Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Emptying Your Cup: Unlearning to Learn

We are constantly learning. We should also be constantly unlearning. Unlearning is as important to learning (if not more) than the process of learning itself. According to the dictionary, unlearning is a transitive verb that means to put out of one's knowledge or memory OR to undo the effect of or discard the habit of.
In the cognitive scheme of things, to me, learning and unlearning are two sides of the same coin. We can never learn without first unlearning what we know (or believe). Let's take a simple example of riding a bike. When learning to bike, we first need to learn about the handle bar, the pedals, the speed, the balance and how to review the road conditions. But if we focus on only one of these elements and continue to learn and pay attention and energy to only one, we cannot learn how to ride the bike. We need to defocus from the individual elements, learn and then unlearn to master how to ride a bike. Here's an interesting story by Prasad Kaipa that explains this learning and unlearning process.
One may ask, what is the importance of unlearning. I have found, experienced and learnt that what we already know or believe to be true often acts as a barrier to learn new things.
A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!" 
"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?" 

Unlearning is this emptying of our cup. It is more difficult and uncomfortable than learning because we have to let go of knowledge that has served us well. In today's rapidly changing environment, our success depends not on how quickly we learn but on how quickly we unlearn. 

This beautiful paragraph from 
Trevor Pateman's paper titled 'Lifelong Unlearning' says it all: "In our cognitive lives our memories - what we know - is often an obstacle to engaging with the world around us. It is a commonplace that what we see is often influenced by what we think there is to see, and if that is true, then that might be taken as an argument for thinking less and with less conviction. We should carry our knowledge lightly, and always be ready to let go of it."

As instructional designers and learning consultants, there is so much to unlearn. As a first step, we need to unlearn:

  • the way we think about learning 
  • our approach to design learning
  • the methodologies and theories of learning
  • the knowledge that we have collected about the limitations of our audience, content, technology and learning process

Every thing unlearned brings about more learning. Just like continuous and lifelong learning, our process to unlearn should also be for life. We have to let go of the rules and boundaries in our mind and free ourselves from all mental limitations before we can begin to admire the many possibilities of life.
Watch this powerful and inspiring TEDx video by Jack Uldrich on Unlearning Possibilities:

Follow Jack's website
Follow Jack on twitter @ChiefUnlearner

To attain knowledge, add things everyday. 
To attain wisdom, subtract things everyday. Lao Tsu