Recently, there’s been a lot of talk and excitement about unlearning, and it’s always rubbed me the wrong way. Because, frankly, unlearning physiologically isn’t really an option. So I thought I’d talk about the cognitive processes, and then look at what folks are talking about.
Learning has been cutely characterized as “neurons that fire together, wire together”. And that’s really it: learning is about strengthening associations between patterns (which is why you can only learn so much at one time and then need to sleep, that strengthening effect only takes so much at one shot). We start with conscious effort and compile it down below conscious level.
However, you can’t really weaken those associations! So, you simply can’t unlearn. What really happens, as Dr. Jane Bozarth suggests, is: “overwriting existing knowledge or skill, or just pushing it to the background to accommodate something new, or rewiring pathways”. And points out that it’s hard work.
In short, unlearning is really relearning. And it’s harder because you need to overcome prior experience, strengthen the associations of the new beyond the existing strength of the old. And it’s important that, if things have changed, or previous experience or instinct will lead you elsewhere, you need to make sure that you’ve now got learners making the decisions in the effective ways. Which may mean modifying, not necessarily just replacing, but it does take conscious effort in analysis and design, diagnosing misconceptions, figuring appropriate levels of practice, etc.
So why this excitement about unlearning? It appears people are having fun with words. They’re using the phrase to mean something else. Take, for instance, this definition:
“Unlearning is not exactly letting go of our knowledge or perceptions, but rather stepping outside our perceptions to stand apart from our world views and open up new lenses to interpret and learn about the world.” – Erica Dhawan
Um, okay. The same article quotes Prasad Kaipa as saying “we generate anew rather than reformulate the same old stuff”. So, it’s about a different perspective. That’s valuable. Why call it unlearning then? It could be a step to unlearning, looking afresh and seeing new opportunities for different ways of doing things, but it’s not really unlearning.
So I see no reason to mislead people. Learning is rewarding, and touting things as unlearning make it seem as straightforward as learning, but relearning a new way is harder. The use of the term seems to minimize the effort required. And using the term to mean something else seems misleading. If you want to talk about shifting perspectives, do so!
What am I missing? Until I find a better explanation than what I’ve found, I’m calling out the term. Genially, of course.