Feb 14, 2012
Comments Off on Learning and Forgetting

Learning and Forgetting

What if we took a step back? We start with no previous idea of what school looks like. What if started over? We start by looking at the most natural form of learning that happens at birth.

A colleague recommended Frank Smith’s book, “The Book of Learning and Forgetting” to me as she knew I am interested in radical ideas, a revolution of learning, and was always willing to have my ideas challenged. Well, this book does that.

The most important element to the book is how we define learning, as I mentioned in my earlier post, Smith suggests,

“All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.” (11)

He argues that the system that is formed on the need (or illusion) of control, missing the point that students are always learning something. The problem is, the system as it is, is making students learn that disciplines like science, math, arts, English are boring, separate and not for them.

He addresses the critics of a more holistic learning approach by stating,

“Teachers sometimes rationalize making learning unnecessarily complicated for children by saying they have to be ‘challenged’.” (27)

This is found in our worksheets, grammar rules, and seemingly inauthentic approach to teaching. We assume that the more control and ‘scaffolding’ we provide the more explicit the learning will be, when instead, we are teaching students that each of these separate pieces fit together, but only when we’re ready to show you.

And he lays out a few gems about teachers, in general.

On why they are resistant to change

“The difficulty in getting many teachers – or their administrators – to change their attitudes and their ways is not that they are ignorant, but that they are insecure. They are afraid their world will fall apart if they give up any of their power or claim their independence.” (96)

On what he would establish as the key role of the teacher

“It would be the responsibilty of teachers to ensure that opportunities to engage in interesting and productive activities are always available.” (98)

On the crazy notion that we can improve bad teachers

“External control, detailed procedures, and constant monitoring don’t make poor teachers better ones.” (100)

On what it takes to be a good teacher

“All the good techers I have known have been good organizers, arranging interesting experiences for their students and themselves, and protecting those experiences from officious interference.” (101)


This is a book that I believe every teacher should read as teacher candidate. Not because I think it is flawless and has all the answers, but because it leads us to asking big questions about the purpose of a public education system, the role of the teacher and the classroom, and it requires us all to start with why.

I read through the book twice, once just reading it, now it lays on my desk highlighted, circled, dog-eared, starred, copied. It reminds me that I am learning, right now, but what I’m learning is up to me and the people with whom I surround myself.

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