disrupting the social structures of place, power and privilege

June 13, 2011

I found Frank Smith’s The Book of Learning and Forgetting (1998), a refreshing read- literally, as I had read the volume years ago but had a very different take at that time.  When I read the book the first time, I was in my MA program, just beginning to think critically about teaching and learning within a classical system. At that time I was electronically disconnected and held a strong ‘deficiency’ orientation towards learners who ‘failed’ in the system.  At the time I remember being struck by Smith’s style of engaging his argument, opposing what we forget with what we learn and I had assigned myself and all teachers as responsible for identifying what was ‘missing’ in kids who struggled within the structures of schooling, and identified our key task to be to ‘fill in those gaps.’ I bought in to the idea that the “official” view of learning and the organization of our system of education is not about learning at all, but control. I saw the role of power and privilege from a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2008) and saw the arguments for control and measures of performance as a rigid force to oppose.

What is interesting for me to consider now as I think about that original response to the work, and the question of whether or not I ‘buy Smith’s argument?’ is how clearly I remember the influence on my thinking and I am struck by the difference in my thinking now.  At the time, this book made a significant impact on my learning.  Why is that?  What stands out for me is his statement that “the official theory that learning requires structure and effort and has enormous destructive power.”  (p. 31) Ironically, this is where I find the connection again today.  I agree, with significant caveats, with Smith’s assertion that online education is a disruptive force with the potential of breaking through current educational realities.  The biggest difference is that my perspective has now shifted to where I see the schooling system as what is deficient, and the goal to break down what doesn’t work for kids, rather than build up kids to meet the system.  This is where I find the potential of online interaction and the breakdown of location-based networking and idea generation exciting.  In my view the power and potential of online, connected education is that it supports the destruction of these classical notions of education- it disrupts the social structures of place, power and privilege formerly associated with elite schooling and opens the potential for everyone.  What I find that Smith does NOT do, and I believe this is due to the time constraints of this work- when Smith wrote these ideas, the technology was in place but the networked people were not yet widely engaged and, most important- technology was not mobile.  With the affordability and access to mobile technology via mobile devices and phones, the game is once again changing as we combat the economic barriers to connected learning.  Now the big job is to combat the educational barriers that still exist.  By reframing students from ‘deficient’ to ‘sufficient’ in their ways of being and ways of using language outside of school, and networking together beyond the constraints of zipcode- there is powerful potential to disrupt the social engineering of standardization that schooling that current educational policies not only support, but lock into place.  The thing I think Smith (and everyone at the time) did not realize about the power of the world wide web is that it is not just an information connector- it is a people connector.  I cannot see any version of future education- online or on ground separate from people.  As social beings, no matter how much access to information, we will find the access to connection just as powerful of a draw.

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One Response to “disrupting the social structures of place, power and privilege”


  1. I teach struggling readers—kids who fall through the cracks at school—online. So I am probably disqualified by Smith’s interpretation on 2 counts.

    Yet oddly, his Reading Without Nonsense was the first book in my post college career (I returned for my teaching degree at age 38) that finally, at last, logically rang a bell with me!

    I’d been reading of so many methods, so many approaches, so many “this will solve everything” theories, that his no-nonsense approach was just what I needed to bring my brain down from academia and decide to use whatever I learned from real kids, keeping in mind his minimalist view of what is needed.

    The fact that the book you mention affected you so greatly doesn’t surprise me. He affected me the same way! What will be interesting is that now I want to go dig that sucker up and reread it, and compare my original enthusiasm with my far-more-knowledgable and experienced self now.

    Wonder what I’ll find?? 🙂 And I also wonder: What is it about his writing that caught us both so securely in his personal web of beliefs? Hmmm…Let’s keep in touch on this!


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