Learning, unlearning and relearning

We all value learning. And much of what we have learnt can be difficult to unlearn. Usually that's a good thing. But there are times when unlearning just has to be done. Sometimes it's impossible to learn new things if you don't unlearn some of the old stuff you are hanging on to. At the extreme end, a lot of irrational beliefs and prejudices are based on what we have learnt and find we now cannot relinquish. It's a principle a number of clinical interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy are based upon. Phobias and other psychological challenges have their genesis in the act of learning a response to a given situation and then being incapable of unlearning that response.

Times are changing. Kathy Sierra features a timeline on her blog which suggests that the 1970s and 80s were about how well we could learn, the 1990s and 2000s focused on how fast and how much we could learn, whilst today's education should be based on how much we can unlearn. And, she says, learning to let go of old and out of date rules is one of the skills we all need to develop. Futurologist Jack Uldrich is applying the same principle to the medical profession, arguing that the key to unlearning is to come to the realisation that 'we are all in a fog', and can't clearly see the future. Unlearning will be a strategy for coping with rapid change and uncertainties, he argues. Philosopher Trevor Pateman sees a barrier that often stops unlearning from occurring. We are living in an acquisitive society, he says, where learning theorists talk about acquisition and retention of knowledge, but they never refer to giving away or expulsion. But unlearning is not simply about forgetting something, he continues, sometimes it is about rejecting a previously held belief, or repudiating a long revered theory. This often feels counter intuitive for educators, and can pose a threat to many learners.

Our current school systems are designed around learning as the acquisition of knowledge. The challenge is to try to turn this around so that students have the opportunity not just to learn new things, but also the challenge to unlearn and then relearn. What would it take for schools to begin structuring unlearning and relearning activities into their curricula? Often it is the task of the skilled educator to deconstruct, confront and challenge so that unlearning and then relearning can be facilitated. The Towers of Hanoi puzzle is a classic example of this kind of creative destruction. I often use it during workshops to demonstrate the idea of unlearning and relearning. You need to constantly dismantle what you have built in order to successfully solve the puzzle. This construction metaphor is quite helpful. An unsafe building is a danger to the public, and must be demolished before a newer, more functional and safe building can be constructed in its place. It is the same with theories and beliefs that are past their sell by date. I hope I made this clear in my blog post A convenient untruth. Sometimes we really do need to knock things down before we can build them up again.

Image by Nualabugeye

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Learning, unlearning and relearning by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Anonymous said…
Interesting. Can't help but think as to how teachers themselves must be able to learn/unlearn in terms of ever-evolving pedagogy and in light of their role with students in a changing society and times. This is something Faculties of Education (well, most of them) should focus more in teacher-training. You do not 'arrive' as a teacher-for-life when leaving the Faculty and landing your 1st job as a teacher; you are just at the beginning of a journey.
Teachers as learners (and unlearners).
Anonymous said…
It reminds me a quote from G. Bachelard "The characteristic of scientific progress is our knowing that we did not know."
Thank you for the post
Simon Ensor said…
I am not convinced that our schools are designed around the learners' acquisition of knowledge any more than our banks our designed around the investors acquisition of interest.
Unknown said…
Steve - so funny. It was only a few hours ago that I wrote:

There are times in our lives when unLEARNing just has to ‘happen’.

Sometimes it's impossible to LEARN ‘new stuff’ if you don't unLEARN some of the ‘old stuff’ that is taking up valuable space in the old grey matter!

What do YOU need to unLEARN?

- for a group of my "trainee teacher trainers" ;-)

There are no co-incidences ;-)

Keep up the great work - love what you are doing ;-)

Steve Wheeler said…
@zecool I agree, the seismic shift has to start somewhere, and where better than the teacher training grounds? I'm game for it, even though unlearning can be painful. How many other teacher trainers are with me?
Steve Wheeler said…
@Unknown: Agreed, there is no such thing as co-incidence. Either we have both tapped into the 'zeitgeist' or Jung's archetype exists. Go figure :)
I probably have more to unlearn than learn right now. Technology is fast changing what I think I know about best practices. Good post!
Many thanks for making the truthful effort to explain this. I feel very strong about it and would like to read more. If you can, as you find out more in depth knowledge, would you mind posting more posts similar to this one with more information.
Jack said…

Ask most people over the age of 45 what two colors the Yield Sign are and they'll say "Yellow and Black."

