We all know the importance of learning. Particularly in the education space where we work, continuous growth and learning is vitally important. This is not only seen as beneficial for the knowledge gained, but also for the skill of being able to evolve and adapt in an environment that is always changing.
What we don’t hear enough about is the importance of unlearning in the learning process. Because the ability to adapt and grow is reliant on the ability to unlearn and relearn.
What is unlearning?
So what is unlearning? To quote Bo Hedberg: “Knowledge grows, and simultaneously it becomes obsolete as reality changes. Understanding involves both learning new knowledge and discarding obsolete and misleading knowledge. The discarding activity–unlearning–is as important a part of understanding as is adding new knowledge.”
Unlearning is not about forgetting. It is identifying the models in our mind that are no longer relevant, or that no longer serve us, and choosing a different model to follow. It is a conscious act of letting go of outdated information to make way for new ways of thinking.
What do we need to unlearn?
Sounds easy, right? And obvious too. Of course we don’t want to hold on to outdated or obsolete knowledge. And we’re learning new things all the time to stay up to date.
But here is the catch – learning is much easier than unlearning.
It was so hard for people to ‘unlearn’ that the earth was flat, but they needed to do that to accept that the earth was round. It was challenging for society to ‘unlearn’ that women were incapable of taking leadership roles, or even of working at all! But this was one of the important assumptions to unlearn in order to realise the benefits of diversity and equality in the workplace.
Established thought patterns and accepted ways of doing things are hard habits to break. Especially once you have experienced success as a result of operating in a particular way, it can be really hard to let go.
But an inability to unlearn what made you successful once it no longer serves you is what can prevent you from being successful in the future.
Particularly when our environment is constantly changing around us in terms of technologies, work practices, relationships, communications, community expectations and even learning itself. We are forced constantly to adapt to new ideas out of necessity. For many people though, this learning is reactive. How many people would have explored new ways of working without the recent lockdowns that forced the hands of many organisations? How many people ask for feedback to improve their skills unless they experience what they consider a complete failure? How many people change the way they network and communicate unless they’re forced to try something different?
And when we’re making these changes, how many of us really consider the best model or approach for NOW? As opposed to adapting from the old only as much as we need to in order to get by? Without a conscious focus, we will find it hard to let go of the old or fail to identify when it is holding us back.
Why should we actively unlearn?
The way we believe we should be operating often comes from ingrained assumptions that have likely been successful in the past but may not continue to be in the future. That is why it’s so important to embrace the principle of unlearning. And not just when our hand is forced, but as a critical element to our learning and growth.
The futurist Alvin Toffler stated that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Unlearning will become an increasingly important skill to have in your kitbag to help you adapt and succeed.
Unlearning also opens possibilities. You will undoubtedly have thought patterns which are holding you back from making progress, even if they have helped you in the past. How beneficial if you can identify those, let go and replace them with knowledge that serves you now!
How can we unlearn?
As we have already discussed, taking on new is much easier than letting go of knowledge already attained. So how can we embrace this concept of unlearning?
As stated by Dr Margie Warrell, “Unlearning and relearning is not means to an end. It’s an end in itself. As such, the key to unlearning doesn’t lie in the teacher. It lies in the student. In you. In your openness to being challenged – to letting go what you think you know so you can relearn what you need to know”.
As we looked into this concept of unlearning, a few key behaviours stuck out as being important:
Curiosity is a key behaviour attributed to learning, but it is also important for unlearning. Confirmation bias, as defined by Britannica, is “the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.” Confirmation bias means we look for information that reinforces what we already thought. Therefore, when learning new things it can be easy to overlook information which challenges your world view and prioritise the knowledge that you were expecting to find.
Flip this on its head! Start seeking alternative viewpoints and ask questions. If your initial reaction is to ignore or dismiss, stop yourself and instead explore further. Investigate this view with an open mind, with an intent to understand rather than to dispute. You may learn that you need to unlearn.
“Having to be right becomes a barrier to unlearning and understanding.” As John Naisbett stated, we miss so many opportunities to grow when don’t think we have anything still to learn.
The fact is that no one is an expert at everything. We all know those people who think they are, and I’m sure you’ve observed objectively that there are facts or opinions that they are missing out on. Even if you’re not that person all the time, there will be areas where you can step into that space – we all can and all do sometimes.
Don’t assume you know it all. Don’t take it personally when your views are challenged. Listen, as though you have something to learn. You just might!
By this we don’t mean “be difficult”. Challenge all assumptions. Start to see assumptions as hypotheses or possibilities rather than truth. Play devil’s advocate for yourself, or ask the people around you to take on that role for you. Luke Skywalker made his breakthrough in the Jedi arts after Yoda counselled him “you must unlearn what you have learned.” Who is your Yoda?
We don’t transform our thinking or our behaviours by doing what we’ve always done. If you’re going to proactively build unlearning into your learning journey, you need to be able to step out of your comfort zone. As stated by Martin H. Fisher, “it is not hard to learn more. What is hard is to unlearn when you discover yourself wrong.”
Making mistakes and embracing the learnings and unlearnings that come from failure can be the most powerful ways to adapt and grow. So put yourself in uncomfortable positions, try new things, ask for feedback and challenge that can help you identify the patterns that are no longer serving you. Then you can seek the knowledge that will set you up for success.
“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day” – Lao Tzu.
The most important takeaway from all of this is that learning on its own isn’t going to get us where we need to go. We also need to embrace this concept of unlearning and actively look to bring both skills into our day to day.
We loved learning more about unlearning. If you’re interested in learning more, we found the following articles and presentations useful:
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