Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Classic Model of Learning

The title of this post sounds like it's going to be about classical education, and in a way it is, but it gets there by the scenic route.

Steph at A Room of My Own had The Book of Learning and Forgetting on her sidebar. I requested it from the library because of the title and the picture. It is a very good read; reminds me a bit of some of John Taylor Gatto's books.

There are some details about the contents of the book at this page: The Classic View of Learning and Forgetting

The book's premise is that we have lost the "classic" view of what learning is about. Up till about a century and a half ago, everyone assumed that "we learn by the company we keep." He says that every culture has a proverb dealing with this truth. ( For example, it is expressed in antithesis in Proverbs 13:20: He who walks with wise men will be wise, But the companion of fools will suffer harm) . Learning was seen as a process of growth. The ten year old is not a different creature from his two year old self -- he is the same person, grown and developed. Similarly, learning is not an accumulation, like crystals forming or liquid collecting in a bucket, so much as a growing, like a seedling into a plant.

A century or so ago, a different view of learning came about as a combined result of the birth of the science of "psychology" and the creation of the efficiency industry inspired by the Prussian army. The admiration of the Prussian system led to a desire for increased efficiency and organization in the education system. The early pyschology endeavours -- many based on studies of animals or research done into mental illnesses -- seemed to promise that learning behavior of humans could be codified and measured objectively. This led to many changes in our school system that we still think of as standard today. For example:

  • Age-segregated classrooms (thus eliminating the possibility of older students coaching and setting an example for younger ones, and older students getting the benefits of being leader and model for the younger ones).
  • Testing and recording as ways to measure academic progress.
  • Disability/at risk industry growing around the students who do not keep up (since obviously, it can't be the methods that are at fault, since they are objectively designed).

I am planning to take notes as I read through the chapters, but for right now I wanted to recommend it as a short, thought-provoking read. The main thing that stood out as different for me from books like Gatto's and Alfie Kohn's is that it traced the "paideia" or "learning as mentorship" back to ancient days rather than putting it in a purely modern frame of reference.

Smith makes the point that most "back to basics" advocates are proposing something like "back to 19th century regimentation". He recommends going further back, to a more classic tradition where learning took place in the context of spending time with those who knew what you wanted to know.

No comments: