The Secret to Learning is Unlearning

[ Note: I was thrilled to be asked by Michael & David to contribute some thoughts to their great Library 101 project. Here's a copy of what I wrote.]

“The illiterate of the future are not those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and re-learn.” – Alvin Toffler

Unlearning is a concept that really seems to be underrated. But within the context of knowledge building and learning capacity, I’ve come to recognize that it’s a foundational skill that shouldn’t be ignored. In order to learn new things, you have to be open to new ideas. And in order to be open to new ideas, you have to be willing to challenge your own fixed thinking and natural biases.

Everyone has a natural learning aptitude. Some people refer to this as human nature. Place a block or a 3d object in front of an infant, and they will naturally pick it up, explore its surface, and then more often than not engage in further sensory discovery by sticking it in their mouth. But as we grow older our educational encounters tend to move away from open and unstructured discovery exploration towards more knowledge building activities that are centered around the creation of human habits (examples: formal and rote learning).

Rote learning techniques are good for mastering multiplication tables or for memorizing state capitals. Formal learning best supports knowledge transfer between teachers and students. But when it comes to keeping up with technology and new emerging information channels, human habits will only you take so far. In order to keep up with today’s constant and rapid changes, you need to be able to quickly learn new skills, techniques and approaches by being able to adapt, challenge and even unlearn some of the natural learning biases have become your own human nature.

Here are a few unlearning tips and techniques to help open your mind and get you started:

Seek out the unfamiliar - Our natural tendency when confronted with a new technology or learning opportunity is to seek the familiar and build upon concepts that we already know. This is a good step for transitioning to new technologies, but it can also be limiting if this is only as far as you go. With every new breakthrough technology there is often a new concept or functionality to wrap your head around. To grasp learning in these areas, you need to consciously seek out the unfamiliar in order to explore and discover new things.

For me this tip is actually very timely, as I have just this week received an invite to preview Google Wave. After playing with it for a day or two, I noticed that all I had done was use the new online communication application as a traditional text-based email client and that I was missing out on learning about its other features. It was only when I chose to consciously explore links and other features that I discovered I could insert videos, chat and embed shared applications (called extensions) that can enable real-time collaboration.

Change your learning location – There’s nothing like changing your physical environment to help heighten your senses when you’re learning something new. Like traveling to a foreign country, new surroundings can help you take notice of small things that might otherwise go unnoticed because they blend into the familiar of your conscious.

There is, of course, a flip side to this tip — unfamiliar environments can also sometimes create attention distractions. Therefore, in seeking out new locations to help you open up to new learning possibilities (and unlearn old habits), it’s important to make sure the environment that you select is physically comfortable, but psychologically unfamiliar.

Engage in learning with professional opposites
- Your educational and professional training can also predispose and limit your ability to see things from fresh perspective. Whenever possible, it’s helpful to engage in learning experiences with professionals from different backgrounds (marketing, architecture, hospitality, etc.) and especially those that you might consider your polar opposites (for librarians that specialize in selecting and finding quality information, one polar opposite might be marketing, whose specialization is creating emotional attachments to brands). When you expose yourself to other avenues of professional thinking, you open up an unlearning channel to discover something new.

Pair your learning with a child
– There’s often no better way to open up yourself to learning techniques then to pair yourself with a child. Not only is their perspective much different when it comes to technology, the way they are being taught to learn through today’s education system is much, much different from the educational philosophy of twenty or thirty years ago.

When I was a child the three R’s stood for reading, writing, and arithmetic. But today in many educational systems, the tenets of the new 3 R’s are rigor (provide challenging learning experiences in their classrooms) relevance (how learning applies to real life), and relationships (building learning connections with and for students). There’s a lot to be learned from these new techniques and areas of emphasis and children can be natural teachers and modelers. Pairing up with a child (or any member of a younger generation) is great way to not only discover new approaches to learning and rethink practices from your educational past, but a wonderful way to discover those obvious/not-so-obvious questions that adults can overlook

Act like a toddler: get deeply curious
– My last tip for creating a your own personal arsenal of unlearning techniques is to try and go back to your first learning experiences and explore new things as a young child would do. Try and engage as many of your five senses that you can in your learning and constantly investigate things through trial and error. In essence, simply get back to the pure roots of curiosity and “play.” Curiosity is a natural aptitude that we all are born with. But it can also be a trait that that diminishes with education and age. To keep yourself open new ideas and unlearn the knowledge road blocks that might be keeping you from being immensely inquisitive, try imagining learning like a toddler and get deeply curious.

Overall the concept of unlearning is to simply and continuously to challenge yourself to think and learn about things from different perspectives and different angles. And in a world where new technological advances have us moving at lightening speed, it’s our unlearning skills, more often then our learning ones, that can give us the greatest competitive advantage.


richard provance said...

Teachers know how to present material, stress note taking, enforce discipline, and glean adequate students from each class leaving those remaining with a bleak future. We can improve traditional teaching methods. The Learning Booth, a study and learning aid, works like an isolation tank. It eliminates outside stimuli and speeds up learning, improving the student's concentration and retention. As society enters the twenty first century, we need accelerated learning aids like The Learning Booth so all of our young people can compete in the world market.
Richard Provance,

writing assignment said...

One sure-fire way to become a more effective learner is to simply keep learning.Focus on learning in more than one way. Instead of just listening to a podcast, which involves auditory learning, find a way to rehearse the information both verbally and visually. This might involve describing what you learned to a friend, taking notes or drawing a mind map. By learning in more than one way, you’re further cementing the knowledge in your mind.