August 1, 2017

Remember! Paradoxically, forgetting can be good!

It was May, then early June. Helicopter parents were getting knots in their shorts as teachers — who already sported knotty undies — performed the annual ritual warning about how much kids would forget before school resumed in the fall. Now it’s August.  For the kids who didn’t cram more into their heads, it’s another wasted summer. Yadda, yadda, yadda — additional failure.

Those worrywart parents and teachers might have had a calmer summer had they known more about the paradoxical benefits of forgetting.

By summarizing of some of those benefits, Ulrich Boser gives evidence-based reassurance that all is not lost if we remember that "forgetting" can frequently be better understood as memory pruning. His column is a nice primer for students, parents and teachers who want to know more about how memory really works. For example,
  • Most prominently, he reminds us that forgetting plays a crucial role in the development of wisdom! As we pass time to forget inconsequentials, we give ourselves a chance to develop a deeper understanding of the stuff we do remember.
  • Since we’re hardwired to selectively forget certain types of things, it’s important for us to learn to creatively work with those forgetting operations rather than against them.
Such paradoxes point to practical lifehacks for students, teachers and even retirees.

For active learners of all ages:

There’s a hidden subtext in the article about the importance of starting tasks early rather than putting things off for a last minute rush.
  • Even when you are not actively working on a task, your mind processes the work in the background, arranging things according to importance, embellishing things which need embellishment, chopping out things that are not necessary or counterproductive.
  • The creativity literature often refers to this period of time with names like “incubation” — it’s a period which simply cannot be rushed if you do creative work.
  • Advice to start a project early and return to it periodically is also consonant with the well-established principle that distributed practice leads to better learning than massed practice.
By letting the pruning function of memory do its work in the background, you can make your life easier and more productive.

For teachers and parents:

Over the summer, kids should do things that help them develop their gifts rather than engage in endless time wasters. On that, people agree. In regard to school work, most people also know that some “forgetting” over the summer is inevitable. That said, is it possible that steering children towards summer activities designed to counteract forgetting can lead parents and teachers to overlook other kinds of activities which would actually provide kids with more benefits? The answer is more complicated than it might first appear.

To make wiser decisions about enrichment activities for a particular child, consider the following.
  • When you feel yourself getting agitated about "forgetting", how do you know that a particular student really learned the material well in the first place? If a kid never fully mastered something by the end of the spring term, it's quite likely that memory pruning will leave the kid with even less mastery by the end of summer. Here, however, the problem is not forgetting per se – it's a problem of incomplete initial mastery. How many parents have the pedagogical skills to correct this situation with summertime instruction?
  • In the same vein, what happens when stuff is reviewed or relearned in the fall? If it’s a reasonably quick, effortless process, student knowledge of the stuff will be deepened — a benefit of memory pruning rather than a setback. When the process is protracted and difficult, are we correct to blame forgetting? Instead, reconsider the issue described above. Did the kid actually know the stuff in the first place?
  • More ominously, the issue of the importance of the material must be faced. Boser asserts that the pruning function of forgetting is important because it strips our minds of things that are not important. In the minds of students, how much of the curriculum is stuff that eventually deserves to be treated as mental clutter? If kids are “forgetting” stuff because it simply is not that important to them, are we barking up the wrong tree by urging them to cram more of those items into the summer when the true problem involves motivation, values and attitudes?
Let's finish off with a short thought experiment. Imagine two mediocre math students going into their summer vacations:
  • The first student tries to rehearse her computational skills in daily sessions of solving math problems. Each session starts with an argument with her parents about whether or not she needs to do math homework over the summer, but by the end of the summer she's averaged four sessions per week.
  • The second student centers her entire summer around baseball: she practices softball with her teammates at every opportunity, watches the Cubs religiously and even streams Moneyball four times before the summer is over. By the end of summer, she's done no actual math exercises, but when she returns to school she has a strong interest in Moneyball statistics. This newly developed connection between her deep interest in baseball and the math operations used in evaluating players has left her determined to learn more about applying math to practical problems that she encounters.
Who's had the more profitable summer? It's not an easy call. For a kid who needs more practice, simple practice sessions can be important. For kids who needs to reframe the connection between their deeper values and and their future academic tasks, a different approach is needed. Either way, forgetting per se might not be the problem.

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