“The illiterate of the future are not those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffler
Learning something, if you’re actually interested in it, is pretty much always something enjoyable. Learning some things takes longer than others (though not to confuse learning with mastery, which can take a lifetime), but we do learn something every day.
Unlearning, however, is something quite different. You might be forgiven for thinking it means knowledge just disappearing from your memory, like the way your University degree in German is reduced to you frantically gesturing at a sandwich in Hamburg just 10 years later and hoping they understand that you want to buy it.
It’s not that. Unlearning is challenging and deconstructing things that are embedded in your way of thinking, acting and reacting. There are a lot of metaphors for unlearning. Chipping away at the old paint before you put on a fresh coat. Clearing away the vegetation before planting something new.
They all point to the same thing; the previous ideas, beliefs, assumptions, etc, must be completely removed for the new one to flourish. They cannot overlap, just as one must eradicate all of the old roots before planting new flowers.
They talk about unlearning in psychology in terms of letting go of unhelpful beliefs and negative behaviours. The neuro educators might call it rewiring, but everyone can at least agree that it takes time, and sometimes needs to go several layers deep. Some beliefs and attitudes we wear lightly and they are easily changed. Some things have become mantras, reinforced by everything we see and hear.
Teachers go through an unlearning process when they enter a new learning environment outside the mainstream model. Chris Dede, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education tells us that:
“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 [...] learning”
There are things that we have just accepted as “fact”, and they have simply become part of the furniture. The teacher delivers the knowledge, and the learners “study” or “listen”. Tests equate to competence and everyone can be measured on the same scale, so that the grade tells you how good you are. You know what? The fun part comes when you decide that maybe that old chair just doesn’t fit any more.
That furniture thing is perhaps one metaphor too many, but we like it. The chair disappears and there’s a space! What can go in its place? Suddenly there is more awareness that everything in the room can be moved or discarded and replaced. That is when creativity sparks, critical thinking sharpens, and enquiry becomes standard practice. If you come to visit our Learning Hub in Barcelona, take a look at how the furniture moves, and you will see what we mean.
A learner goes through the same unlearning process when they step out of a typical classroom environment into a learning environment in which they are at the centre. The onboarding process can take longer for some than others, depending on the previous learning environment, but there is no mistaking the curiosity of what might be possible in this new place.
Learners get the chance to explore and interact in different ways, choose what they do and discover what interests them, and when the mind cannot rely on its existing patterns for prediction, it really switches on.
Unlearning can be a real shift and can change a person’s perspective entirely. Someone who grew up on the mantra of breakfast is the most important meal of the day learns about intermittent fasting, and suddenly they question absolutely everything about the habits they have developed around eating.
It doesn’t stop there, however, and that is why the Toffler quote at the start is so apt. We learn, unlearn and then relearn. It is a cycle, and that is so important in a world that is changing and developing at breakneck speed.
That world needs people that can question things, wear opinions lightly, be open to change, and be prepared to detach themselves from ideas and behaviours if the prevailing winds of evidence and enquiry turn against them. Or maybe behaviours get thrown out because they just don’t fit who we are at that point in our lives.
Fluidity is adaptability, and we don’t need Darwin to confirm that thriving comes more easily to those who can change.
The best part? It is joyous. Learning something for the first time is one thing, but testing an existing bit of knowledge or behaviour is truly enriching. We pay more attention to the process, because we are truly present for all of it. This is growth; truly.
Dismantling something that felt like part of you will inevitably help you to think more deeply about who you actually are, what you want, how you think, and how you learn. Eckhart Tolle tells us that when two opinions are arguing in our mind, we are neither of them. We are the listener in the space between them.
These are learning insights that will serve you well beyond your formative years… now that we think about it, “formative years” is a silly expression when we learn and grow all the time. You see? We are always learning, unlearning and relearning, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.