Some time ago i learnt to play ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ on the acoustic guitar. Even without donning leather trousers, i think you’ll agree that this was a pretty rock achievement. True, i don’t think i could carry off the hat like Slash does, but nevertheless, quite a cool party trick. Except that i seem to have forgotten it. The other day, in an idle moment, i thought i’d demonstrate my red hot guitar licks, only to find that somehow it has slipped out of my mind.
Lack of practice, that’s the problem.
We learn a lot, but we only retain a certain amount of it, at least readily to hand. I’m sure that if i set out to learn that song again it would only take me a fraction of the time it took before, but for the moment, it’s slipped away.
Other things have stayed put. I spent many years as a child standing on a station, waiting for a train to school, and to this day i can effortlessly recite the names of every station on the whole line in order, somehow seared into my brain by hearing it every single day for years on end. So one piece of information has slipped away, whilst another arguably even less useful piece has remained lodged in place. Maybe i rehearsed it more? Maybe i was younger when i learnt it.
That’s the problem with knowledge, it’s hard to hang onto it all, so we need to think carefully about which bits we need people to retain and why we need them to retain it. This is a picture that is changing over time as technology changes what we understand by the knowledge. Today, if i want to learn Sweet Child, i can simply Google it and find a YouTube video to copy. Expertise is merely moments away, so arguably it’s not all that useful to take the time to commit it to memory. What year did we last host the Olympics? Easy, just Google it.
We can certainly engineer learning to assist in the embedding process: getting learners to manipulate and use information is an essential part of learning. Not just reading it, but using it. It’s part of the rehearsal process, but the more we use information, the more likely we are to retain it, although this doesn’t overcome the fundamental tenet that we are more likely to remember information that is relevant.