The Book of Learning and Forgetting

In this “Spring Break” between my Psychology & Sociology and Music Theory courses, I decided to read a book recommended to me by my friend, Nick Covington, Frank Smith’s The Book of Learning and Forgetting. Frank Smith is an internationally recognized psycholinguist (a social scientist studying the connection between psychology and linguistics) who founded the whole language approach for reading instruction with Kenneth S. Goodman. In The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Smith traced the history of our current educational paradigm by examining learning theories.

Sidenote: is it sad that the first thing I did when I began taking notes on the book was this?

Smith, F. (1998). The book of learning and forgetting. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Before I dive in and reflect on my thoughts, I’m going to tell you: GO READ THIS BOOK. I can not do justice to the prose Frank Smith used to so eloquently state his arguments. I will awkwardly summarize his main points, but The Book of Learning and Forgetting is a quick, easy read. It is also an inexpensive purchase and very well written.

I have three criticisms of the text as a whole. First, Smith did not explicitly define the two concepts that are central to his book. The two central concepts were the classic and official views of learning and forgetting. I’ll discuss each below, but there was not a spot in the entire book where there was a definitive explanation of either concept. Second, I dislike when publications use superscripts as citations that occur significantly later in the text. Smith had several superscripted references in each chapter which referenced statements after the final chapter of the book. I would rather these references had occurred on the page as a footnote or at least at the end of the chapter. Finally, for a university professor and prolific psycholinguist, Smith did not provide much research to back his claims. I kept finding myself flipping to the end of the book for superscripted references expecting to find ample examples of supporting research, but many were digressions of his thoughts.

Classic vs. Official Views of Learning and Forgetting

Smith began with the description of two different visions of learning and forgetting that he defined as classic and official. As I mentioned above, he did not come out and explicitly define either concept. The quotations below are as close as I found.

Classic View: “We learn from people around us with whom we identify. We can't help learning from them, and we learn without knowing that we are learning.” (p. 3)

Official View: Based off of Hermann Ebbinghaus’ study of how people learned nonsense: “Anyone could learn anything, provided they stayed long enough on task. If you don’t teach something the first time, teach it again. If learners’ attention flags, motivate them with incentives or threats… Learning is a matter of effort, and if you don’t learn, you haven’t worked long or hard enough.” (p. 54)

The first section of the book unpacked Smith’s description of the Classic View, and he kept returning to the central premise: we learn from people with whom we identify. To illustrate this, Smith used the concept of a club: a community of influential people. Clubs can be formal or informal, the importance is in how learners identify with the people in the club. “All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming” (p. 11).

The most important club to which we should belong, Smith said, is the Literacy Club. I’ll use some of his own quotes to demonstrate his point.

“All you need to become a reader is interesting materials that make sense to you” (p. 23)

“When we read, we can join any club in the world” — clubs of characters and authors (p. 24)

The prime value of reading and writing is the experience they provide through which we may constantly and unobtrusively learn” (p. 24)

“You learn to read by reading… If you can’t read for yourself, someone has to read for you” (pp. 25–26)

“The child doesn’t read the book to learn the story but to enjoy it” (p. 27)

“Learners must see themselves as members of the clubs of readers and writers so that they identify with authors as they read and reread their favorite books. Or rather, what is critical is that the learners must not learn that they are not members of the literacy club” (p. 28)

Aspects of Memory

Smith next dove in to how learning works in the brain using the aspects of short-term and long-term memory. In his own words, Smith defined short-term memory as working memory, where we put information for a brief period of time. “Short-term memory is as much as you can attend to, or grasp, at any one time. It is what you are focusing attention upon at any given moment” (p. 32). Smith did not provide an explicit definition for long-term memory, but labeled it as synonymous with learning and growth. Here are some more quotes to flesh out his concept:

“It’s more a matter of long-term memory enveloping or assimilating what is to be learned. You put something in long-term memory by finding a structure for it that already exists in your head; by making sense of it, in other words.” (p. 33)

“You act a role, play a part, or identify with someone who is doing something and it becomes consolidated into your own neural structures; it becomes part of your identity. This learning is vicarious, a by-product of your participation in an experience. Because the learning is an elaboration of what you already know it takes place without your awareness” (p. 33)

“It could be argued (though it is impossible to prove) that there is no forgetting from long-term memory, just as you can’t reverse physical growth.5.3” (p. 33)

