How to Unlearn

In the article I published yesterday, I outlined what unlearning entails and why it is so difficult to do. There is wide agreement that unlearning is a skill that is vitally necessary for success in the coming economic uncertainty for many workers and, I might add, for our society to survive the current impasse of extreme ideologies. We know, from a number of studies, that the number of people who can self-correct (unlearn) in the face of evidence is depressingly small. As well, because of the learning transference problem, even many of those with the highest and best education have difficulty with self-correction outside their own narrow area of specialty. So how do we foster the ability to self-correct in our own lives, and when I say our own lives, I mean the highly educated who know and understand what self-correction is within their own field of study?

Before we can begin to foster self-correction in our own lives we need to want to. We need to have the insight (basic metacognition) that allows us to see that this is a skill that we are lacking. We need to recognize that as highly educated professionals that we are likely to have the ability to self-correct within our specialty. What we are likely lacking is the ability to use the skill outside of our specialty. Not our fault – it is just the way we’re wired.

As an example, if you are a lecturer or professor, and dogmatically cling to the idea that lecturing is a great way to teach, inspire, and instill higher order thinking, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you might want to reconsider your views about your ability to self-correct.

Learning self-correction is best done with someone else or in a group. Traditional debating with the requirement to switch sides halfway through a debate is an excellent method to learn the skill of self-correction.

If you are thinking that this is great – have a debate with someone and you will have the skill of self-correction, you will need to reconsider. A debate will give you a taste of the difficulty you will face when you really weigh up the evidence in order to decide your beliefs. However, what you need to do is have a number of debates across a number of divergent areas. If you really engage in rigorous debates, you will find that the ability to use evidence that challenges your previous belief systems about your perception of reality and then change them will begin to work. It gets easier with time, but you do have to really want to gain the skill and work on it.

Easy to explain but difficult to really do it without real willpower.

In everyone’s lives, there will be topics or areas that you decide are off limits to debating and evidence. This is fine to do, as long as you are willing to admit to yourself and others that you have what you consider an irrational belief system that you are not willing to debate. It is okay to have irrational beliefs as long as you recognize that they are unlikely to stand up to any external scrutiny. This admission to yourself is another necessary part of the willingness to self-correct – unless you decide that everything that you believe in is off limits.

Probably one of the best examples of an irrational belief system would be religious beliefs. Under the scrutiny of rational thought and verifiable evidence, religious beliefs do not stand up. So, if you have religious beliefs, admit to yourself that you have an irrational belief system that you will not debate.

As long as your irrational belief system does not materially effect what you do and how you interact with others, irrational belief systems are fine. They become problematic when your beliefs that are beyond debate have consequences that will affect others. An example is an irrational belief in alternative and natural healing methods. If you are unwilling to have a rigorous debate about this, then admit that it is an irrational belief system that you choose to live with. However, when a young child dies of meningitis while being treated with garlic cloves and coconut oil, your belief system has had serious consequences on someone else (this recently happened locally).

We see the lack of the willingness to self-correct effecting many areas of our society today. Belief systems that can have serious consequences for others lie beyond self-correction for millions within our society. Anti-vaxers and climate change deniers are two of the most pervasive and have wide-ranging consequences for others who have nothing to do with an individual’s personal belief system. Irrational belief systems are usually highly emotive beliefs that are closely guarded by individuals.

With the ability to self-correct, or unlearn, we can admit that some of our beliefs are irrational and after considering their effects on others, if they are relatively harmless with no serious consequences, keeping them is both normal and acceptable.

You have to want to learn the skill of generalized self-correction that can cross the boundaries of contexts and subjects. If you want to, then do it.

In addition, really working at incorporating generalized self-correction in our own lives, brings with it the rest of the subset of skills that make up critical thinking: planning, cognitive flexibility, persistence, focused attention, and consensus-seeking. As a highly educated professional, you can probably see that you exercise this skill set with every problem that you face within your field. You might even have generalized some of these skills as a method of approaching problems in other areas of your lives. Putting them all together to deal with problems across contexts provides us with generalized critical thinking.

If you don’t want to learn the skill of self-correction, then remain a dogmatic individual who is rarely, if ever, wrong in your beliefs. You share this worldview with the vast majority of others and will feel more comfortable in life if you just simply dismiss views that do not align with yours.

I will continue to champion the cause of self-correction – along with the other higher learning skills that we pay lip service to but are not willing to do anything about in our teaching. Nothing more than show frustration with people who have the inability to think. We can teach these skills to our students, but we have to want to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.