As some readers will no doubt be aware, I’ve written a new book. I’ve been fascinated by Robert Bjork’s research into learning and memory ever since first encountering it back in February 2013, so of course, when I began the process back of writing this book I wrote to Professor Bjork to let him know I intended to cannibalise his work in order to make various points about what teachers ought to do. My reason for writing was both to ask for his blessing and to see whether he would be prepared to offer feedback (suitably summarised and delayed of course) on the manuscript.

Bob duly wrote back with his blessing and various suggestions for further research I might like to explore. When I completed the text back in December, I wrote to him again. I attached a copy of what I’d written and nervously held my breath. What if he thought it was rubbish? What if I’d not understood crucial areas of his research? When his reply eventually came, my relief (and that of my publishers) was palpable: he liked it! What’s more he described it as “a truly remarkable book” and offered to write a foreword.

To say I was pleased is the most enormous understatement. Obviously I think I’ve written something useful and important, but for one of the most eminent academics in the field of learning and memory to endorse the book is more than I could have hoped for. 

As with any book, as soon as the writing process is done a writer must let go and allow his words to stand or fall amidst the hurly-burly of public opinion. Some people won’t like some of what I’ve written and that is, I think, unavoidable. But that the person whose opinion mattered most has written the foreword is good enough for me.

And here it is:

Using various versions of the title, “How We Learn versus How We Think We Learn,” I have given talks to different audiences on the surprising discrepancy that exists between what research has revealed about how humans learn and remember versus how people tend to think they learn and remember. The discrepancy is “surprising” because one might expect that as lifelong users of our memories and learning capabilities, coupled with the “trials and errors of everyday living and learning” (Bjork, 1999), we would come to understand how to optimize not only our own learning, but also the learning of those we are responsible for teaching, whether at home, in the schools, or in the workplace. The discrepancy is important, too, because as David Didau documents and illustrates so well in this book, optimizing the effectiveness of our teaching and our own learning depends on incorporating methods and activities that mesh with how we actually learn, versus how we think we learn.

That we tend to have a faulty mental model of how we learn and remember has been a source of continuing fascination to me. Why are we misled? I have speculated (Bjork, 2011) that one factor is that the functional architecture of how we learn, remember, and forget is unlike the corresponding processes in man-made devices. We tend not, of course, to understand the engineering details of how information is stored, added, lost, or over-written in man-made devices, such as video recorder or the memory in a computer, but the functional architecture of such devices is simpler and easier to understand than is the complex architecture of human learning and memory. If we do think of ourselves as working like such devices, we become susceptible to thinking, explicitly or implicitly, that exposing ourselves to information and procedures will lead to their being stored in our memories—that they will write themselves on our brains, so to speak—which could not be further from the truth.

Also, to the extent that we think of ourselves as some kind of recording device, we become unlikely to realize how using our memories shapes our memories. That is, we can fail to appreciate the extent to which retrieving information from our memories increases subsequent access to that information and reduces access to competing information. Retrieving information from a compact disc or computer memory leaves that information and related information unchanged, but that is far from the case with respect to human memory. More globally, to the extent we think of ourselves as recording devices, we may fail to appreciate the volatility that characterizes access to information from our memories as conditions change, events intervene, and new learning happens. Information that is readily accessible in one context at one point in time may be completely inaccessible at another time in a different context—and vice versa.

We can also be led astray by over-simplifying what it means to have stronger or weaker memories. We may think, for example, that memory traces in our brains are like footprints in the sand that can be shallower or deeper and, hence, more or less resistant to the effects of forgetting. In fact, how memories are represented in our brains is multi-dimensional: Some memory A, for example, may appear stronger than some other memory B by one measure, such as recognition or the subjective sense of familiarity, whereas memory B may appear stronger by some other measure, such as free or cued recall. Basically, by intuition or experience alone, we can never come to realize the amazing array of interactions of encoding conditions and test conditions that have been shown in controlled experiments to affect our ability to retain and recall to-be-learned information. We may have a general idea, even an accurate idea, that some learning activities produce better retention than others, but appreciating fully the complex interactions of encoding conditions, retention interval, type of later test, and what cues will or will not be available at the time of the final test requires a whole different level of understanding.

To make things even more challenging for us as learners and/or teachers, conditions of instruction or practice that appear to result in rapid progress and learning can fail to produce good long-term retention of skills and knowledge, or transfer of such skills or knowledge to new situations where they are relevant, whereas other conditions that pose challenges for the learner—and appear to slow the learning process—can enhance such long-term retention and transfer. Conditions of the later type, which I have labeled “desirable difficulties” (Bjork, 1994), include spacing, rather than massing, repeated study opportunities; interleaving, rather than blocking, instruction or practice on the separate components of a given task; providing intermittent, rather than continuous, feedback to learners; varying the conditions of learning, rather than keeping them constant and predictable; and using tests, rather than re-presentations, as learning opportunities.

The key point—one that David emphasizes and one that readers of this book should be sure to take away—is that there is a critical distinction in research on learning, one that dates back decades: namely, the distinction between learning and performance. What we can observe and measure during instruction is performance; whereas learning, as reflected by the long-term retention and transfer of skills and knowledge, must be inferred, and, importantly, current performance can be a highly unreliable guide to whether learning has happened. In short, we are a risk of being fooled by current performance, which can lead us, as teachers or instructors, to choose less-effective conditions of learning over more-effective conditions, and can lead us, as learners ourselves, to prefer poorer conditions of instruction over better conditions of instruction.

Several aspects of the present book make it especially valuable. One is that David Didau has not only explained and illustrated the research findings to which I have alluded, as well as other key findings from social psychology and cognitive psychology, but he has also done so in terms of their relevance to real-world schools and education. He has also discussed such findings and their implications with respect to historical trends and ideas that have guided, and sometimes misled, educational practices. Finally, and critically, he is able to discuss research findings and their implications for real-world teaching from the standpoint of somebody who has been in the trenches, so to speak. His career as a teacher and as an administrator in pre-college settings provide a perspective that is lacked by those of us who have spent our careers doing research and teaching in the ivory tower.