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The secret ingredient to great learning and teaching: forgetting

The Human Brain

It turns out that many of us have the wrong mental model for how we learn. We think we learn by what goes in the brain, but we actually learn by what comes out of it. This is THE big idea from those studying how we learn. A surprising implication of this research is that forgetting is a great friend of learning.

This is an exciting area of research, according to Peter Brown, of Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, and others like the renowned Distinguished Research Professor in the UCLA Department of Psychology Rorbert Bjork (this recent talk by Dr. Bjork is awesome).

The Theory: It's What Comes Out, Not What Goes In

We don't learn by what goes into our brains, but by what comes out. In other words, it is the hard work of what they call "retrieval" that leads to true learning. Just receiving information doesn't equate to learning. Just reviewing information (like students "going over their notes" before an exam) also doesn't help. And just transmitting information (like faculty who prepare for an eloquent, erudite lecture) is misdirected.

Imagine your mind is a forest. You have information hidden in different parts of the landscape but you need ready access to it. Learning is the development of the paths to the information. Without these paths, the information just overcrowds the forest, then eventually withers from lack of use or attention or both.

Putting it Into Practice: The Practice of Forgetting...and Remembering

The general take-away is to perhaps half the time you take in new information and double the time you take to:

  • Forget: taking time away from the new information. You read an article with key insights you want to remember. Go for a walk, talk with a family member or co-worker, work on something else, take a break.

  • Recall: without notes, force yourself to remember everything you can about the information, then check your notes to fill in gaps. You might talk out loud or write something to help you recall and process the information. You can repeat this a number of times: forgetting and recalling, forgetting and recalling. Making it a well-worn path to the information.

  • "Elaboration": this is what researchers call the act of connecting new information to existing information. This is like making paths not just to the new information but between areas of information where catalysis takes place and new forms of knowledge arise. Push yourself to make all kinds of connections. How does this relate to my work projects? My industry? My core values? Relationships? A book I am reading? A movie I saw recently? The work of one my life heroes?

  • Application: using this new information (perhaps combined with existing) to do something concrete in your personal or professional life. As soon as possible, put it into practice. Make it quick, cheap and painless. Just do it as soon as possible.

For faculty: take time in every class to review old information before moving on, but in a somewhat random fashion. Bjork calls this "interleaving": bouncing between different areas of knowledge and skill