2022 Spring Term 2

The know zone

  • Sounding out phonics
    Tiffnie Harris delves into the highly-debated issue on the use of phonics in teaching early reading. More
  • Is the Bacc back?
    As the government carries out an inquiry into the post-16 education landscape, Kevin Gilmartin examines whether there really is an appetite for a 16-19 baccalaureate. More
  • Resource management
    Hayley Dunn takes a closer look at the DfE's new tools for resource management and procurement More
  • Lifelong ambition
    Anne Murdoch explores what the Skills Bill means for colleges, employers and learners. More
  • Post-16 Bacc
    Should the government introduce a post-16 baccalaureate that allows students to take a variety of subjects, including both academic and vocational options? Here, ASCL members have their say... More
  • Going the distance
    Headteacher Russell Clarke says ASCL Council provides an excellent platform for sharing ideas and influencing policy. Here, he shares his passion for Council, carving and fell running. More
  • Never forget?
    If the human brain is wired for learning, it also appears programmed to forget. We all know how the acquisition of knowledge can enrich a life but forgetfulness can have value too, says Chris Pyle. More
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If the human brain is wired for learning, it also appears programmed to forget. We all know how the acquisition of knowledge can enrich a life but forgetfulness can have value too, says Chris Pyle.

Never forget?

School sometimes seems to be one long fight against the forgetting curve. 

Most teachers know about Ebbinghaus and his famous graph that shows memories gradually fading over time. Precious facts disappear from children’s minds, like coins falling down the back of the sofa. 

No one knows where they go. You will move house one day and find a small fortune in the upholstery but those children’s facts seem lost forever. 

Every teacher has had this deflating experience. You mention a point from an earlier lesson but each bright and hopeful face smiles back blankly, weakly. 

Their conscious minds have somehow been emptied of their previous knowledge of the subjunctive, the Egyptians or the chain rule. (This is usually after weeks or months; it is far more concerning if only hours or minutes have passed.) 

The memory-blanking charm – “Obliviate!” – doesn’t operate just in Hogwarts. It is alive and well in every school on Earth. 

Ebbinghaus shows, of course, that we must top up their knowledge before it falls to zero. Revisit! Space! Revise! As John Bercow, when he was Speaker of the House of Commons, used to urge his rowdy MPs, “Learn it, man!” ... but without the bellowing, please, in school. 

Einstein said that education is what remains when you have forgotten everything you learned in school. 

Flight of the arrow 

Don’t worry, teachers, he was joking. But his joke contains the truth that the point is the long-term destination. It’s the flight of the arrow that matters, not the twang of the bow. 

This is true of knowledge. It is fine to forget the faltering steps that led to your current fluency. Once you’ve really learned your times tables, you simply know that seven eights are… just a minute… oh yes, 56. 

It is also true about character. My Year 7 geographers may one day lose their grasp of the names of Japan’s four main islands that we have spent time learning, and I am braced for that possibility, but it is of real importance that they go into future life with a firm grip on the confidence, curiosity and compassion that they have learned in school. 

Some things should never be forgotten, such as your manners, your sister’s birthday and the location of your keys. 

But some things are actually best forgotten. Many mistakes and youthful indiscretions are in this category. Even upstanding school and college leaders may have had excruciating episodes in their youth, now thankfully vanished from the record. 

In a previous generation, no one brought out a phone to capture our moments of madness. We could dance like no one was watching – because, at least, no one was filming. We wrote stupid things on pieces of paper we could later rip up, instead of posting them online for the future to find. 

Benign forgetfulness 

Childhood includes the right to make mistakes – that is to say, the right to change, learn and grow. 

The internet never forgets or forgives but schools should practise a benign forgetfulness that helps pupils to move beyond their mistakes and leave problems behind. 

In a community that remembers everything, there is no space for failure. No one will risk or dare, and there are no fresh starts. So a school that never forgets, strangely, is a place where no one can learn. 

Perhaps this is a purpose of the forgetting curve. Memories fade to free us for the future. So let us praise forgetfulness but, in the meantime, who knows which island is Hokkaido? 

And just where did I leave my keys? 

Dr Chris Pyle is Head of Lancaster Royal Grammar School

Want the last word?

Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you’d like to share your humorous observations of school life, email Permjit Mann at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offers a modest honorarium.