What is Unlearning

Being willing to examine something before you know it, is a 21st-century skill.  

ROUNDTABLE INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Beaver Country Day School image.pngWhat we already know may be what prevents us from knowing more. In our current age of learning, and in our current era of smart everything — emerges a panel of leaders willing to examine practical ideas about learning. Peter Hutton is the Head of School at Beaver Country Day School, an independent school located in Chestnut Hill for grades 6-12. Beaver was among the very first schools to integrate coding into its core curriculum and presented on this curriculum at SXSWedu in past years. At a recent SxSWedu, his panel focused on ‘unlearning’ and how faculty and staff can implement it as a strategy to combat existing ways of thinking that may impede one’s problem-solving abilities. The school’s emphasis on unlearning is a continuation of their revolutionary teaching style.

Teachers typically assume that their primary role is to provide students with knowledge via presentation, that when asked a question they should provide an answer, and that students who score high on multiple choice tests have mastered the material. All of these assumptions are questionable in preparing students for life in a global, knowledge-based, innovation-centered civilization.

By understanding the effect old habits and previous experiences have on decision making, unlearning addresses a crucial difference between knowing and understanding—and allows for a deeper level of learning, by both teacher and student. Panelists consisted of Peter Hutton (Head of School, Beaver), Chris Dede (Harvard Graduate School of Education), Jayne Everson (Upper School Math, Beaver) and Marga Biller (Project Director, Harvard Learning Innovations Laboratory). In this EdTech Digest roundtable interview, these four educators share their thoughts.

What is ‘unlearning’?

CREDIT Chris Deded img unlearning.pngChris Dede: Professional development for transformative change is very challenging because participants not only must learn new skills, but also must “unlearn” almost unconscious beliefs, assumptions, practices, and values about the nature of teaching, learning, and schooling. For example, teachers typically assume that their primary role is to provide students with knowledge via presentation, that when asked a question they should provide an answer, and that students who score high on multiple choice tests have mastered the material. All of these assumptions are questionable in preparing students for life in a global, knowledge-based, innovation-centered civilization. 


UNLEARNING. Professional development for transformative change is very challenging because participants not only must learn new skills, but also must “unlearn” almost unconscious beliefs, assumptions, practices, and values about the nature of teaching, learning, and schooling.


Marga Biller: Unlearning is learning to think, behave, or perceive differently, when there are already beliefs, behaviors, or assumptions in place (that get in the way), at either the individual or the organizational level. It becomes important when individuals, groups, and whole organizations have to find ways to effectively support change, overwrite old habits, surface and supplant entrenched ways of thinking, and develop new ways of working together.

What are the challenges associated with unlearning? 

Chris: How important is emotional and social support for unlearning? In losing weight (which also involves changing deeply rooted behaviors), affective reinforcement is extremely important – and purely cognitive supports often fail. In effective tutoring, about half the prompts a mentor provides are encouragement rather than intellectual advice. For students being asked to tackle a new type of activity, self-efficacy and tenacity are vital attitudes, and these are built in part through emotional and social interventions. Parallel to these examples of comparable situations, substantial affective/communal support is vital to the success of professional development that requires unlearning.

CREDIT Marga Biller unlearn.pngMarga: We tackle unlearning in three contexts: mindsets, habits, and systems. Changing mindsets involves altering conceptions or mental models. Resistance to changing mindsets emerges as defensive patterns fortifying self-interest, personal identities, traditions, and long-standing assumptions. Changing habits involves shifting individual or group behaviors, once people have “signed on” to any new concepts involved. Resistance to changing habits arises in part from old cues in the environment that retrigger old behaviors, and is reinforced by stress and time pressure. Sometimes even with alterations in mindset and habit, not much really changes, because the larger system discourages the new ways of thinking and acting. Resistance to change arises in systems through policies, routines, organizational structures, and even shared values and identities that interlock to block unlearning and change.

How do students and teachers benefit from unlearning?

CREDIT Peter Hutton img unlearning.pngPeter Hutton: Students benefit from unlearning by developing a flexibility in mindset that’s critical in today’s world. This type of creative thinking is crucial to finding the best and most efficient solutions to the constantly changing world. Many industries are constantly trying to adapt to today’s changing world and developing an adaptive mindset will help students better transition into the real world after graduation. Standardized tests teach that there’s only one right answer, but in the real world, there is not only more than one right answer – there are also different ways of getting to that answer. With unlearning, students are encouraged to make mistakes because that’s part of the process of problem solving. If you got it right on the first try, then you probably didn’t get it right.

Jayne Everson: My identity as a teacher has transitioned. It is not good for me to be the expert all the time. I want students to realize they can figure out a solution to any question they have. Since the work is often emergent, meaning student curiosity is a driving force behind how we will cover a topic, I am often not sure where the line of inquiry will lead.  This means that I am always learning. It is a joyful experience. At first, it felt a little weird to not know all the answers to the questions students were asking. Now, I am much more comfortable not knowing an answer. I do know that we will work together to figure out a way to answer it. Students walk away with strategies and the ability to create and pursue their own knowledge. They are empowered and they walk away as creative problem solvers.

How can an educator prepare himself or herself to help their students understand and overcome an unlearning challenge?

