March 24, 2009

The Book of Learning and Forgetting

I've been around long enough to realize that there are no easy answers or quick fixes.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something that won't work (like NCLB, for example).

But there are indeed simple problems.  In this book, Frank Smith lays out what is the underlying problem with education.  We're doing it wrong because we keep forgetting what real learning looks like.  The surprising thing is we all, every one of us--educator or no--knows what this looks like because we see it all around us all the time.

We learn from the company we keep.  If I took two babies born twenty years ago, one from the Gaza strip and one from right here in the suburbs of Atlanta, and I nefariously switched them at birth and we had a chance to talk to them right now what do you think we would find?  We would find exactly what you think we would find because we learn from the company we keep.

This company includes the authors of the books we read and the characters in them.  I've learned more from Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut than almost all of my classroom teachers combined.  I've also picked up a thing or two from a fisherman named Ishmael, a wizard named Albus, and a millionaire named Bruce Wayne.  I'm learning about how to become a media specialist as much, if not more, from people like Doug Johnson at The Blue Skunk Blog and Kathy at Library Stew as I am from my professors.

You can't help it.  You are learning things constantly whether you want to or not.  Yesterday I learned about our trade policies with Cuba not because I was interested in them but because I have a relative who now has a job documenting the inventory of shipping containers and told me about her work.  I learned that it's better to use that second entrance to the strip mall I went to because then it's easier to exit out at the light.  I learned when I took my sweet little five-year-old daughter for an allergy test that she is braver than I had even imagined.  (Poor thing.)

What are your students learning?  You can tell by looking at them.  If they're engaged and interested in that discussion group of Bull Run then they're learning about the Civil War and cooperating in a group.  If they're putting they're head down in math they've learned that math isn't for them and maybe school isn't either.

It's not hard to figure out, but for some reasons that Smith lays out clearly and concisely we've taken the wrong path.  He has a few ideas on how to get back on the right one, but it'll take all of us to get there.