Cognitive Enablers, Higher Education, Learning Styles, Teaching Methods

The Challenge of Unlearning

Unlearning has been championed as one of the most important skills to be cultivated for success in the next century – a viewpoint for which I am willing to defend to the very end. Actually, it has been one of the most important skills for any movement in our society. The enlightenment itself was based on unlearning. There is nothing new about unlearning – except that recently it has become extremely unfashionable.

Unlearning or self-correction is a higher order thinking skill that is one of the components of critical thinking. The ability to self-correct in light of evidence is elusive and challenging to incorporate into our thinking. Self-correction suggests that you were wrong. Generally, a very uncomfortable feeling.

A student really begins to learn the skill of unlearning as they become more specialized in their field of study. Usually, this occurs as they Master a subject area before looking for a piece of new information to add to the corpus of a knowledge domain and earn a Ph.D.

It didn’t used to be this way, but it has become so in the last half-century or longer. Students enroll in university to learn – at least they did before the qualification became the only thing that matters. If they do come with the attitude of learning, that means that they want to know more about something or become skilled in some area of work. The concept of unlearning or self-correction has been lost because there is so much new stuff that students must know before they can be considered properly qualified in an area.

How does this work? If you have a naïve learner, they come as a tabula rasa – as it were – to a new field of knowledge. Because they come in the attitude of naivety wanting to learn what the field really is, everything that they come with is considered useless baggage to be discarded as they learn. There is no shame in a new student to find out that their initial layman’s understanding of something was wrong. What they are really doing is learning something for the first time.

As long as they are learning something new, there is no self-correction to be done. Self-correction is necessary when something that has been learned and is an embedded part of an individual’s knowledge corpus is challenged with some new evidence. To carefully weigh the evidence in an unbiased manner with a willingness or intent to change thinking or actions, is something that we find very uncomfortable and difficult to do. In fact, usually, individuals will become defensive of their own understanding and can become aggressive in defending their knowledge (or opinion) in light of evidence to the contrary.

The time to learn the skill of self-correction is when an individual is in the thinking mode of learning. When someone is open to learning he or she can also learn how to weigh up new evidence that challenges his or her embedded thinking and fosters an atmosphere where it is okay to be wrong, but it is also appropriate to try to defend an embedded understanding with new, or other evidence. What is important is that the person must be willing to make their decision based on evidence, carefully weighed and considered. We learn this as our education progresses to the point where we can, with some degree of expertise, have embedded knowledge that can be and is challenged by someone else with considered expertise in the same area. At that point, reasonably good intellectual or academic arguments can take place following the rules of higher-order logic, and the weight of evidence informs the contenders.

So, why is this such a rare quality or skill in today’s world? It is because of content. As long as a person is learning something new, there is no unlearning. With the explosion of content in any area, the purpose of higher education has become to make certain that students know all the content or skills necessary to do a job. Even academic disagreements in a field are simply learned as new content. The bias of the teacher informs the learner of the “right” answer that will please the teacher when the student is assessed. Controversies in a field are just another thing that must be learned.

Teachers tell me that this is not the case because, in many senior undergraduate classes, students are assigned papers to consider and discuss. Often the papers present two sides of an academic argument, but in the end, the students know that they are going to be assessed on the material and will have to come up with a “right” answer, even if the right answer is that there is some disagreement in the area.

Because everything learned in a regular higher education degree is new, there is no need to self-correct or unlearn. As a result, very few students graduate from higher education ever having to gain the skill of self-correction. In addition, they enter a world of entrenched knowledge that demands that everyone pick a side and become a champion for the cause, even if it is the correct lightness (or, if you’re really stupid, the darkness) setting on the photocopier.

Those who do go on to gain the skill of self-correction do so in a highly specialized area of knowledge. And, because of the never-ending transference problem, the skill of self-correction or unlearning is ring-fenced by the subject domain in which the skill is learned.

This will be, is, and always has been one of the most valuable skills a person can acquire. It can be taught – during a higher education degree, as it takes the ability to grapple with abstract concepts for which the cognitive development isn’t really there until late teens and early adulthood. In fact, teaching it isn’t that hard and can be very enjoyable for all concerned. However, it will not likely become a part of any curriculum design for the very reason outlined above. Those who make the decisions in higher education have well-entrenched points of view and are unwilling, or incapable of, considering anything else, in spite of any evidence that might appear to the contrary.

So, if you have any kind of opinion about unlearning or self-correction, make sure you pick your side, dig yourself in, and fight tooth and nail in order to defend and champion your cause. After all, if nothing else, education has taught us to conform, especially to the embedded viewpoint that you hold with your in-group.

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