Learning to Unlearn

It is astounding to think that nearly every week there is an education conference happening somewhere covering all aspects of schooling. Many of these have become big business but regardless of size or popularity, most conferences aim to facilitate learning. We attend conferences to acquire new knowledge or skills with the intent of learning and improving our work.

Learning is at  core to the teaching profession – we strive to create (school) cultures and (teaching) practices that encourage rigorous thinking and life-long learning.  We’re all about the learning but what about the unlearning?

Twenty five years ago Alvin Toffler claimed that the illiterate of the 21st century would not be those who can’t read and write but those who cannot ‘learn, unlearn and relearn’.  The Oxford dictionary states that to unlearn is to ‘discard something learned, especially a bad habit or false or outdated information from one’s memory. So the pressing question is how do we let go of the things that keep us rooted in ineffective and industrial practices and mindsets? Where are the conferences and courses that facilitate unlearning?  Can we call ourselves a literate profession if we are not in the business of learning, unlearning and relearning?

To be fair, the educational system we inherited was designed to promote compliance over critical thinking. There has never really been incentive or time to collectively challenge bad habits and outdated practices because of the efficiency of the current model.  The first step is to recognise that as a profession (and society) we need to unlearn what we know about schooling in order to relearn how to do schooling in a very different way.  It’s no longer about collective efficiency (of learning), it’s about collective efficacy (unlearning).  We need to remove the hierarchies that exist in schools and create agile networks where knowledge and skills are learned, unlearned and relearned.

I’m not alone in my thinking here.  In 2009, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership Limited (AITSL) published an article in its Teaching Australia newsletter titled ‘Unlearning in the 21st Century’. The article quoted Professor Erica Mc William who challenged the teaching profession to move beyond the best practice of the 20th century to envisioning ‘next’ practice for the 21st century.

While we could be waiting a while for the ‘unlearning’ courses and conferences, we have the opportunity to become innovative next practitioners today.



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