flashy jewelry? Enjoy murder in video games or on your favorite movies? No worries. No punishment.

But use certain taboo vowel-consonant combinations, or look at the human form with certain taboo portions visible? We’ll throw the book at you, in our duty to teach you the difference between right and wrong. Schooly morality seems to have been held back since the mid-Victorian era. That was a fun post: “To Curse or Not to Curse: On Teaching the F-Bomb and Other Colorful Words.” Read it before you judge it. It’s about Shakespeare’s mastery of cursing, as an art form. Here’s a snippet:

Lear curses with style and grace, as befits a king. But Kent, his chief knight – Lear’s “Army Chief of Staff,” as it were – curses, as befits a career soldier, with much more salt and directness. Check out his classic “cussing out” of the slimy Oswald, servant of Goneril –

What dost thou know me for?

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of they addition. (Act II, Sc. 2, ll. 14-24)

If your Elizabethan English is rusty, and you don’t hear the vulgarity and sexual insult sloshing in practically every line, download the free “Answers” Firefox addon, and click the unknown words while holding down “alt” on your Mac for an instant popup definition and more (PC users, you’re on your own – maybe “ctrl”?). Kent calls Oswald a pimp, son of a bitch, bastard, son of a whore, “wussy,” a suck-up, and more, and then says, in today’s language, “Deny one word, and I’ll kick your disgusting little donkey” (substitute the King James Bible word for donkey here).

It’s depressing, isn’t it, how the art of cursing has degenerated in our own modern age? Our four-letter words are so unimaginative and artless by comparison.

So if you were me, how would you guide students to translate these curses? Having Kent abuse Oswald by hissing,

You bad person, I’m going to kick your bottom.
You son of a bad woman, you sissy, you person born out of wedlock,
You big meanie, etc

just doesn’t strike me as a faithful literary adaptation. (It does strike me as schooliness, though. Some teachers, like Wilde’s classic Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, would give such a bowdlerizing an “A,” I’ve no doubt.)

Schooly Imagination and Curiosity

I’m battling with schooliness now, most distressingly, in the very people I thought would battle it with me: my high school seniors. It seems they are so unfamiliar with having their own ideas, and writing about them, that they simply cannot do it with any engagement. Their free-choice blogs are, overall, schooly imitations of authenticity. Pretending to have ideas they pretend to care about. Thank Goodness, there are exceptions. But the rule is so distressing, it’s led me to believe that, by high school, it’s too late to unlock the creativity and engagement Wes so often champions. Twelve years of schooliness seems to have beaten the desire to learn – the pleasure of learning – completely out of most seniors. It seems to me now that, if we’re going to feed fires for learning, we have to do it before they’re snuffed out. And that means, to be clear, focus on school reform in primary and middle years. (How to reform secondary school, so in the grips of the SAT and AP and College Admissions – not to mention high school teachers living out college professor fantasies – is beyond me.)

Here’s a snippet from, “From the Classroom Blogging Doldrums: What Would Teacher 2.0 Do?“:

The problem? Little vision, little connective writing.

It’s partly senioritis, I think. College applications, SAT’s, too many commitments to too many extra-curricular activities (got to have those bullets for the college application, even if they come at the cost of destroying both my learning and my GPA), too many week-long sports trips, too many AP classes that were chosen not for interest but again for careerist reasons.

It’s partly Korean culture: parents sending students to night and weekend schools for SAT prep, AP prep, tutors. Students confusing memorization skills with academic excellence, trained to “be instructed” rather than to “construct” meaning themselves. Having no time to be, reflect, explore, wonder (or having no energy, rather).

And it’s partly my own fault: all the macho posturing of Advanced Placement courses as “college-level, rigorous,” etc – and Wes Fryer’s etymolological connection, in Shanghai back in September, of “rigor” with “rigid” and “rigor mortis” echoes here – led me to buy in to what now seems a sadistic and pedagogically pathetic imperative to overload AP students with A Mountain Of Homework.

