Never forget about forgetting!

The other day I read an article about forgetting in the New York Times. It said that it’s actually good not to remember everything you learn. As I’m not the best at remembering names, places, movies or songs, this interesting piece gave me a glimmer of hope (could forgetting be a good thing?). Of course it’s great that I can find a silver lining to my own forgetfulness but it got me thinking even more about how theory matters in how we design our learning experiences.

For those of us working in Learning & Development, this is the DNA of our day-to-day challenges; how we build experiences that enable people to learn, and then also to apply those learnings.  And an elementary part of this logic is the ability to remember what you were supposed to have learned, right?

In other words, remembering is the basic and necessary first step of learning. After that you can transform what you remembered by understanding the meaning and applying it in the right context. So why could it be good not to remember everything?

Well, if I look at the old but still useful theory of forgetting, by Hermann Ebbinghaus, what he really talks about is how to make learning stick. How to not forget stuff.  Ebbinghaus, the father of the forgetting curve, proved in the late 1800’s that repetition is king, if you don’t repeat you will forget more easily. But actually, according to the NYT article – and this is an angle I hadn’t put a lot of thought in before –  when we relearn something that we forgot earlier it helps gain even more knowledge. Basically, relearning manifests the learning and we often develop a deeper understanding. So forgetting something, that we later on relearn, makes it stick even better.

A paper published earlier this year argues that our brains are built to foster both remembering and forgetting. The growth of new neurons seem to promote forgetting, as adding neurons, overwrites memories and erases them.

“According to this view, the goal of memory is not the transmission of information through time, per se. Rather, the goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. As such, transience is as important as persistence in mnemonic systems.”

For me, this brings to mind the analogy of the brain being like a computer and the relevance of the memories and their use in your everyday life affecting where you store them. Your old memories are filed somewhere hidden way in the back of your head or in my analogy archived somewhere on the hard drive. The ones that are easier to recollect stored somewhere more accessible – like the desktop, where you tend to store files you use more often.

I guess I wouldn’t really like to recall everything once learned – that would be a massive overload of “useless” info like old addresses, phone numbers and parking spaces.

The things I do want to keep in my memory storage though…how do I make those stick?

As I mentioned, repetition is king and when you repeat you need space in between the repetitions, this is called spacing. There’s an optimal space of time between repetitions to actually remember things better.

I believe our challenge as learning experience designers is how to use this proven research when designing learning experiences; to build in the spacing, creating more of a learning journey than a once-off skills training/video/article. But at the same time we do need to offer more convenient short and bite-sized learning activities that our band members can digest whenever they have some spare time.

This is the reality in our working lives; the average American spends 24 minutes in a typical working week on learning and development. How can we make use of that time and see to that we learn something useful and that it sticks? One of the tools we use for this is our learning portal, a place where Spotifiers can find learning plans of different topics. A learning plan is a selection of smaller learning activities gathered for a specific topic. This means that you can digest and learn each piece of knowledge when you have the time, and do it over a longer period. This way you get bite-sized information, and the spacing in between. This is one way to seize this opportunity since we better understand how learning and forgetting works, and we’re still experimenting on methods and channels to use. These are exciting times in the L&D space as our quest continues and a lesson to us all – never forget about forgetting!