March 1, 2020

Notes. Smith. Book of Learning and Forgetting (Part 1)

For this beautiful and mind-bending book — The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith — I only have a print version, no Kindle (lots of cheap used copies at ABE), and it is so important for my JHU book project that it's worth typing up notes from the book (strain on my eyes thought it might be). I only learned about this book last year thanks to recommendations at Twitter, and I cannot believe I went all these years not knowing about it (the book was first published in 1998). If I were to recommend just one single book to people to read about education, it would be this book. So, if you have not read this book: READ IT. It's short, just around 100 pages for the text and 20 pages of notes which are not exactly footnotes but detailed reflections on some of the most important topics covered in the book.

Smith challenges everyone to up-end modern assumptions about teaching and learning (what he calls the "official" view of learning) so that we can get back to something more basic and human, an approach that he calls the classic view of learning. One of my great hopes about online learning is that in moving to a new environment, people will have an opportunity and even obligation to re-examine this official view of learning. They might even jettison that official view of learning, using the freedom and opportunity of the online environment to create courses that promote a different view of learning, one grounded in learner interest and independence.

So, below you will find a TON of quotes I've highlighted. Again, I cannot say enough good things about this book; I'll write up my own thoughts in response in a separate blog post. For now, I'm just focusing on transcribing key passages. Perhaps it's good that I must type them instead of just copying-and-pasting. If I had the freedom just to copy-and-paste, I would be tempted to copy-and-paste the whole book. It is THAT GOOD.


"We learn effortlessly every moment of our waking lives."

"I also recount some of the damage and injustices caused at all levels of education, not only by the official view that learning requires work — so that failure to learn can be attributed to laziness — but by the intrusive mass of unnecessary external controls in which teaching and learning have become embedded, including testing, grading, and contrived competitiveness."

I. What's Going on Here?

"'C-minus again,' the teacher observes. 'You haven't learned very much have you?' But the student has, on the contrary, learned a great deal. The student has registered the condemnatory look on the instructor's face, experienced the sickening feeling in the stomach, and concluded once more what a fruitless and punishing experience the entire learning situation can be."

1. A Tale of Two Visions

[There is a chart with two columns to show this part.]

The classic view says 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, growth.

The official theory says 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, memorization.

"The official theory became an unquestioned part of most of us because it permeates the broad educational culture in which we have grown up."

II. The Classic View of Learning and Forgetting

2. A Question of Identity

"You learn from the company you keep. ... We all know this and organize our lives accordingly. I have found a similar proverb or saying in every language I have encountered."

"To find out what students actually learn, look at the way they leave school. If they leave thinking that "school things" — such as reading, writing, mathematics, or history — are boring, difficult, and irrelevant to their lives and that they are "dummies," this is something they have learned. ... They learn to be nonreaders, or that they are nonspellers, or that they can't do mathematics. They learn who they are. If they learn that they are leaders or geniuses (or clowns or fools) they behave accordingly."

"We don't find out "who we are" by gazing into a mirror and asking profound existential questions. We know who we are — and other people know who we are — from the clubs, formal and informal, which with we associate ourselves; from the company we keep. We begin to worry about our identity if we feel we don't have any link with people around us, especially if we think they may be excluding us."

"We think — if we think about it at all — that the tremendous amount of learning we do all our lives, such as learning to talk... and remembering where we live and who we are and where we were last New Year's Eve, as just 'memory.' We don't call it learning, though it is. It is, however, quite different from the type of learning with which the official theory of learning is concerned."

"The official theory... is primarily concerned with memorization, the effort to store away one thing after another. The classic kind of learning, on the other hand, is growth. It is growth of the mind analogous in every way to the growth of the body."

3. The Immensity of Children's Learning

"There is much about spoken language that is rarely talked about, such as phrasing, intonation, taking turns in conversation, and just how loud and long it is appropriate to say something, for the simple reason that it is too complicated to talk about."

"The first advantage of joining any club is that you find out what the club activities are. Before you join, what goes on in the club is a mystery."

"The second advantage of any club is that once you are a member and discover what activities are available to you, more experienced members help you to do those things that interest you. They don't teach you; they help you."

"The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning — and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school."

"A teacher will declare, 'It takes me an hour to teach 10 words on a word list, and I'm lucky if the little devils remember 5 words the next day and 2 at the end of the week. So how could children be learning 27 words a day, with no forgetting?' And I say, 'I suppose it's when they're not working on the word list.'"