Peter: It’s hard to lay out a simple road map to overcoming and understanding an unlearning challenge because there is no one way of doing it. Teachers will have a flexible and open-ended approach to their lessons. In their classes, kids will learn concepts by being asked to solve real world problems. Unlearning isn’t about the subject itself, it is about the certain skills being exercised in each class to help students be successful beyond college.

CREDIT Jayne Everson unlearning.jpgJayne: The role of identity in this process cannot be underexamined. We are in a culture where teachers are established as the authority figure, the disciplinarian, the leader, the content expert, and the grader in the classroom. These roles or identities are often incongruous with the identities required for successful unlearning.  I’ve found it useful to consciously examine which roles I’m playing when. I’ve found success in establishing an environment where students are self-regulating and leading the discussions, the explorations, and the content conclusions. Giving up control feels really scary—but the rewards are well worth it.

Are their any educational or business institutions that are currently using unlearning to tackle problems in unique new ways?

Peter: Unlearning is a tactic not only used in schools but also in workplaces. One of the primary resources Beaver Country Day School uses is the Learning Innovations Laboratory at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — particularly research by senior project manager Marga Biller. She has studied the use of unlearning in schools and in the private sector. Unlearning is about being a creative-thinker and finding new, innovative solutions to existing problems. Those are skills that any business could use right now at a time when many industries are rapidly changing.

Marga: Many change efforts in organizations fail because they focus on selling the new way without providing opportunities to unlearn. When a large company started to rely more and more on technology to drive its business analytics, it had to change the way IT thought about their role and provided services. These individuals had to think about how to drive strategy rather than respond to requests from users. This meant unlearning a habit that was entrenched deeply in the organization.

If the state of education is to truly change and favor the student, public schools need to be allowed the freedom to design curriculum that addresses the essential skills needed for the twenty-first century and design nuanced metrics to measure student success in those skills.

How does the concept and implementation of unlearning fit in with Beaver’s overall mission?

Peter: Beaver Country Day School has always been an innovator when it comes to education. Whether it’s leading the way in integrating coding into its core curriculum or implementing the New Basics to further emphasize collaboration and creative problem solving, Beaver is known for thinking outside the box. Our emphasis on unlearning is a continuation of our goal to prepare our students for life after Beaver. By understanding the effect old habits and previous experiences have on our decision making, unlearning addresses the crucial difference between knowing and understanding, allowing for a deeper level of learning.CREDIT Beaver Country Day School.png

What other educational methods / curriculum has Beaver used to prepare their students for the real world? 

Peter: Through our multidimensional approach to teaching, Beaver empowers students to succeed in today’s constantly-changing world. We offer a number of different educational methods and curriculum to ensure our students graduate ready to face any challenge the real world might throw at them. In addition to unlearning, Beaver employs a coded curriculum across all subjects to ensure all students have a firm understanding of coding upon graduation, a skill that is becoming increasingly important in the professional world. Beaver also sends 20 students each term to their off-site partner school, NuVu Studio. A full time innovation studio, NuVu Studio gives high school students the unique opportunity to spend a full trimester working with design, computer science, artists and engineering experts to solve real-world challenges in a collaborative, hands-on environment.

What are your thoughts on the state of education these days?

Peter: The U.S. and Massachusetts public schools, and even charter and independent schools, continue to focus on poorly designed high stakes tests. That includes the SAT and AP tests. If the state of education is to truly change and favor the student, public schools need to be allowed the freedom to design curriculum that addresses the essential skills needed for the twenty-first century and design nuanced metrics to measure student success in those skills. Education in the United States needs to  recognize the importance of essential (21st century) skills and redesign curriculum and assessments to reflect that emphasis. Independent schools, like Beaver, have not just the opportunity, but the responsibility to lead the way.  Sadly, not enough schools are embracing that responsibility.

The goal of teaching students to code and the goal of using technology is to help students become the most empowered problem solvers who can think flexibly and critically examine the world around them.

Jayne: I’m very hopeful that we are about to turn a corner in education. I believe that the goal of education is to help students become the best people. As a country we’ve become heavily dependent on metrics. Sometimes these metrics hide the truth and the messiness of real learning and of real people. All learning is not measurable through a test. I’m hopeful that we’ll work through this soon.

What are your thoughts on technology’s role in education?

Peter: Technology should play a large role in a student’s education. At Beaver, our focus is to graduate tech savvy students who are prepared to face any challenge the real world gives them, and there is no denying that technology is an ever growing component and necessity in the professional world. Whether it’s becoming the first school in the U.S. to implement computer programming into its core curriculum or integrating the latest learning technologies into the classroom, we are committed at Beaver to embrace new technologies that spur the type of creative problem solving that is necessary for post graduation success.

Jayne: Technology is an essential tool in our world. If students are not taught to use tools well, [those tools] are wasted. The point of teaching students to code or to use technology is not produce more employees for the STEM workforce (though that may very well be a byproduct). The goal of teaching students to code and the goal of using technology is to help students become the most empowered problem solvers who can think flexibly and critically examine the world around them.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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One Response to What is Unlearning

  1. Pingback: “Unlearning” is Essential for Pilot Education! – SAFE Educational Opportunities!

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