Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Book of Learning and Forgetting

Smith, F. (1998) The book of learning and forgetting, New York: Teachers College Press.

In The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith, the author, a professor, researcher and Ph.D. from Harvard University, examines two theories of learning, the classic view and the official theory. The classical view holds that learning is “continual, effortless, inconspicuous, boundless, unpremeditated, independent of rewards and punishment, based on self-image, vicarious, never forgotten, inhibited by testing, a social activity and growth.” The official theory proposes that learning is “occasional, hard work, obvious, limited, intentional, dependent on rewards and punishment, based on effort, individualistic, easily forgotten, assured by testing, an intellectual activity and memorization.” Smith then highlights the historical timeline in which the official theory of learning, “a mechanical standardization”, was implemented into our educational institutions and now governs every aspect of schooling, much to the detriment of all involved.

Initially, the two theories, and Smith’s writing style confused me, but because the ideas are repeated often and built upon, the material began to sink in by the third chapter or so. I was thoroughly persuaded by the classic idea of learning that you learn from the company you keep—learning is a social activity. Once Smith examined the history of the official theory, it origins in the Prussian army and the subsequent transfer of this militaristic model to schools, I was to say the least, confounded that our entire educational system is based on the ideas of a few people, who primarily worked outside of education.

“Learning is inevitable part of our normal lives, and it only takes place, in any useful way, when we are in a normal frame of mind. The main thing we learn when we struggle to learn is that learning is a struggle.”
“We learn all the time, so anything we engage in we learn about—provided we are interested and not confused.”
“You don’t need a test to discover what individuals are learning, just look at their faces.”
“And the history of education in the last century and a half has been one of continual change in personal relationships among teachers and students, until we have finished up with almost no individual relations among them all.”
“Students themselves have become so addicted to tests—particularly the students who expect to score well—that they are reluctant to read or write anything, in school or out, unless a score or grade will be attached.”
“Teachers and students become marionettes, manipulated by offstage puppet masters.”
“Today learning and education don’t mean gaining experience, they mean acquiring, storing and retrieving information.”
“Learning is not effective if we have to struggle to achieve it.”

1. Smith only spends a few pages outlining what can be done to “liberate” schools from the official theory. How can I go back into my classroom tomorrow and plan for the next umpteen years so that the classic view takes hold? What are some concrete ideas/strategies I can put into place?

2. How do I share this information with my administration, colleagues and parents so that it is in “bite” size form and digestable?

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