Project Makeover - Rebranding Unlearning
As I starting thinking about this week’s question about unlearning, one of the first things I did was look up the common definition of the word “unlearn.” According to Merriam-Webster it means “to be unable to recall or think of.” Hmm, this doesn’t sound like the concept we are talking about in the MOOC. Unlearning is supposed to be a good thing. Toffler says it is a key 21st century literacy. So I headed over to the OED and there I found ” To discard from knowledge or memory; to give up knowledge of (something).” Again, the language is so negative. How could discarding knowledge be a good thing. I think I’m starting to see why unlearning may not have been embraced on a wider scale. It needs a makeover, some rebranding.
The process that we are exploring does require us to let go of old thinking. To re-examine it. This is different from forgetting or giving up knowledge, however. In my experience it is often about giving up control. In the past we learned that knowledge was power, something to be gathered and coveted. Then along came the Internet and the amount of information available exploded and it became more important to know how to find the information than to know the information and it became vital to learn who knew or knew how to find out.
Part of letting go of control is letting go of the notion of being an expert in the old-fashioned sense of the word. We need to remain open, questioning, and curious and embrace collaboration. We need to be in a continuous state of learning. We need to embrace the beginner’s mind. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” The complexity of the 21st century requires us to remain agile and adaptable which is only possible if we are constantly learning.
I was working as a technical trainer during much of the transition of the 20th century to the 21st. The number of computer applications that we used in the firm I was working for was about four when I started training people. It was fairly easy to become rather masterful in each one and giving people basic job aids with checklists and reminders sufficed for most instances after conducting classroom training. But today, at that same firm, many of the people I once trained are no longer there because technology made their positions obsolete and others have seen the nature of their positions change so significantly as to be barely recognizable as the same position.
It became impossible for anyone to become expert in all of the dozens of applications that now intertwine and are part of the daily operations of the firm. It also became impossible to restrict training to the classroom. It was a great adjustment for me when I went from being a “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” I had to learn a completely new skill set for the job I had had for years and transform what it meant for me to be a trainer. I had no road map. I had no one to train the trainer. What I did have was curiosity and an ability to learn on my own.
And I had the freedom to fail. I wasn’t a great online facilitator right out of the gate. Failure gave me feedback to do better. Do things differently and adjust course. I was constantly reflecting and learning. I read everything I could get my hands on. I tried to find out how others had made the transition. I let go of the idea that I could be the main expert in all of the subject matter in the courses I was running. I had to help the learners adapt to this as well. They wanted me to be the expert and just tell them the answer but I stayed on my new path. Now I have started working with others to learn how to learn in the 21st century and how to develop their own personal learning networks.
So returning to Toffler I would suggest that the word unlearning is off-putting. Learning is an additive experience, a process, a journey. It is a path that continually forks and offers different options and suggests new questions if we are prepared to move forward. While it is a matter of semantics and unlearning really just means to reconsider and try things differently, words matter and I think the term unlearning is going to have a rough go of it.
I am still considering how the wording could be better, how unlearning could be rebranded to gain wider acceptance. So far the best I have come up with is to rewrite the end of Toffler’s quote and change “learn, unlearn and relearn” to “learn, remain curious, and continue to learn.”