"There is no indication that vocabulary learning ever stops, provided we can keep encountering new words in a comprehensible context."

"People who read a lot are likely to learn a large number of words. The researchers didn't find that you need a large vocabulary in order to read, or someone to teach you vocabulary while you read — all you need to become a reader is interesting materials that make sense to you. But if you read, your vocabulary will grow."

"If only we could encourage students to read more, it would take care of many of their problems in school."

"Reading is not a solitary activity. Readers are never alone. Readers can join the company of the characters they read about. ... When we read, we can join any club in the world — a powerful advantage of reading. When we read we can also join the company of authors. ... The prime value of reading and writing is the experience they provide through which we may constantly and unobtrusively learn."

4. Joining the Literacy Club

"Authors have this collaborative role from the very beginning; they are the people who teach children to read. In other words, you learn to read from reading."

"There's a simple yet powerful reason why children will never become dependent upon other people to do anything they think they can do for themselves — they don't have the patience. ... Children normally insist on attending to themselves long before we think they are reading to do so, testing our own patience."

"Every time a child reads a book — especially one of those favorite stories that children enjoy hearing and reading long after they know every word by heart — the author shows the child how to read it. ... In the situation I have just described some misguided parents or teachers may take the book away from the child because they think it is 'too easy' or that the child knows the story already. This is a supreme example of the tragedy of the official theory — that people believe that learning is taking place only if there is difficulty, and that we can't possibly be learning if we are enjoying what we are doing."

5. Learning through Life

"We learn from the company we keep, in person and in print. We doubtless also learn from the company we keep in movies, on television, and through the Internet. But reading must be given special status because of the scope and freedom it allows the imagination."

[Anecdote about a friend fascinated by the royal family. What would happen if that person were tested, scored, graded, perhaps even make his pension dependent on the results.] "He'll come to hate reading about the royal family (and he'll come to hate me as well). He might even give up reading altogether. By making him self-conscious about his learning, I could destroy it, together with his confidence in himself. The official theory that learning requires structure and effort has enormous destructive power."

"The facile forgetfulness that characterizes short-term memory is probably its greatest asset. It ensures that our current attention isn't clogged by what we had to attend to in the recent past. The last few things that the speaker said are erased so that we can get on with understanding what is being sad at present. Imagine the din in our heads if we couldn't clear our attention of every detail of everything that has happened to us in the last hour, let alone the last day."

"Long-term memory is indeed synonymous with learning — it is growth."

"Because the learning is an elaboration of what you already know it takes place without your awareness. You are not trying to force something in but are rather reaching out to make it part of you. Long-term memory is a network put together from all your experience."

[note about book organization: I like the way Smith regularly includes "some typical objects to the classic view of learning" in various chapters, and not in a facile way; I can certainly imagine these are actually objections that people have often voiced.]

"The problem when learning seems blocked is never with learning itself but with comprehending the material to be learned. The difficulty is with nonsense. Make sense of what you want to learn (preferably with the help of other people or other authors), and the learning will, over time, take care of itself. The struggle to learn — when you are a member of the club — is always a struggle to understand."

"There's one other significant factor apart from comprehension. It is confidence. You will never learn anything you want to learn if you are not confident about your learning ability."

"The official theory of learning says that we have to learn something in order to understand it. Once again, this is totally contrary to fact. We have to understand something in order to learn it. We have to make sense of it. And once again, because individuals differ in what they know, in what they are interested in, and in the way they understand things, there is no way that the official theory can cope with approaching learning through understanding."

"If we have learned that we can't do certain things, that we are not a certain kind of person, then we won't succeed no matter how much energy we expend or how much other people exhort us. We need therapy. I'm not being facetious. We're talking about changing the ingrained self-image of a person."

"First, they focus on the learner's self-image. ... They must be persuaded that  ... they are as competent (and as worthwhile) as anyone else — and they probably know a great deal about reading and writing. ... The second intervention is to make learners members of the literacy club, by engaging them in activities that they find comprehensible, interesting, and confidence-building, finding someone who will help them to read what they would like to read and to write what they would like to write."

"They have learned — they have been taught —inappropriate ways of trying to learn. And they have learned — they have been taught — to have little confidence in their ability to learn."

"It is not easy to restore confidence or hope in such students, to make up for years of social and intellectual discrimination. It is not easy to make up for years of hopelessness, learned disinterest, and anger."

