A Question for Roediger

Okay. So, we’re about three months away from the day that Henry Roediger will descend onto the College of Charleston campus and deliver an inspiring speech on helping students learn. I can’t wait. I’m also anticipating his response to some questions his book has created for me.

The most impactful idea for me is the role that forgetting plays in the learning process. Let me retrieve that one for you. According to Roediger and friends, learning information requires a healthy amount of forgetting the information: we learn, we forget, we re-learn. Relearning moves information from short-term to long-term memory. He recommends that we allow enough time to pass after teaching a lesson for the students to forget most of it, so that they are forced to relearn the information. Relearning is where more permanent learning occurs. But what’s a healthy amount of forgetting?

Consider summer school work for K12 students. Each year, teachers assign seemingly more summer work for students to prevent forgetting their lessons. In some cases, summer work is so much they may as well not have had a summer break at all, and whether teachers actually do something with the work in the fall—well, that’s another issue. The trend, nevertheless, seems relatively new. I realize that I turned 40 last September and education has changed substantially since the 1990s. But summer work happened on a construction site for me, not in a textbook or work packet. If my kids don’t work weekly, they’re up that creek without a paddle come August. It’s a lose-lose: I feel like a bad parent unless I stay on them and like a bad parent for staying on them.

Is it possible that Make It Stick is suggesting summer break may be a healthy time to forget some things stored in short-term memory so that relearning portions in the Fall can have its intended, healthy effect? In other words, Dr. Roediger, should we encourage students to enjoy their summer with less structured academic work, encourage them to read what they want, let them forget some algebra skills (they’re not all dust in the wind), so that they can relearn certain concepts and actually move that learning from short-term to long-term?

To be clear, I’m not trying to get on the better side of my 13-year-old son. He’s diligent and kind but not one who’s going to prefer graphing linear equations to making stop-motion videos in July. No, my question is more sincere than that. I’m currently learning Algebra I for the second time in my life, and I’m pretty damn good at it this time around if I do say so myself. Granted, my reasons for learning it a second time differ from the ones that guided me then. In middle and high school, I learned because I wanted to earn the A, and now I want to help Asher when necessary.

But I digress. My point is that after 27 years of letting myself forget, it’s sticking. A lot better. Thoughts, Dr. Roediger?

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