“We can’t always get access to what we have learned and securely stored away… Because long-term memory is a network you must follow a trail to reach a particular part of it, a trail of connections among things that are related to each other.” (p. 34)

“The classic view of learning is concerned almost completely with long-term memory, with how experiences and attitudes determine the kind of person we become. The official theory, on the other hand, either focuses completely on what can be retained through repetition and effort in short-term memory, or it confuses the many differences between short-term and long-term memory.” (p. 34)

I had no idea getting into this book how much the premises would link with my Psychology and Sociology class. Smith connected long-term memory with identity and community, and I see similar connections to constructionism (learning is the construction of knowledge specifically through the creation of meaningful objects) and self-determination theory (intrinsic motivation is enhanced by feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness).

Development of the Official View of Learning and Forgetting

In the next section of the book, Smith reviewed the history of how people view learning, transitioning from the classic view to the official view. He cited examples from pre-nineteenth century society like apprenticeships, universities. The following quote (with my clarification in brackets) set up the remainder of the section on the history of the official view:

“The changes [in education from the mid-19th century onward] institutionalized new rituals of organization and control drawn from the most dubious of sources outside education.” (p. 45)

The first major change that Smith identified was the influence of the Industrial Revolution and the Prussian Army. Again some quotes to illustrate the point:

“The history of education in the last century and a half has been one of continual change in personal relationships among teachers and students, until we have finished up with almost no individual relationships among them at all… The justification for change was—as it still is—efficiency, as defined by some external authority… There was a total lack of organization—and organization was what enabled western industrialization to take off in the nineteenth century. This was the age when management, drawing on science and technology, seemed capable of solving any problem.” (p. 46)

“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 the graduated—a standardized, predictable, and reliable product. Education still follows this basic model, segregating students who might have different experience or ability, from kindergarten right through to university (where undergraduates and graduates continue to be separated and given different treatments)… The school day became a grid of ‘periods,’ devoted to compartmentalized aspects of learning.” (pp. 47–48)

The second major change that Smith identified was psychology’s interest in how people learn. To come up with a scientific measurement of learning, Hermann Ebbinghaus devised a study how how people learned nonsense syllables. Ebbinhaus constructed a list of about 10 nonsense items and measured the time and number of repetitions necessary for people to learn the items. Participants were allowed one look before being tested on their recall. They were then provided subsequent looks and tests until all items were recalled correctly. As a result, Ebbinghaus developed what Smith referred to as the law of learning and the law of forgetting:


The earlier items are easier to learn, but as time progresses, items become more difficult to learn in the same amount of time. Likewise, we quickly forget items early on, but forget fewer items in the same amount of time as time progresses. I’ll bring back Smith’s quote which I used to define the official view of learning and forgetting:

“Anyone could learn anything, provided they stayed long enough on task. If you don’t teach something the first time, teach it again. 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.” (p. 54)

Smith points out the oversight that this theory (which has continued to develop since Ebbinghaus’ experiments in the late 19th century) is based entirely on nonsense:

“The ‘laws’ of learning state that learning follows this predictable and replicable course only when nonsense is involved, when there is no interest or comprehension. If there is interest and comprehension, then learning is inevitable and effortless. If there is no interest or comprehension, learning may still take place but with more difficulty, and what is also inevitably learned is that the task or subject matter is uninteresting, incomprehensible, and not something anyone would normally do.” (p. 54)

Other contributions to the rise of the official view according to Smith:

  • Behaviorism: “Stripped to its essentials, behaviorism asserts that all learning is simply the establishment of habits. These habits are bonds between particular stimuli and particular responses, created (or conditioned) as a result of reinforcement.” (p. 57)

    “Terms such as ‘thinking,’ ‘hoping,’ ‘expecting,’ ‘believing,’ and ‘feeling’ are all derided as ‘mentalistic’ ficitions. To behaviorists there is no such thing as the mind—only connections (or reflexes) between stimuli and responses, established mechanically by ‘environmental contigencies’ of reinforcement.” (p. 58)

  • Testing: which arose out of both overcrowded Paris insane asylums and the large number of US military recruits for World War I.