The signs have been red and white since 1971!

People have a hard time letting go of old, obsolete information.

Jack Uldrich

P.S. Thanks for the plug.
Poetic Lyric said…
Thank you for sharing this.
Knowing that we don't know is all we need to know.
I love Freire and always quote him in my work.
daja said…
Good post Steve. I have been working on the same ideas in the context of teaching Science to secondary school pupils.

Clifton said…
Stumbled upon your article while doing my Interdisciplinary Research assignment. Researchers the world over should embrace the learning theory in changing their paradigmatic views of solving global problems by acknowledging that today's problems, are now much more complex and more than ever needs a coordinated approach from all disciplines. What better approach than unlearning the way we currently do things and then relearn a new paradigm that embrace and recognize efforts being done by other disciplines around us.

Good post Steve.
Terry said…
Zygmunt Bauman's writings on education in the conditions of what he calls 'liquid modernity' have consistently emphasised the importance of 'unlearning' and forgetting. He sees this as symptomatic of a more general experience of living in a continuous state of uncertainty where identities have to be serially reinvented and various estimates of the number of employers and shifts in career a new graduate will have over their life times vary between 11 and 29. I've seen higher estimates! From a knowledge point of view unlearning was something that happens when a Kuhnian paradigm shift occurs. The cycle of such 'revolutionary' episodes seems to be getting shorter and shorter in some areas and disciplines. If so the exceptional becomes almost normal and coping with and adapting to permanent revolution will become an increasingly important learning skill. For teachers and students - all in the same boat.
Good post. I've struggled for coding for some... years, until I found simple thing:
I have to forget "I can not do it". I have to rephrase it into: "I'm note very good it at this moment,
but time has showed to me I'm able to learn". Quite NLP.
Mariano Gutierrez Alarcon said…
thanks for the post, it explais simply something very complex.
there is one question? there is such a thing such unlearning? or it is more I learnt to do it in a different way? either bettr, correct, etc.
as i saw in the thred of comments, this differenciation can lead to two very different qualitative implications.

while one can lead to forgetfulness as a healthy tool for progress "niestzche" idea of the usefulness of the human ability to forget things, the other goes for the counciosusness path where memory is key for understanding, and identity at the center of change.

in my opinion, technology only posit a change of rythm to this equation which challenge the scientific idea of paradigm changes and when and how these changes happen.
Steve Wheeler said…
Great question Mariano. A rose by any other name, as Shakespeare once wrote, is just as sweet. Unlearning can be called learning to do something in a different way, sure. Yet I think there is more to it than that. Sometimes you can't learn something new without unlearning something else first. We pick up bad habits and attitudes very easy.

Here's an example: If I am prejudiced against a particular type of person or their beliefs (say religion or faith), my mind will be closed to them. I will not want to make friends. I would then need to unlearn my prejudice before I learnt to get on with that person.
Kim Flintoff said…

I am curious about this "unlearning" process - what are the steps involved in "unlearning" something? My current perspective suggests that learning is like seeing - I cannot "unsee" something I've seen... what I can do is be aware of where I direct my gaze after seeing something...

Can I unlearn a physical skill? Do I actually deconstruct it and dismantle the neural pathways and muscle patterning that I've developed, or do I learn a new way to do something and build more dominant neural connections? Do I unlearn that I once held that prejudice you mention? Does "unlearning" apply to all domains - psycho-motor, cognitive and affective? I find it a useful metaphor because it asks us to become critically aware of a particular way of seeing... as a mechanism for action however it seems hollow...
Steve Wheeler said…
There is plenty of evidence that we can 'unlearn' things, particularly in fields such as cognitive behavioural therapy. It's not a re wiring of the brain to lose neural pathways, but rather the addition of stronger, alternative ones that bypass and ultimately replace the previous ones. You're right that we cannot unsee, but we can resee and adjust our thought processes, attitudes, and ultimately our behaviours.
Thomas Anderson said…
I do truly agree with you. Meanwhile i would like to summarize that it is really very important for a one to Unlearn the harmful stuff and forget the memories which does nothing but hurts.

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