Schooly Critical Thinking: An Oxymoron

This is from, “Teaching Grammar on the Titanic: On Fear and Irrelevance in Education“:

So: the problem with me, as a teacher, is that I design units that don’t address anything important. I’ve been trained to think that my job is to stuff the headpieces of the next generation with such irrelevant things as the definition of litotes and onomatopoeia, to write cute little stories about nothing, to know Stratford-upon-Avon. To be able, paradoxically, to think critically about safe subjects. And above all, not to think about anything that might, god forbid, rankle the status quo. And let’s not even start to think about taking any sort of action.

Again, so: As soon as I stop thinking like a teacher, designing units derived from an institutional culture that defines me as a teacher, and subconsciously makes me far more traditional in my teaching than my progressively-posing ego likes to acknowledge….as soon as I re-define myself as a community leader – as that once-upon-a-time American thing called a citizen – instead, maybe the young adults of my community might have an opportunity to learn how to function in the world they’ll inherit from and manage for us all-too-soon.

Schooly (Anti-)Science

When Bulgaria is, per capita, more scientifically literate than America about biology, geology, and genetics – and when even science teachers are afraid of the “e-word” – little more needs to be said. I say it anyway, in this post that got 1,000 hits in 8 hours (a record for me): Truly Critical: On Science, Religion, and Goodness.

Schooly Writing LessonsWilde Action Figure

Under the influence of Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms and Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, and in order to battle evil with wit and thus smile a bit more in hell, I’ve decided to slowly compile twitter-like definitions of all things schooly. Here’s my first effort, from a post last week:

Schooly writing (noun): Assignments by teachers who don’t want to read them, to students who don’t want to write them; a perpetual and unnecessary misery upon which hinges the student’s future, and the teacher’s present, livelihood; an oxymoron.

Open Thread Invitation to Play: Your Definitions of Schooliness?

Readers of my blog will know about the Open Thread idea. It’s simple: A topic or question is proposed in an Open Thread post, and all readers are encouraged to write comments as long as they would like, to copy them to their own blogs if desired, and to converse with each other in the thread. It’s fun.

I’d like to do an Open Thread here: Questions:

1. List the topics that come to your mind when you think of “Schooliness.”

2. Write your own “Devil’s Definition” and give us all a wicked laugh. I’ll carry them over to Beyond School and add them to a page there.

We know what schooliness is. We teachers live it daily. Let’s have some fun with it.

(Other comments are fine too, of course.)

Photo Credits:




26 responses to ““What is Schooliness?” – Discursus and Open Thread (Clay Burell guest-post 2)”

  1. diane Avatar

    authentic learning
    lifelong learning
    student voice

    schooliness – the process of leaching creativity from the soul of a student

    Like your new wedding hairdo in the poster.

  2. Dean Shareski Avatar

    Wes sure gets his monies worth with you. I recall asking you to do the same for me but I never followed up.

    Anyway, what a complete description of your philosophy. It certainly helps to complete the puzzle of Mr. Burrel. This cuts to the heart of the “relevant, authentic and engaging” idea. I’m reminded of the work I’ve done this year on Project Based Learning. The one part that really struck home was how often we returned to the question, “will this matter in 20 years?”. Is this really important? So often we brush over this question for the sake of schooliness. Thanks for not letting go of this question.

  3. Damian Avatar

    OK, I’ll give one a shot:

    Schooly Discipline: A philosophy that states that the best method of punishing our most disengaged learners – class cutters – is to remove them from class or school grounds for periods of 1-5 days at a time. This philosophy may be applied inconsistently by any one of multiple official disciplinarians at school.

  4. cburell Avatar

    @Damian: Oh yes, yes, yes. Oscar and Ambrose are smiling from . . . . wherever they are.

    Thanks for playing and hope we see more 🙂

  5. Ken Pendergrass Avatar

    How about this-

    Schooly Music Lessons:using outdated instruments (i.e. auto harps) to teach outdated songs, typically by rote, with outdated accompaniments that sound nothing like music that is being performed by real musicians in the real world.
    Schooly Music Concerts:unimaginative, teacher directed, music programs, that are mindless entertainment for the administration to brag about in parent newsletters and press releases.

