We live in a “symptom society” in which we want the fastest and easiest solution to relieve us of pain. The first response is usually aimed at treating the symptom and often takes the form of drugs. It usually appears to resolve the issue. Or does it? The flaw in this process is twofold:
1. Even if the symptom is successfully eradicated, the root cause/issue remains unsolved and often undiagnosed.
2. The second line of defence becomes weak and under-researched because it is seen as irrelevant.
In Education, we treat the symptom (eg, poor behavior, low grades, disengagement in lessons, low employment after school) then measure how good we are at this (exam results improvement, attendance, English and maths progress…) without looking at the cause of the problem. If we were more accountable for our school drop out rates, the level of anxiety and depression in teenagers and the chronic lack of independent thought, I think we would pay much more attention to their root cause.
Future issues such as managing the consciousness of artificial intelligence and the political and economic power shifts ahead will require revolutionary thinking to produce powerful solutions.
What if unlearning was our “second line” of intelligence?
Students who have learned everything they needed for the exam, got their top grades and have psychologically attached their identity to their success at school, may or may not evolve to address these challenges and problem
1. Ask seemingly impossible questions and/or questions that are designed to frustrate that particular learner and get them used to failing in a safe space.
2. Be honest about all the flaws, mistakes and issues with the current situation/task.
3. Challenge the individual student's beliefs, values, previous knowledge, and even character traits. (e.g. playing devil's advocate.)
4. Try to put the learner into a future mindset; we need the answers for the future – we often have the answers for now.
5. Change the brief over time, adjust the parameters, resources, and expectations.
If all our children were adept at unlearning, they could jettison a procedure or theory that has become obsolete and then apply themselves with enthusiasm and dedication to new methods. Imagine if this process could occur without a teacher, emotional distress or students making a link between being right and being “clever”. Imagine an entire education system that could facilitate learning and unlearning whilst retaining motivation and enthusiasm.
According to the Hindu,
“The illiterate of the future are not those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler
When we allow ourselves to be controlled by our preconceived and misconceived notions, governed by myths, conditioned by false assumptions and (mis)guided by wrong opinions we have formed about people, we are not open to new ideas and are unwilling to undergo a paradigm shift. When we fail to allow our minds to let go of "mis-and-disbeliefs" we have held and learned over a period of time, we don't allow ourselves to blossom.
Unlearning is the process of realizing that something which we learned earlier is incorrect, ineffective, or obsolete, admitting it and deciding to erase such bad conditioning and misconceptions from our mind for good. It is the process of exploring what we have stored in our system and deleting all the unnecessary data. It is the process of saying bye to an old, obsolete, and outdated paradigm, and embracing a new paradigm and willingly undergoing a paradigm shift.
Unfortunately, we are controlled by myths which do not allow us to open our eyes to reality.
How Unlearning is relevant for teachers?
Teachers who had over 25 years, some over 10 years, and the rest had 5-10 years of experience. When I asked them, “Do you teach various subjects (courses) the way you were taught by your teachers about 20 years, 10 years or five years ago?”, some nodded their heads and gave an affirmative answer.
“Don’t you think it is important to be aware of the modern teaching methods and learn new skills and also to bid goodbye to traditional teaching methods and let go of false assumptions?” Their response was similar to this: “We have many years of teaching experience. We know everything. We are comfortable with our teaching methods. We don’t need to learn any new skills.” It clearly showed that they resisted change and were not ready to unlearn.
Ways of unlearning
The first step towards becoming an "unlearned" is not just to have a thirst for knowledge but to question our knowledge.
Discussing our knowledge with those who are competent in a particular field, being challenged constantly, and being ready to be proved wrong will help us understand whether what we have learned is still relevant or obsolete.
It is also important to question one’s belief system and check whether we are treating myths as scientific facts.
The next important step is to take steps to develop creative and critical thinking.
According to EdTech Digest;
What we already know may be what prevents us from knowing more. Teachers typically assume that their primary role is to provide students with knowledge via presentation, that when asked a question they should provide an answer, and that students who score high on multiple choice tests have mastered the material. All of these assumptions are questionable in preparing students for life in a global, knowledge-based, innovation-centered civilization.
What is ‘unlearning’?
Chris Dede: Professional development for transformative change is very challenging because participants not only must learn new skills, but also must “unlearn” almost unconscious beliefs, assumptions, practices, and values about the nature of teaching, learning, and schooling.
Marga Biller: Unlearning is learning to think, behave, or perceive differently, when there are already beliefs, behaviors, or assumptions in place (that get in the way), at either the individual or the organizational level. It becomes important when individuals, groups, and whole organizations have to find ways to effectively support change, overwrite old habits, surface and supplant entrenched ways of thinking, and develop new ways of working together.
What are the challenges associated with unlearning?
Chris: How important is emotional and social support for unlearning? In losing weight (which also involves changing deeply rooted behaviors), effective reinforcement is extremely important – and purely cognitive supports often fail. Ineffective tutoring, about half the prompts a mentor provides are encouragement rather than intellectual advice. For students being asked to tackle a new type of activity, self-efficacy and tenacity are vital attitudes, and these are built in part through emotional and social interventions. Parallel to these examples of comparable situations, substantial affective/communal support is vital to the success of professional development that requires unlearning.
Marga: We tackle unlearning in three contexts: mindsets, habits, and systems. Changing mindsets involves altering conceptions or mental models. Resistance to changing mindsets emerges as defensive patterns fortifying self-interest, personal identities, traditions, and long-standing assumptions. Changing habits involves shifting individual or group behaviors, once people have "signed on" to any new concepts involved. Resistance to changing habits arises in part from old cues in the environment that retrigger old behaviors and is reinforced by stress and time pressure. Sometimes even with alterations in mindset and habit, not much really changes, because the larger system discourages the new ways of thinking and acting. Resistance to change arises in systems through policies, routines, organizational structures, and even shared values and identities that interlock to block unlearning and change.
How do students and teachers benefit from unlearning?
Peter Hutton: Students benefit from unlearning by developing flexibility in the mindset that's critical in today's world. This type of creative thinking is crucial to finding the best and most efficient solutions to the constantly changing world. Many industries are constantly trying to adapt to today's changing world and developing an adaptive mindset will help students better transition into the real world after graduation. Standardized tests teach that there's only one right answer, but in the real world, there is not only more than one right answer – there are also different ways of getting to that answer. With unlearning, students are encouraged to make mistakes because that's part of the process of problem-solving. If you got it right on the first try, then you probably didn't get it right.
Jayne Everson: My identity as a teacher has transitioned. It is not good for me to be the expert all the time. I want students to realize they can figure out a solution to any question they have. Since the work is often emergent, meaning student curiosity is a driving force behind how we will cover a topic, I am often not sure where the line of inquiry will lead. This means that I am always learning. It is a joyful experience. At first, it felt a little weird to not know all the answers to the questions students were asking. Now, I am much more comfortable not knowing an answer. I do know that we will work together to figure out a way to answer it. Students walk away with strategies and the ability to create and pursue their own knowledge. They are empowered and they walk away as creative problem solvers.
How can an educator prepare himself or herself to help their students understand and overcome an unlearning challenge?
Peter: It's hard to lay out a simple road map to overcoming and understanding an unlearning challenge because there is no one way of doing it. Teachers will have a flexible and open-ended approach to their lessons. In their classes, kids will learn concepts by being asked to solve real-world problems. Unlearning isn't about the subject itself, it is about the certain skills being exercised in each class to help students be successful beyond college.
Jayne: The role of identity in this process cannot be underexamined. We are in a culture where teachers are established as the authority figure, the disciplinarian, the leader, the content expert, and the grader in the classroom. These roles or identities are often incongruous with the identities required for successful unlearning. I’ve found it useful to consciously examine which roles I’m playing when. I’ve found success in establishing an environment where students are self-regulating and leading the discussions, the explorations, and the content conclusions. Giving up control feels really scary—but the rewards are well worth it.