The Brain is a Learning (and Forgetting) Machine... and What This Means for Self-Directed Education
People who bypass conventional school often have concern about the learning they might be missing out on. Research, however, demonstrates that we remember only a tiny amount of what we are taught in school. Research also demonstrates that we remember better when we learn out of interest.

Those who consider the path of Self-Directed Education in a world of conventional schooling are often concerned about the (school) learning they will miss out on. Folks in school learn a lot of curriculum, so Self-Directed Education and its lack of formal curriculum can often seem risky. Won’t I miss out on a lot of learning if I bypass conventional schooling?

The assumption here – a bad one, as we will see – is that learning it at some point in school means retaining that knowledge. In fact, it turns out that just as the brain is a learning machine, it is also a forgetting machine. Yes, learners may learn more (by sheer size of the curriculum) in conventional school. But frankly, most of it won’t likely be retained. The better strategy, I think, is to allow people to learn when it is most likely to stick – when they are interested – and accept the fact that they will have gaps in their knowledge... just like the kids who graduate from conventional school.

We are all familiar with how wonderful a learning machine the human brain is. But it turns out also to be a very effective forgetting machine. At this point, a number of studies have demonstrated that people forget a large amount of what they learn in formal classrooms. Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman summarizes the research this way: “For more than 75 years, studies have consistently found that only a small fraction of what is learned in the classroom is retained even a year after learning. Clearly, we do not devote 20,000 hours of children’s lives so that they can retain the knowledge for a few months before it slips away.”

This is probably an area where we do not need science to tell us what we know from experience. As a college professor myself, I have quite often overheard students talking about that topic they know they learned about a year ago but can’t remember a thing about, or how they took three Spanish courses in high school but can hardly speak a word now.

I can strongly relate. My parents recently reminded me that I learned algebra and geometry three times. First, I was taught these in high school. Then, I re-learned these to prepare for the SAT (because I didn’t really pay attention in my math classes). Then, I re-learned them years later to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). And today, a decade later, I am not confident I could even do simple algebra. Yet, I learned this math three times.

In their book The Knowledge Illusion, cognitive scientists Steve Sloman and Philip Fernbach explain why the brain is such a masterful forgetting machine. “The mind is busy trying to choose actions by picking out the most useful stuff and leaving the rest behind. Remembering everything gets in the way of focusing on the deeper principles that allow us to recognize how a new situation resembles past situations and what kinds of actions will likely be effective.” More directly, the brain is good at deciphering what it really needs to know and what kind of details are probably irrelevant.

Think about it this way. There is so much stuff out there that we can remember. Just like our attention filters out things that are uninteresting and would distract us from the important stuff, our brain must filter through a lot of possible stuff so that it remembers only the important stuff and leaves the rest.

Sloman and Fernbach suggest that remembering “a broad picture is generally all we need,” and that “sometimes storing details is counterproductive.” If true, think about what that means for school learning. Not only is a lot of school curriculum about details (what are the name of cell parts, all the US capital cities, or parts of a story), but students are expected to learn and retain an astonishing amount each year. It is little wonder that only a small amount of what is learned gets retained.

Memory is not as simple as learning, remembering, and forgetting, though. It often depends on what is going on during the learning, and one thing scientists have discovered over the past several decades is the importance of the “affective dimension” in learning; that is, how emotion and feeling affect learning. In particular, scientists who study learning have grown to appreciate the positive impact that interest and curiosity have to learning.

Again, this is probably an area where science is just validating what we already know intuitively and experientially. When you are interested, you learn better and tend to retain longer. As far as I’ve seen, scientists are still piecing together why this is. Some of it surely has to do with the link between interest and attention: the more interested we are, the more attention we pay, and the more attention, the better we remember. It may also have to do with interest giving us some context for remembering: I am horrible at remembering name/face pairings, but when I have some compelling reason to remember a person’s name, the remembering is easier. It could also have to do with the idea that things I am interested in are more likely to be things I use repeatedly, and hence strengthen my memory for over time.

Whatever the reasons for the strong relationship between interest and memory, all of this bodes well for Self-Directed Education when compared to conventional schooling. Schools, of course, try to get students interested in the curricula they have to teach, but as best we can tell, interest just isn’t that easy to manipulate. If we have to teach the capital cities in the United States on Thursday in third period, it is very unlikely that all the students in the room (or even most) will be interested. Even if the teacher crafts a great sales pitch, that might nudge some students. (And if she gets students interest by creating a fun game about the capital cities, the students might gain interest in the game that doesn’t become interest for the subject. When I taught high school, teachers called this “hands on, minds off.” We’d try to get students interested in a topic by creating hands-on activities, only to find that students would remember the activity far longer than the topic.)

So, where does that bring us? Well, the brain is a learning machine, but it also is a masterful forgetter. And it is more likely that we will remember things we learn when we are interested. That likely means that while students in conventional schools look like they are learning an impressive amount, it is an open question how much of that material will be retained, especially because so much of it is presented on a fixed schedule that does not wait for students to be interested before learning.

Learners who are self-directed without a formal curriculum surely will come away with gaps in their learning. But so will learners in conventional schools. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the good news is that we live in an age where it is increasingly easier to remedy gaps in our learning no matter whether you learned in conventional schools or were self-directed. And because we live in this “information age,” I’d argue that it is less important to be taught (and hopefully learn) the types of facts schools teach, and more important to learn how to keep learning. Because no matter where we learn, odds are that we will forget a bunch. What’s important is to be self-directed enough to be able to successfully (re)learn.