  6. cburell Avatar

    Oh Ken, those are priceless. Reminds me of Lisa Simpson intro in the Simpsons opening credits.

    We really need to get some students to add some definitions here. 🙂

  7. cburell Avatar

    Here’s one:

    School (noun) a place that prepares the young for the world by separating them from it.

  8. diane Avatar

    Schooly library: a collection of outdated tomes arranged so that no student can locate them without the assistance of a highly trained professional who is usually unavailable

    Schooly standards: mandated tests measure a student’s ability to regurgitate facts. As expectations rise, passing grades are lowered so that the statistically impossible goal of having every student test “above average” is reached.

  9. Penelope Millar Avatar

    schooly gaze: Looking at every new technology, event or idea only in terms of how it can be used for the purposes of schooliness.

  10. diane Avatar

    Schooly Professional Development:
    You [staff] will attend, you will be passive
    We [administrators] will decide what will happen before, during, and after
    They [students] will not enter into the mix except incidentally

  11. diane Avatar

    Schooly day: as the doors open, the minds close.

  12. Lindsea Avatar

    Schooliness: A disease caused by twentieth century teachers, unnecessary rules, and bureaucracy. The mind feels like it’s been wrapped in a very hot, stuffy box. Side affects include lack of passion, mind numbing, and extreme functional fixedness.

    Cure: sudden jolts of inspiration applied directly to the frontal lobe in increasing amounts of power.

  13. mrsdurff Avatar

    1. List the topics that come to your mind when you think of ?Schooliness.?

    handwriting; arithmetic; any content area course done for the credit towards graduation not the knowledge; any course where there is a teacher on a stage, one right answer, and/or taught by the textbook; recess; lunchrooms; ISS.

    2. Write your own ?Devil?s Definition? and give us all a wicked laugh. I?ll carry them over to Beyond School and add them to a page there.

    Schooliness is all about what I am not. I refuse to be a teacher in the classroom, I am a learner among learners. I will be the lead learner, I will facilitate their growth, I will set up a course. But there will usually not be one right answer. Vocabulary and APA formats seem to have one right answer, but often there is more than one way around to a solution. Antischooliness is about a group of learners who gather together, online or offline, to learn about something. Schoolinesss is about walking in straight lines, bells, blocks or periods, attendance lists, & demerits. Sometimes I feel more like a prison guard than a learner. And I went to school for this? Oi veh!

  14. diane Avatar

    Schooliness is protecting students rather than arming them with knowledge

    Schooliness is isolation rather than integration

  15. pwoessner Avatar

    Two alternate definitions:

    Schooliness: A system born of the Agrarian Age, incessantly driven to meet the needs of the Industrial Age, and anxiously waiting for Pink’s Conceptual Age to fall off the Bestseller list.

    Schooliness: Preparing students for challenges and careers that don’t exist yet by teaching them about challenges and careers that don’t exist anymore.

  16. cburell Avatar

    @Pwoessner: You’ve got the writerly knack for this kind of thing. Such craft! I’m laughing as I type this!

  17. Terry Smith Avatar

    Schooliness – thank you Stephen Colbert – this is the evil spirit in which I pretend to believe, pretend to function in toward the end of year testing frenzy, checklist measurable items for, then in reality couch it all in projects, outings, and kid worldliness – follows what you can hear at teacher conferences: “A good project will have all 750 of our state objectives embedded.” Right. — Terry Smith

  18. James Sigler Avatar

    Schooly spelling
    Monday: Here are your spelling words for this week. Memorize them by Friday.
    Friday: Spelling test – Regurgitate onto paper the spelling words you memorized for this week and then forget them.

    (You convinced me about spelling tests, Wes)

  19. Rodd Lucier Avatar

    Schooliness Anagrams
    & “Teachliness Feedback”

    Niches Solos…
    “Going your own way isn’t allowed, not even in Spanish!”

