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The Classic View of Learning

‘The classic view of learning is encapsulated in seven words familiar to every speaker of English: You learn from the company you keep. You don’t learn by consciously modelling yourself on the company you keep, or by deliberately imitating other people. You become like them.  We all know this and organise our lives accordingly. I have found a similar proverb or saying in every language I have encountered.

We take it for granted that the people around us influence the way we are. That is why the point of view is classic – we rarely think about the continual learning that we and others do all the time. And this is learning that is permanent. We rarely forget the interests, attitudes, beliefs and skills that we acquire simply by interacting with the significant people in our lives.’

– Frank Smith, The Book of Learning and Forgetting.

This is taken from a book by cognitive psychologist and education Professor, Frank Smith, summarising what he has come to believe about the gulf between what he calls the ‘official theory’ of learning – that it requires hard sustained effort, memorisation, and is difficult and likely to be forgotten; essentially, what we usually think of when we think of school learning (whether that’s how any particular school presents it or not) – and the ‘classic view’ that learning happens continually and naturally and is shaped by the people and environment around us.

It’s a good summary of the ideas behind unschooling, without risking the interpretation that because learning happens easily, you don’t need to think about it. I think it would be a good thought-provoker for doubting relatives. One caution, though, is that it can be somewhat out of date and dismissive towards the challenges arising from SEN (it’s almost twenty years old, and the author was seventy when he wrote it). I think his key points are mostly still highly relevant, possibly even more so, but the phrasing may stick in the craw at times. One to take what you find useful, and leave the rest!

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