Monday, February 22, 2010

The Book of Learning and Forgetting

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

Smith argues that the “official view” of learning as hard work has resulted in classrooms where the emphasis is on rote memorization, strict adult control, and punitive testing. These practices result only in short-term memorization, such that any knowledge gained is quickly forgotten. Worse, these practices undermine student motivation and confidence, resulting in learned hopelessness and anger. In contrast, Smith argues for the “classic view” of learning as a social process that occurs naturally through the company we keep. Practices that stem from the classic view—collaborative engagement in interesting activities—result in permanent learning that is actually more akin to growth.

I found Smith convincing on many points, most notably, the distinction he makes between long-term and short-term memory. I definitely agree that learning is most powerful and long-lasting when we are actually interested in what we are learning and are able to relate new information to a framework of knowledge that we already possess.

I also agree with Smith’s point that people tend to overlook how much students learn from the behaviors and attitudes of the people around them. I’m fascinated with his proposition that “the basis of all permanent learning is identification with people who are more experienced in what we would like to learn” and wonder about the implications of this idea for the way we organize our schools. I love how this point ties in with our Advanced Project-based Learning course and Jesse’s emphasis on bringing experts into the project development and critique process.


“Because of the way they are trained and expected to teach, teachers often believe that it is possible for students to learn something even though the students don’t understand it or aren’t interested in it—provided they try hard enough, of course. But we can only learn from activities that are interesting and comprehensible to us; in other words, activities that are satisfying. If this is not the case, only inefficient rote-learning, or memorization, is available to us and forgetting is inevitable” (87).

“Paradoxically, the effort to memorize interferes with memorization because it destroys understanding. Rote memorization puts things in the wrong place, in short-term memory (where you can only hold something for as long as you continually rehearse it) rather than in long-term memory (where things are organized and retrieved on the basis of the sense they make to us. And there is no direct route from short-term to long-term memory. The way to hold something in long-term memory is to relate it to something you already know” (88).

“I would (if I could) propose a radical change to the way we talk about schools. Abolish the words learning and teaching altogether, and talk instead about doing. One thing is clear from the classic view—that people always learn from what they are doing. If they are doing something worthwhile they are learning something worthwhile. If they are engaged in a boring confusing, or irrelevant activity, then they are learning something that is boring, confusing, or irrelevant” (94).


1. I wonder if the learning process is as absolute as Smith makes it out to be. He claims, for example, that “we can only learn from activities that are interesting and comprehensible to us” and that “confusion indicates wasted effort.” Is this always the case? Is there really no room for confusion in the learning process? Is there really no route between short-term and long-term memory?

2. Given their varying interests and abilities, different students will always find different activities boring and confusing. As such, how can teachers personalize education for their students so that most of the students are doing something interesting and comprehensible to them most of the time?

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