    School Sines!
    “You lose marks for spelling…”

    Colon Hisses…
    “We did metaphors last week, this week it’s similes”

    Chosen Soils…
    “Stand your ground in debate class, this is History!”

    Chess in Silo?
    “Where else can games be educational?”

    Clone his SOS!
    “Should we all cry for help?”

    Once his loss…
    “Now all a loss we all must suffer…”

    Inch loses so…
    “Metric rules the day…”

    Iconless “ohs”.
    “Graphics design is another class…”

    Sonic loss eh?
    “Did you hear what the Canadian said?”

    She sins. Cool!
    “Which teacher broke copyright?!”

    Con loses his…
    “You think it’s your right to read what you want!”

  20. Mark Pullen Avatar

    At the end of every school year, I ask my third-grade students for reflections about our time together. I really request that the students be honest, and I usually get some great insights as to what worked or didn’t work for them that year. But one response from a while back really stuck with me — the student simply wrote: “This year felt more real.” SUCCESS!! I found it amazing that a third-grader could already verbalize that…

  21. Chris Watson Avatar

    I’ve actually had a hard time while thinking about it since it could easily become a list of complaints about constraints in our respective school contexts. Here are some of my ideas:

    Schooliness is a system where grade negotiation is the main motivator for students to come conference and visit with teachers.

    Schooliness is the void between what teachers know about how to learn and what students have to guess about how they learn.

    Schooliness is the fear of evaluation when colleagues visit your classroom.

    Schooliness is believing that there are certain texts that all students need to read.

    Schooliness is teaching English as if all the students are on a literature professor career track.

    Schooliness is the assumption that becoming a doctor or a lawyer is the pinnacle of academic accomplishment, and the purpose of secondary education.

  22. Candace Hackett Shively Avatar

    Musing on Schooliness…(from my blog post)
    I love RSS feeds, even though I rant about not having time to read them. Today I ran across Clay Burell?s discussion of schooliness. I smile as I muse.

    Is it like girliness? ? a term meant to demean , but occasionally value at the same time?

    I can sense schooliness, even in myself. Like girliness, I try to avoid it yet do not want to push it away entirely. It has its place. On certain days for certain occasions, in certain moods, girliness is OK. Never my goal, just OK.

    Now, schooliness??

    Schooliness actually cares whether the line is quiet in the hallway. Schooliness is made of the film and chicken wire they put inside the safety glass insert in my classroom door to prevent shattering (of ideas, customs, or quiet). It blocks the view of what is REALLY going on inside (inside heads, especially those who can entertain themselves while ?education? goes on around them). Schooliness is the translator we apply to technology tools so they are ?safe? and comply with AUPs. Schooliness is the substitute we LOVED to see as students because she was so much fun to fool. Schooliness is why they invented NCR paper, then changed it to Acrobat files you have to TYPE into. Schooliness is what prevented me from turning in what I really thought in most essays?until I trusted the anti-schooliness of the teacher. Schooliness is what my liberal arts degree ridiculed. Schooliness is what Congress would use to define Highly Qualified Teachers. Schooliness is the make-up that thinking human beings ?touch up? as they leave the faculty room. Schooliness is what makes us wear a watch. Schooliness is what my brightest gifted students so aptly parodied as I chuckled and pretended not to hear. Schooliness is ?May I have your attention please,? which should warn, ?Turn the speaker off NOW!?

    I will enjoy thinking about schooliness for days ?especially as I look out a non-school window, across my unfiltered computer, watching a lake with no buses or concrete in sight.

    There is a definite exhilaration to leaving schooliness behind.

  23. edkus Avatar

    Schooly creative writing is an oxymoron.
    Schooliness can teach essential skills. It’s just that I’m talking about basic essential skills.

  24. Pauline Davidsoun Avatar
    Pauline Davidsoun

    Practical analysis , I am thankful for the details ! Does someone know if my company might be able to get ahold of a template a form example to edit ?