"Both music and mnemonics are ways of making sense of something to be learned so that we can relate it to something we know already. But these relations and associations are always idiosyncratic. ... That is the reason that manipulative techniques of the official theory of learning rarely include either music or mnemonics."

"It is always easier to remember the unusual or unpredictable than it is to remember everyday events, and certainly it is much easier to recall them."

III. The Official Theory of Learning and Forgetting
6. Undermining Traditional Wisdom

"Learning can be effortless, continual, permanent — and also pleasant — though it won't take place in the absence of comprehension, interest, or confidence. That is the classic view of learning and forgetting.We can learn without effort if we are interested in what we are doing (or in what someone else is doing), free from confusion, and given assistance when we seek it."

[demise of the one-room schoolhouse] "People of influence thought pupils weren't learning very much during their time in school; pupils seemed to do what they liked while they were there, and their teachers didn't appear to have much control over them. There was a total lack of organization... This was the age when management, drawing on science and technology, seemed capable of solving any problem."

"Students would no longer be mixed up together, but instead they would be grouped according to age and ability, all to be treated in the same way and expected to learn together throughout their school careers until they graduated — a standardized, predictable, and reliable product."

[Lots of examples of the way military vocabulary infiltrated the language of schooling.]

"What is still called 'grouping students by age and ability' really means segregating them according to inexperience and inability, as if the aim were to make it impossible for students to help or to learn from each other."

"And it wasn't just the physical structure of schools that was split into largely meaningless parts. So was time itself. The school day became a grid of 'periods,' devoted to compartmentalized aspects of learning. And the more difficulty students experienced learning something, the more likely they were to receive more fragmented and disjointed things to learn. ... 'Systematic instruction' was the systematic deprivation of experience."

"Science had solved every problem confronting the human race, or was about to do so, and it could certainly solve the problem of education. Teaching would no longer be an art dependent upon the sensitivity and creativity of amateurs; it would become a science controlled by experts. The ground was laid for the official theory of learning."

7. Fabricating a Theory of Learning

"To have a science, you must be able to experiment, which requires making measurements and comparisons. And to be able to measure you must have something you can count."

"Education did not have to anoint psychology as the source of all wisdom about human learning. Education could have turned to anthropology, whose well documented theory was that young people in every culture learn through identification and collaboration with their elders."

"How could anyone make comparisons on any aspect of learning when people are so different, especially in the two things that make learning possible for anyone (according to the classic point of view) — interest and past experience?"

"This was Ebbinghaus's world-changing revelation: If you want to study how people learn without the involvement of interest and past experience — study how they learn nonsense."

"If learners' attention flags, motivate them with incentives or threats. Learning, as one contemporary educational theorist has said, is simply 'a function of time on task.' Learning is a matter of effort, and if you don't learn, you haven't worked long or hard enough. ... Even today, over a century after the introduction of psychology's nonsense-based theory of learning into education, teachers prefer a controlled (or "structured") approach to instruction — if they don't trust students to learn. More significantly, people outside the classroom prefer a controlled (or "structured") approach to instruction if they don't trust teachers to teach."

"Generations have become persuaded that the only way to learn is through work, in the deliberate, determined, organized way that human subjects were expected to memorize nonsense in the experimental laboratory. The more students have failed, and the harder learning has become, the more they have believed in the theory."

"Behaviorism also inspired and justified many authors and publishers of educational materials to produce meaningless and repetitive activities that were guaranteed to teach anything through fragmentation and reinforcement. Every activity — whether on paper or on computer screens — was sugarcoated with frenzied graphics designed to seduce learners and teachers into the belief that all the effort could be 'fun.' Inevitably, it was all accompanied by scores and relentless record keeping."

"When psychology's grotesque convictions about learning came into classrooms out went any possibility that students might learn anything about ethics, respect, loyalty, morality, honesty, charity, collaboration, compassion or care. .... To the extent that any of these values are officially regarded as having educational relevance, they are taught as academic subjects, as the right answers to questions, not as ways of life."

"In such a context, there is no point in even considering how students might acquire patience, persistence, courage, steadfastness, or hope. Or how they could fail to elarn that happiness is material self-satisfaction, together with contempt for authority and helplessness in the face of it."

