Frank Smith in The Book of Learning and Forgetting:
The widespread propagation of the “official theory of learning” [that learning is hard work] is not so much a conspiracy as a massive manifestation of self-interest by special-interest groups outside schools. The belief has been fostered by academic psychology, uncritically adopted in education, and vigorously promoted by people who would like to control what students and teachers do in schools–often to make a profit in the bargain. The idea has been around long enough–just more than 100 years–to have become widely accepted as common sense, natural, the way things have to be. And the official theory is wrong. It creates frustration and wasted effort in our personal lives and futility and discrimination in schools. It is a crippling belief that fosters some of the worst social attitudes that afflict our society.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately reflecting on my own learning, thinking about what I’ve learned, what I’ve forgotten, and why. It’s reflecting that I wish I had been doing 30 years ago when I first came to teaching, and on one level I’m ashamed that it’s taken me so long to understand the natural dissonance between traditional schooling and learning. It’s not that I didn’t know it in my gut…I am, after all, a product of school…it’s that I let the narrative of school learning dominate my own experience and practice. And in my last few workshops as I’ve prodded people about their own experiences as learners, I’ve come to realize that most others in education feel the same disconnect but feel powerless to act to change it in their classrooms.
All of which resonates with a great Seymour Papert quote from The Children’s Machine:
“When it comes to thinking about learning, nearly all of us have a School side of the brain, which thinks that school is the only natural way to learn, and a personal side that knows perfectly well that it’s not.“
The unfortunate reality is that natural learning, what Smith calls the "classic theory of learning” that suggests, rightly, that “we learn effortlessly, every waking moment of our lives” has been rendered irrelevant by the dominant narrative that learning is onerous and requires sustained, conscious effort. (It certainly does if you don’t care about what you are being asked to learn.) And it is about control, as I recently was reminded by an experience with my own kids. Without going into detail, one of my darlings made a poor yet basically harmless decision which met with harsh consequences from the school. But, as is often the case, my child learned more from the actions of the punisher than she did from the punishment. Effortlessly, I might add.
The biggest challenge facing schools is that the modern world amplifies our ability to learn in the classic sense, and increasingly renders the official, school based theory of learning pointless and oppressive. While our kids’ love of learning can flourish outside of school, it’s extinguished inside of school as we take away agency, passion, connection, audience, authenticity, and more.
How long can that stand?