I chose to read The Book of Learning and Forgetting for my School Reform book group because of the intriguing comments Year 2 students had made about it. Also, the title sums up how I feel about most of my formal education.

The Book of Learning and Forgetting is a short (102) but powerful exploration by Frank Smith into the natural state of learning and the perversions formal education has forced upon students and teachers along the way. The book is broken into three sections:

1. “The Classic View of Learning and Forgetting” in which Smith illustrates that humans “classically” learn without effort from those around us, including authors. We symbolically join “clubs” and learn from fellow club members. For example, we join the “literacy club” by having parents that read to us when we are young and we learn from their guidance, modeling and support. This Classic View is how people have learned for all time: apprentice style. I appreciated this section because it reinforced the “soft” ideas of learning and returned teaching to the art of mentoring and not just the control, test, and tell methods of today. I also liked the analogy of club membership when I think of “struggling” students. How can I better create inclusive clubs as a teacher?

2. “The Official Theory of Learning and Forgetting” developed recently and is heavily tarnished with military and “scientific” terminology. The Official Theory includes ideas like grouping, IQ, repetition, and segmentation of concepts. These are all in direct conflict with the Classic natural way humans are wired to learn. The Official Theory continues to hold ground, however, because it is based on “data” and measurable “outcomes” even though the theories behind these data and outcomes are shaky, at best. One point that struck me from this section is connected to the title of the book: a scientist named ____ studied how long it took people to memorize (learn) nonsense words. His work has since been used to support repetition = learning and learning = hard work. Sadly, the other side of his study is ignored: that subjects forgot words at the same rate they learned them. Thus, what was learned by repetition was really not learned at all since it was rapidly forgotten too.

3. “Repairing the Damage” focuses on Smith’s suggestions for returning education to a more “whole” state. He recommends informing others, starting small, and changing the language we use about schooling. He acknowledges that this process will be difficult but well worth it!

Quotes and Questions:

“Schools should be places where students–and everyone else for that matter–can find opportunities to learn everything that is worthwhile in the world outside (the emphasis on the doing, not on the teaching).” p. 98

I LOVE the idea here–but it seems we, as teachers, parents, politicians, and society in general, have wildly different opinions on what is “worthwhile in the world outside.” This is why school choice makes a lot of sense: one size does not fit all. However, there is a reason learning moved from apprentice to mass-education: economy of scale. Is it feasible to return to a more personalized approach to learning on a nation-wide scale? Are schools like HTH replicable financially?

“But today, learning and education don’t mean gaining experience, they mean acquiring, storing, and retrieving information (which is what computers do).” p 74

This quote is in the section discussing online education and the increase of technology over teachers. I find this intriguing as I chose the HTH Flex/online school option for my project. Is it possible to create experience online? Is a virtual experience as valuable as a face-to-face experience? I wonder if there is an evolution of a new kind of communication and relationship happening or if we, as humans, are just cheating ourselves out of “real” life.

Leave a Reply.