Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith

This is one of the books I regularly reread and one of those that I wish I had written. On 120 thought-provoking and illuminating pages the author retraces the roots and illustrates the consequences of some of the well established practices that inhabit school. Most of these practices are taken for granted by teachers, parents and politicians. Among these practices you'll find learning through repetition, hard work, individual effort, conditioning, reinforcement, exercises and corrections, testing, rewards and control.
He opposes this "official theory of learning" to a "classic view" of learning which says that most of the time "you learn from the company you keep" from the individuals and the groups you most identify with. We learn "new things" from them by connecting those things to what we already know, to what we have discovered, imagined or understood and by connecting them to our beliefs and theories, and to what we would like to learn.
Smith also says that the question should never be if you are learning, but always what are we learning, because you always learn. I totally agree with that. In reading lessons you could for instance be learning that reading opens new doors to imagination and understanding, or you could be learning, that you are a poor reader, that you will never be a member of the "literacy club", or you could be learning which strategies are most effective to avoid reading until you end up being illiterate - as school expected you to be from the start.
If you are asked to memorize word lists, you may be learning that putting things into short term memory helps getting good marks in tests or, if you have difficulties remembering those words, you may be learning that you probably have a learning disability, that you don't fit, that you have no talent for languages, that your brain is not made for learning, that learning is an endless struggle and a continuous war against forgetting.
Smith also questions the value of testing, measurement and standardization as a means to achieve quality in education. On the contrary, continuous testing diminishes the motivation and the self-confidence of the low scorers. On the other hand the high scorers "become so addicted to tests (...) that thy are reluctant to read or write anything, in school or out, unless a score or a grade will be attached."

Besides the devastating critic Smith has also to offer some interesting suggestions on how to change school, well knowing what questions they will generate. Regarding these suggestions he anticipates:
"The teachers then ask who should bring all this change about. My answer is that they must. Teachers shouldn't expect people outside the classroom to improve their working conditions for them; all their problems were created by people outside the classroom. Teachers must take charge of their own professional lives. How might teachers take charge and improve what goes on in schools? I have a simple answer. They must change the world. And when they ask how they could possibly change the world, I have another simple answer - a little bit at a time. I suggest they start with their own classrooms."

For me, one of the key statements in the book is this one:
"You learn in communities of people who do what you are expected to learn."
My interpretation of this is the following : If you expect your students to write, you have to write and share your writing. If you want them to read, then read and share your readings experience with your students. If you want them to reflect on their learning, then you should reflect on your teaching and share your reflections with them ...
Teachers - think about this!

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Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

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. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain