I came across the term unlearning and felt curious about its meaning. Especially because in Academia, where I work, everything has been about learning new things, learning to learn and learning through problems like in problem based-learning (PBL). Learning by constructing knowledge and not by mere knowledge transfer. Therefore, I wanted to know why we need to unlearn things after putting so much effort and taking so much pride? After all, when we know a lot of things for a long time we can call ourselves experts, right?
However, unlearning turned out to be an old concept with several definitions. It was formally defined as the ability to discard obsolete knowledge (1), as the process of reducing or eliminating preexisting knowledge or habits that would otherwise represent formidable barriers to new learning” (2) and the discovering of the inadequacies of old ideas to discard them (3).
Unlearning, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is defined as “ to make an effort to forget your usual way of doing something so that you can learn a new and sometimes better way” whereas Mark Bonchek put it this way: “Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one”
It seems that unlearning is also about breaking dogmas or shifting paradigms.
For example, like when the central dogma of genetics stating that the flow of genetic information goes from DNA to RNA to proteins was broken with the discovery of non-coding RNAs that never translated into proteins or the double nature of light as a particle (photon) and as an electromagnetic wave was discovered. Also when the gravity law explained by Newton was refuted by Einstein and now again the scientist might find that Einstein’s theory has its limitations inside the black holes
It seems that when we unlearn, we might need to look at old things with new eyes, from a different perspective like children giving a piece of lego thousands of different applications.
So unlearning may be very important to quickly reevaluate our facts, like when assembling a puzzle or perceiving the upper part of an iceberg. Is having the notion that everything we know can be provisional until new facts come to light and make us change our insights (4)
Unlearning things might be good to find better and more rewarding, innovative solutions, to improve our lives, to feel happier, to find a better job, to make better decisions in life.
Yet we refuse to unlearn because leaving our comfort zone, the place where we have been for a long time, the routine work that we can do with close eyes, the easy and quick and effortless, can cause frustration and stress.
Deviating from habit and security is not easy. It demands more attention and more energy to do things in unusual ways. It makes us less efficient at what we were doing. It can be disorientating if we change professional roles, duties, and are forced to make reforms. We fear the unknown and in many cases feel a sort of reform fatigue (5) when things are changing a lot and fast. Like with the Corona situation that makes people confused and tired.
Also because many times we don’t know how to unlearn things, we are only told that to obtain a better job or receive money from a prestigious grant office we need to stand out, think outside the box but no one tells us how to do that.
We went to school and collected facts, some we have revised now but some not, we may have learned how to learn but never learned how to unlearn. We found a job that we did well until we realize that the old knowledge we took for granted was incomplete in the light of the rapid changes taking place in society.
Paradoxically enough school didn’t prepare us for that, didn’t prepare us to cope with how we were going to unlearn about the reality or ourselves in order to make us suitable for what is happening now with the pandemia or the climate issues. No academic program include yet all literacies that we need in order to acquire the 21st century skills
-Daring to argument, to provoke without being conflictive
-Dealing with the unknown and uncomfortable?
-Non violent communication and netiquette
-Critical and divergent thinking
-Adaptation to rapid changing circumstances?
-Anticipation of future problems
And of course unlearning things
Some good ways to unlearn things are by observing and learning facts from unknown areas and trying to apply them to known areas. For example Biomimicry where clever designs have been produced borrowing adaptations from plants and animals. By confronting and debating our beliefs with other people with different backgrounds and experiences we might see things differently. By problem solving and experimenting like in the NuVu schools and especially trying from an early age.
However, the dark side of unlearning is of course that the one deviating from a norm may need this “high tolerance for feeling inadequate, embarrassed, or humiliated; and to face a potential loss of status and credibility” (5). However, the thing with unlearning is that sometimes it hurts to get away from old ideas, habits. For a period of time we might feel disoriented, frustrated, lost. Like the ones trying to lose weight while building muscles. The weight indicates no difference in weight if not an increment no matter how food deprived they have been. Just for a while. The body needs to unlearn. With this notion in mind everything will feel better.
Finally, this blogpost helped me to start thinking about how I might commence my unlearning journey. I asked my family if we could un-celebrate Xmas. I asked my husband to prepare Jansson’s temptation without fish inside and asked my daughter to make other kinds of saffron bunnies with chocolate but they thought these ideas were too risky, too strange. I guess this will take time and some more blogging 🙂
Happy Xmas no matter if in a conventional or un-conventional way
1-Hedberg, B. (1981). How organizations Learn and Unlearn. In P. Nystrom & W.H. Starbuck (Eds,) Handbook of Organizational Design (Vol1.) London: Cambridge University Press.
2-Newstrom, J.W. (1983) The Management of Unlearning: Exploding the “Clean Slate” Fallacy. Training and Development Journal, 37(8), 36-39.
3-Nystrom, P.C. & Starbuck, W.H. (1984) To Avoid Organizational Crises, Unlearn.
Organizational Dynamics, 12(4) 53-65.
4-R Rushmer, H T O Davies. Unlearning in Health Care, Qual Saf Health Care 2004;13(Suppl II):ii10–ii15. doi: 10.1136/qshc.2003.009506