8. The Entry of the Testers

"While learning is normally inconspicuous, failure to learn can't be concealed. You don't need a test to discover whether individuals are learning, just look at their faces. If they look confused or bored, they are learning (or rather, all they're learning is that whatever they are doing is confusing and boring). ... The official theory says that you are not learning unless you can be seen to be working. The classic view says that if you have to struggle to learn then something must be wrong, but not with your learning ability or desire."

"You also don't need a test to discover if someone is learning a particular thing... Just look at what the individual is doing. ... They are learning through experience."

"Low-scorers ... are supposed to need more 'structure' in their learning — a more rigidly controlled environment — when what they really need is more time, more help, or more encouragement."

"The relationship is totally circular. Testing is good because it follows the precepts of the official theory of learning, and the official theory of learning must be right because it is the basis of testing. ... Teachers and students become marionettes, manipulated by offstage puppet masters."

9. More Spoils of War

[many examples again of the language of logistics in education, as if were all one big D-Day Invasion]

"The effect on the social structures of schools and classrooms was devastating. Students and teachers no longer engaged in activities that they themselves determined, chose, or understood. They were to advance in the direction they were ordered, inspired by slogans such as 'We Aim for Excellence'."

"The solution is not for teachers and students to do better in the circumstances that are imposed on them but for the circumstances in which teaching and learning are supposed to take place to be changed."

"Much of the 'problem solving' that has gone on in school for half a century has been futile attempts to patch a sinking ship. The only way for teachers and students to survive is to stop trying to save the ship and start trying to save themselves."

"Components were assembled separately and labeled modules, such as the lunar module for orbiting the moon and instructional modules for spelling and arithmetic."

"Program specialists would recruit teachers and ask them, 'Tell us what it is that readers can do.' The teachers would say things like 'read books, understand what they read, enjoy stories, talk about them' — and all the teachers' comments were dismissed as unscientific, anecdotal, subjective, and woolly-minded."

I am putting this part in all-caps on purpose; it is not in all-caps in the book:


The author of a highly successful commercial instructional program that employed all of these fragmented techniques told me why they had to be so detailed and specific — 'You can't trust teachers to teach.' His program was so detailed it even told teachers when to smile, and to ignore student questions if the program hadn't provided answers."

10. The Official Theory Goes On-Line

"Today, learning and education don't mean gaining experience; they mean acquiring, storing, and retrieving information (which is what computers do)."

"Pressure to remove teachers entirely from education — the ultimate mistrust of teachers —is constant and growing."

"All this is related to the development of 'expert systems' in computers. That is, systems in which the computer is the expert, not a human being."

"All learners need structure — but that is structure in their own minds, not in the world around them. You can't learn something unless it makes sense to you, however much it might make sense to other people. You can struggle to memorize something yo udon't understand, but forgetting is the inevitable consequence."

"The way people help learners to make sense of things is by being flexible — by helping them in other ways, by offering alternatives, by finding collaborators, and by protecting them from confusion and frustration. But the official theory of learning takes a confrontation approach, presents rigid barriers to those in difficulty, and then penalizes them for 'failing'."

"The learners who cope best with rigid structures and systematic instruction are those who already understand what they are doing; they make the formal system look good. ... For learners in difficulty, formal structure means the systematic deprivation of meaningful experience; they need more flexibility, not less. ... What they need — before it is too late — is to be put into helpful and non-threatening situations where they can make sense of what is going on."

"The larger the class, the more important it is that students can interact with each other, engage in absorbing and collaborative activities — and take the strain off the teacher. I'm not saying that it is good for teachers to have large classes, but I'm also not saying that smaller classes would solve all problems."

"There's only one time when correction is worthwhile, and then it is invaluable. And that's the time when the learner would be angry or distressed if the correction weren't made. ... If the writing meant something to the learners — if it's a letter to be sent, a story to be published, a poster to be displayed... then the writer would be most anxious not to have mistakes ignored. ... The correction of errors, in this case, could well result in more writing rather than less, as the learner felt empowered. It is a matter of whether the correction is seen as collaboration rather than punishment."

"Trying to force students to learn or threatening to punish them if they don't learn inevitably has the opposite effect from what you want to achieve, no matter how much pressure your teaching responsibilities put on you."

"There will be much less frustration, despair, and resentment on all sides even if your efforts to involve individuals in particular activities fail than if you try to enforce learning with exercises, drills, tests, slogans, and discriminatory labels."

See Part 2 for the optimistic final part of the book: IV. Repairing the Damage: Liberating Our Own Learning, and Liberating Schools and Education.