Learning and Forgetting: The Official Theory .v. the Classic View

franksmithDo you recognise any or all of this?

  • persuading individuals that they won’t learn unless they make a determined effort, and that the fault is theirs if they fail
  • segregating learners at school so they can’t help each other, in the process making life as difficult as possible for teachers
  • coercing learners and teachers into ineffective programs of study designed by distant authorities who have no way of knowing or rectifying the difficulties they create, forcing learners and teachers to waste their time on repetitive exercises and drills that teach only that learning is frustrating and difficult
  • imposing discriminatory and discouraging ‘tests’ that ensure that individuals who most need help and encourageemnt get the least
  • convincing teachers, learners, and parents that the most important thing about education is scores and grades
  • making learning a trial when it should be a pleasure, and making forgetting inevitable when it should be insignificant

Professor of Psycholinguists, Frank Smith, who taught in Canada, the US and South Africa, wrote an engaging and thought-provoking book in 1998 called The Book of Learning and Forgetting. In this he contrasted the classic and official theories of ‘learning and forgetting’ (‘forgetting’ is important, of course, because if we learn then forget what we learned, we have not learned). The above, of course, is a concise description of the official theory of learning.

As Smith pointed out in this wonderful book, we all know, intuitively, that we learn best when we enjoy what we are doing, when we seem to be able to learn with minimum effort because of the pleasure we can derive from whatever it is that we are doing? Why then do our formal systems of education still largely promote a view of education that requires us to work very hard and to concentrate with all our might on the subject in hand in order to learn?

But the official theory has become an unquestioned part of who we all are:

…because it permeates the broad educational culture in which we have grown up.

The kind of words that tend to be used to describe this official view of learning are: 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.

In contrast the classic theory of learning, as described compellingly by Smith might include: 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.

I know which theory I prefer.