Forgetting is Learning's Friend

Were you to ask, I think a lot of learning and education professionals would tell you that they’re at war with entropy. They’d probably call it “forgetting,” or “failed knowledge transfer,” or the like, but the word would indicate the same thing: the general tendency for things to achieve an equilibrium, usually below whatever energy level they currently have. Cups of coffee cool off, banana peels turn to compost, and so on. It’s a tendency toward less and less differentiation as time goes on.

For example, any “just-in-time” approach is all about combatting entropy. A successful intervention not only keeps the process or situation usefully differentiated, but also has the same effect on the learner.

Of course, every learning professional might well give thanks that the problem exists and creates such rich opportunities for us. If people remembered everything, there would be no need. Differentiation taken to that extreme is as debilitating as pure entropy. Those who know Jorge Luis Borges’s “Funes el memorioso” (commonly translated as “Funes, the memorious”) will know what I mean. As the Wikipedia summary drily puts it, “Funes is the fictional story of Ireneo Funes, who, after falling off his horse and receiving a bad head injury, acquired the amazing talent — or curse — of remembering absolutely everything.” If you remember everything, then you have likely lost your ability to prioritize: remembering everything, keeping everything in its place, can only make it harder to put anything in first place.

We end up stuck in the middle, of course. And there don’t seem to be that many options. There’s acceptance (You’ll never get over it, so you might as well try to get right with it). There’s optimization (By working at smaller and more responsive scales, you can find ways to get little wins that add up over time). There’s giving up (Que sera sera, whatever will be learned will be learned).

But while everyone would likely agree that neither perfect forgetfulness nor perfect memory is friendly to learning, and that making some kind of peace with the human condition is probably the way to go, it would probably sound crazy to say that we could actually find ways to make forgetfulness as central an element of learning as we assume memory already must be.

To be clear, I mean something different than making compassionate allowances for forgetfulness after the fact, or attempting to forestall it in the learning process itself. Our experiences are differentiated and then lose that differentiation all the time. It’s a fundamental process. Can we enlist it somehow?

Here’s one suggestion: make forgetting social and interpersonal. Everyone knows the simple typical end-of-session summary exercise where people write down the takeaways, for themselves. What if they wrote down five things that somebody else (their partner, their group, the entire participant pool) could just forget. Call it a Permission Slip for Forgetting. We have to forget some things about the session in order to differentiate enough to make it possible to remember. There could also be an accountability mechanism — the slip would give permission for the recipient to forget but the author of the slip would have the responsibility of retaining and remembering.

So the next time you feel a complaint rising about how everything would be so much easier or better or more efficient if people remembered what they learned, you’d best not forget that the failure of memory is not the opposite of learning. It may in fact be something that protects the learner from failing to be there in the first place.

This post originally appeared on Medium.