    “Education in the 1920s was having its own problems with large numbers of conscripted recruits. The segregation of students into groups on the basis of age and ability and the introduction of the work ethic of the official theory of learning weren’t producing the desired results. Education still needed more management and control. And a great army of testers was waiting.” (p. 63)

  • Logistics: “Logistics is the science of centralized planning, the systematic organization of people and materials. It works toward the accomplishment of a single clearly defined and distant goal—one step at a time. It is the epitome of attention to detail, setting up and following predetermined plans with ruthless quality control. People no longer did things as individuals, or as communities, but as small cogs in a large system.” (p. 67)

    “So confident are most educational specialists in the official theory of learning, and all of the organization and testing that goes with it, that they instinctively regard inadequacy or failure in the educational system as a ‘problem’—someone must be doing something wrong. It is typical deflection of responsibility—the patient gets sicker despite receiving the prescribed treatment, therefore the patient is to blame.” (pp. 68–69).

    “Many students are being taught ineffectually today but that is not a cause of the inadequate learning that is supposed to be taking place but rather a consequence of the learning theory that dries so much of education.” (p. 69)

  • Connectionism: Connectionism “asserted (through largely abrstruse mathematics) that human beings learn in precisely the mindless way that computers acquire information” (p. 77)

    “Connectionism proposes that learning is simply the arithmetical sum of innumerable interconnections made in the brain to reflect the complex probabilities of events taking place in the environment.” (p. 77)

Liberation from the Official View of Learning and Forgetting

In the final section of the book, Smith discussed looking forward—liberating one’s self, schools, and education from the official view of learning. Most of his discussion did not include a step-by-step process, so a few quotes will help illuminate his thoughts:

We have to learn, or to persuade ourselves, that learning is not effective if we have to struggle to achieve it.” (p. 83)

“Learning is most effective when we voluntarily participate in an interesting activity.” (p. 84)

“It is usually best to begin with other people, observing and if possible assisting their learning and learning from them as we do so… If we identify with succesful learners, then we have the best hope for becoming more efficient members of the learners’ club ourselves… As you observe, or participate, don’t focus on learning; focus on the task to be accomplished.” (pp. 85–86)

“Learning will advance in the classic way if learners watch out for two danger signals: (1) when they find themselves trying deliberately to memorize what they are studying or practicing, and (2) when they find themselves plowing through material and activities where they remember nothing, except that they were confused… Paradoxically, the effort to memorize interferes with memorization because it destroys understanding…. Understanding means that you are conecting what is new to what you know already. Confusions means there is no such connection.” (pp. 87–88)

In his ideal world, teachers would abolish ““tests, fragmented instructional materials and procedures, drills, memorization and recapitulation exercises, segregation into special ability groups, coercion, and time constraints” (p. 90).

“The whole point about schools liberated from the official theory of learning is that they wouldn’t be standardized… The essence of any liberated school is that it would be a community—not a hierarchy of principal, teachers, support staff, and students but a place where people gather to engage in interesting activities. Teachers, students, and everyone else in the school would be partners in a collaborative of initiative and enterprise.” (p. 101)

The question should never be ‘Are the students learning?’ but always ‘What are the students learning?’ The answer is found not by testing the students but by looking at what they are doing and how they are doing it… Abolish the words learning and teaching altogether, and talk instead about doing… People always learn from what they are doing.” (p. 94)

Throughout the book, Smith pointed out objections to the classical view, to his criticism of the official theory, and to his suggestions as a whole. None of the specific questions or answers provide good discussion or reflection here, but they are an excellent read.

My Final Thoughts

What a fun, excellent read, and by that definition, Smith would say I learned something by reading his book! Personally, I would have preferred a different structure to his argument that included

  • Specific, concrete definitions of the classic and official views of learning and forgetting

  • Citation of more research that backs up the premise that the classic view of learning is superior to the official view

  • References using footnotes as opposed to an appendix

  • Organizing the argument as follows

    • Definitions of Views of Learning and Forgetting (was Part I of the book)

    • Description of Official View (was Part III of the book)

    • Description of Classic View (was Part II of the book)

    • Comparison of Classic and Official Views (occurred throughout the book in all parts)

    • Discussion of Future Implications (was Part IV of the book)

A structure like this would help me better connect the new material to my previous learning, but that is my personal preference. Smith does an excellent job of storytelling his way through his argument that made the book a fast, easy read. I enjoyed the connections I was able to make to my Psychology & Sociology class (as referenced above) as well as discussions I have been having with friends about progressive education.

Next on the docket for my own personal learning is digging into self-determination theory using Deci and Ryan’s Handbook of Self-Determination Research. I’ll also be starting a graduate music theory course this week, spending some more time with our puppy (post coming soon), and preparing for a visit from my parents and brother!


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.