The Art of Learning through Forgetting: Block Teaching in Waldorf Schools

In the last few decades, new approaches in pursuit of effective learning strategies have continuously emerged. Among these approaches, Waldorf education particularly stands out due to its seemingly counterintuitive nature: block learning, a cornerstone of this educational philosophy. 

Our approach is unique in that students are immersed in a single subject for a period of three to four weeks, before transitioning to the next topic, thus “forgetting” all about the previous one. Although this approach may seem at odds with the goal of learning more, the rationale behind block teaching has gained important support from the scientific community, particularly through the principles of spaced learning and the forgetting curve.

Spaced learning suggests that breaking up learning into multiple sessions, with intervals in between, leads to better retention and understanding compared to cramming information in a single session. This phenomenon is closely tied to the forgetting curve, which describes the rate at which we forget information over time if it is not spaced out, reinforced or revisited.

By dedicating three to four weeks to the study of a single subject, Green Meadow facilitates spaced learning by design. During the first block of a given subject, the students encounter and explore new concepts and ideas, sparking new thinking. Focusing on a single subject allows for repetition, reinforcement, and a deep exploration of concepts from multiple perspectives, fostering a meaningful connection to the subject and a deeper understanding of it.

The true power of block learning is further enhanced by integrating the principles of spaced repetition. After the initial encounter with a subject in a block, the subject is revisited periodically throughout the school year once or twice more. This revisiting takes advantage of the benefits of the forgetting curve.

We could say that a new seed of curiosity is planted in the students the first time a topic is studied, and then, during the “forgetting phase” the seed takes root, only to flourish and bare fruit when the subject is revisited months later, and even beyond that.

“Without our awareness, and particularly during sleep, the brain is constantly sorting out which memories to keep and which can be purged and forgotten. The ability to forget helps us prioritize, think better, make decisions, and be more creative. Normal forgetting, in balance with memory, gives us the mental flexibility to grasp abstract concepts from a morass of stored information, allowing us to see the forest through the trees.” Scott A. Small, MD, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Columbia University

Imagine learning about the Renaissance period in history. During the initial block, students delve into the cultural, artistic, and political aspects of this era, building a solid foundation. Months later, when the topic is revisited, the previously acquired knowledge is reactivated and reinforced, solidifying its place in long-term memory.

Beyond the deepening of learning and the enhancement of memory, block learning in Waldorf schools fosters a multidimensional and interconnected understanding of subjects, integrating art and science every step of the way. Students develop a deeper appreciation for a subject’s complexities and interconnections, nourishing their capacities for creative and systemic thinking. 

During a block on botany, students might not only study the scientific classification of plants but also delve into their cultural significance, artistic representations, practical applications, which involve sensory experiences. This interdisciplinary approach encourages students to see the subject as a multifaceted tapestry, rather than a collection of isolated facts.

In subjects like math, the benefits are also tangible. Through this built-in “forgetting” of the specifics on how to solve a given type of problem, for example, the students need to use problem solving skills to remember, thus deepening their understanding and allowing the space to develop new ways of thinking creatively about a problem. It’s a virtuous cycle!

Block learning’s effectiveness is supported by research on spaced learning and the forgetting curve. By leveraging these principles, Waldorf schools create a learning environment that promotes long-term retention, deep understanding, and a multidimensional appreciation of knowledge.