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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Advancement is Remembering What We Once Knew

It has been noted that restaurant waiters only remember a food order while it is in process and that, once it has been prepared and sent out, it is quickly wiped from memory.

The science behind this phenomenon is apparently as follows: we tend to remember interrupted tasks more easily than tasks that we have completed.

A photograph of a waiter in a bow tie holding a tray of drinks
Waiters have an uncanny ability to recall food orders until the plate is served.

So if, like me, you’ve ever got to the end of a movie and, five minutes after the credits, cannot recall the names of any of the actors, the good news is that there may be a perfectly reasonable, “scientific” explanation for this curious lapse.

It also helps to explain that feeling of “How did I ever manage to do that?” when looking back on a project that required very specific or specialised knowledge. The point is that, at that moment in time, we were accessing information and making connections in ways that we would now find hard, if not impossible, to replicate. It is literally as if, when the task is done, our brains know how to empty the “trash” of our working memory to create space for new and potentially more relevant pieces of information.

Isn’t it true to say, though, that sometimes important stuff (truth) gets thrown out in the trash?

Finding our way back to the truth that we once knew has historically been one way of describing the business of learning. It was Socrates who most famously regarded education as a relentless process of remembering, literally an unearthing of the truth that our conscious minds have forgotten.

School, in other words, is a place of recollection. But what happens when it is the school itself that has forgotten? We regularly speak of organisations having an institutional memory, but what happens when that organisation has a bout of institutional amnesia?

If we go back to the waiters in the restaurant, it is immediately clear that we cannot and almost certainly shouldn’t remember everything and that life, inevitably, moves on. I don’t need to be able to recall the names of every dinosaur that ever lived like I could when I was eight years old. And, in just the same way, individuals and institutions alike should accept the fact that forgetting is a normal symptom of human progress, growth and development.

But what happens when we start regularly forgetting the important stuff?

As we gear up for a new school year in this small corner of Brussels, I find myself reflecting on these themes of remembering and forgetting; wondering about the role of Advancement in supporting a school to find a way back to what it’s lost, as well as move beyond and let go of what should now be forgotten.

And to help me along the way, I’ve posted some reminders to myself.

Remember the things that we once planned to do.

Remember the principles that once guided us to make more good decisions and fewer bad.

Forget everything that makes the journey heavier.

I guess you could call these my resolutions for the year to come.

My aide-memoires.


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