The forgetting curve is a human strength

Date Published


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4 mins read


Olivia Lory Kay & Dr. Markus Bernhardt

There is a consensus that the world needs more learning – whether it’s part of society building back better, responding to the future of work in the short term, or equipping the next generation to step into the jobs that we do not yet know about.

Learning, education and training have historically been in the business of supporting human memory, whether through physical training in muscle memory or within knowledge industries being able to recall the right information at the right time.

The theory underpinning the way learning, education and training approach this task can be different, but a foundational approach has been to find ways to overcome the human tendency to forget. And maximising retention once knowledge has been acquired.

The science stretches all the way back to 1885 with a famous study conducted by Hermann Ebbinghaus on how human memory works. Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve is what learning, education and training institutions are primed to help learners overcome.

But what if this is no longer helpful? In an age where unlearning the things we no longer need to know is as important as learning the new things we do, what if the forgetting curve is not a weakness, but in fact a strength? What can learning, education and training organisations do to help us forget faster, in order to learn again more quickly?

Heraclitus way back in 500BC had it right that the only constant in life is change. Staying on top of the technological developments that are a feature of every aspect of life require us to pivot, reskill or upskill and this dexterity is aided by being able to forget how we used to do things and move to a new and better way.

But the scale of change in our historical moment is daunting. We have reached a threshold at which the ability for humans to comprehend, interpret and make use of the vast troves of data produced, aggregated and replicated has breached our adaptability thresholds. We simply can’t learn fast enough to keep up, and this creates stress.

Why do we forget in the first place? We forget to free bandwidth for more important things. The pruning of neuron pathways serves an important function, whether as part of physical brain development during the key stages of child development, or later in life as adults as we develop our personal and professional identities. It helps us to survive and thrive in the complex worlds we find ourselves in.

Machines are also in the memory business. From the hardware associated with chip manufacturing, to algorithmic design and now artificial intelligence - non-human systems are fast learning how we learn and getting better, faster and smarter by the day. Their learning paths are predicated on the ‘memories’ supplied by the hardware systems and the adaptability for different models to learn not what humans learn, but in fact how we learn it.

We would like to posit a new frontier for learning, where technology helps us unlearn our past approaches and helps us learn how to learn again for a different kind of future.

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Written by

Olivia Lory Kay

Olivia Lory Kay

Head of Partnerships, Capita Learning

Olivia comes to learning from a career spanning emerging technology and strategic communications. She has worked as a Creative Director in a communications agency and in strategy and business development with immersive technology, bringing the worlds’ first VR product for social care to market and representing the UK at SXSW’s Virtual Cinema programme.

Dr. Markus Bernhardt

Dr. Markus Bernhardt

Chief Commercial Officer at Obrizum Group

An education enthusiast at heart, Markus is an active contributor to the discussion on the future of education. With a professional background in education, including the experience of running two very successful education institutions as chief executive, Markus currently chairs the Advisory Council on the Future of Education, he is a member of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) community and enjoys his work with young EdTech enterprises on the WISE accelerator programme.

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