Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

20 December 2012


Clark @ 8:27 AM

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.


  1. I love the post Clark. When I did the structure for ‘experience design’ http://blog.edcetratraining.com/?p=166 I built into the structure this idea of ‘starting state’ which accounts for all those things you bring to bear in all your experiences. To explicitly design an experience requires us to account for, the best we can, all those items that we either want our users to bring with them and which of the things we want them to park. Thats not to say we simply tell somebody park this belief and bring that one with you, but that our designs need to tackle that issue. In fact, experience design is a powerful way to let somebody ‘relearn’, create new neural connections, etc versus telling somebody to do that (since that will never work anyways).

    Comment by Reuben Tozman — 20 December 2012 @ 10:34 AM

  2. What a BS term.

    It could be relearning, as you point out, or perhaps it’s simply ‘open learning’.

    In the end, however, it is really what learning should be.

    But it reminds me of the time several years ago when every product was ‘clear’. The ‘un’ meme is unbecoming.

    Comment by Dan Pontefract — 20 December 2012 @ 2:33 PM

  3. A very thought provoking post, as ever, and the more so, as I have been using “unlearning” a lot recently.
    I wonder whether it could not be argued that its use really can convey “a paradox, connoting two things that are different but in another sense the same”, in the same way that Dave Snowden and Cynthia F Kurtz contrasts in the Cynefin framework Order and Un-order. They have in a piece published in 2003, which I was reading again only yesterday, this very interesting passage on un-order and their use of the prefix un- which I have highlighted and may be pertinent to your discussion of unlearning. “Here we deliberately use the prefix “un-” not in its standard sense as “opposite of” but in the less-common sense of conveying a paradox, connoting two things that are different but in another sense the same. Bram Stoker used this meaning to great effect in 1897 with the word “undead”, which means neither dead nor alive but something similar to both and different to both. E. E. Cummings also used the prefix this way in his poetry: says Cureton (1979), “In normal usage, being and existing are stative concepts. They are not actions which a person must consciously perform, engage in, create. Words such as unbe and unexist, however, force the reader to see the dynamic nature of human existence….”.
    I am not a specialist but the way I would be tempted to look at it would therefore perhaps be that when you are “unlearning” something, you are creating new connections and consolidating this knowledge, but adding an additional layer of signification by being aware that it is no longer pertinent, and you connect it with this new learning. I hope this makes at least some sense.

    Comment by Pascal Venier — 20 December 2012 @ 6:43 PM

  4. Thanks for the feedback. Interesting perspective, Pascal, hadn’t thought of it that way. I can see the value of taking a new look at learning, and particularly the meta-learning perspective, but I’d rather talk about second loop learning or something. I’m afraid if I follow the implication of undead, I think of something that’s neither learning nor not learning, and that would be more like performance support, which is useful, but not your implication. I think what you’re talking about is deeper than what most folks are doing, and I guess I’m railing at the casual misuse rather than the more philosophical stance you’re taking. My instinct here is that people are using it casually to imply that we can just unlearn things that aren’t right, and that’s misleading.

    Comment by Clark — 21 December 2012 @ 6:29 AM

  5. This was a topic that was brought up in a #lrnchat some time ago. I know during the conversation I was waffling a bit on what was meant by unlearning but it did gravitate into “memory” and recall some. Its been stated that when confronted with new ideas we either associate or accommodate to what we currently understand. Therefore it would appear that the previously learned is absorbed, morphs, or is set aside but not released. John Medina, author of Brain Rules spoke at LSCon and I remember his analogy about learning that went something like – everyone has a similar structure in their brain (highways, byways, ect) but where people learn is in each of their unique(from other people)streets, roads and avenues. So it would appear then that once the roads are created they remain but people just don’t use them anymore as new roads form that are superior.

    Comment by Mark Britz — 21 December 2012 @ 7:52 AM

  6. Clark, I’ve unlearned lots of things in my life.

    I have quite effectively unlearned Latin, trigonometry, and Mahayana Buddhism by not firing up those neural circuits in decades. Unused connections decay over time.

    I’ve unlearned most of the religious beliefs I held dear as a child. In the face of something don’t understand, I look for scientific explanation instead of reinforcing a belief in miracles.

    I’ve also unlearned by replacement, as you and Jane describe. For instance, I’ve unlearned that electrons look like pingpong balls in orbit around a nucleus of protons and neutrons.

    Why call it unlearning? Because even though you can’t directly unlearn something, you can long for that result. We need a name for it.

    When I’m jousting with a conservative about the need to flatten organizations, I take an advocacy position. I want them to unlearn the old ways to make room for the new. Frankly, I’d like to reprogram them, but unlearning sounds less aggressive.

    Comment by Jay Cross — 22 December 2012 @ 5:08 PM

  7. I’ve used “unlearning” in just such a sloppy way, but after reading this post, I’m going to try to stop doing that. And the thing-formerly-known-as-unlearning that I referred to was almost always about one of two things: discovering a new and *better* thing to replace/override the old, OR, discovering that the thing you had learned was actually *wrong* in some way, either factually or procedurally.

    Sometimes this happens as a result of new information coming to light, but sometimes it is simply because the *learner* has moved to a new level of ability where their previously just-right understanding (however naive or oversimplified) that once enabled them is now holding them back. When my husband teaches people the game of Go, he explicitly tells them that as they progress, some key parts of what they learn will have to be “unlearned” (though now we need a better word) in order to progress. The best/right patterns, moves, responses, strategies for a person at one rank will be harmful/inefficient at a higher ranking, etc.

    So it really is learning something new about what you already know. Hmmm. Meta. And of course how you frame and implement this thing-previously-called-unlearning is drastically different if it is changing a strongly-held conscious belief/understanding vs. something that has been automated and no longer easily available to interrogation/introspection.

    Thought-provoking post. I am going to work on stopping myself from using that word because I agree with you — it is misleading, and in a way that actually matters. Maybe not to the learner/unlearned, but to those trying to help someone replace previous knowledge and/or skill…

    Comment by Kathy Sierra — 24 December 2012 @ 12:31 PM

  8. Hi Clark

    I agree, sometimes people use the term unlearning where relearning is more accurate.

    I applaud you for being open to new information, that’s the characteristic that builds adaptability and wisdom.

    BTW, daily I track the word “Unlearning” using Google Alerts. I haven’t seen any uptick in it’s use, except for the book, Unlearning Liberty. If you would be kind enough to tell me where “unlearning” is used within your sphere, I’d appreciate it. Thanks.

    Now as for ‘unlearning being physiologically impossible”…that’s something you might want to unlearn, in the near future. :-)

    Let’s take classical conditioning and Pavlov’s dogs. Every day, a bell is rung just before the meat is given to the dogs. (The neurological representation of the bell and the neurological representations of the experience of seeing, smelling and consuming the meat are wired together. True? Wiring together means that dendrites grow between neurons. As you know, each neuron in humans has about 1500 to 3000 connections. When learning is “strengthened” in this context, it means there are multiple connections. In addition, once learned well, the synaptic chemistry of the bell-to-meat connections activate instantly when the bell is experienced (creating the expectation of the meat to follow).

    So, what happens when the experiment changes and the bell rings, but there’s no food? In addition, there’s food, but no preceding bell? Several changes occur in the brain. First, the number of connections diminishes. Physiologically, the dendrites disappear. A few connections will remain (probably a just-in-case mechanism in the brain that makes relearning the bell-to-meat experience happen faster, if needed in the future), however, the synaptic chemistry changes and the synapses of the bell-to-the-meat experiences WILL NOT fire (there will be a depletion of dopamine).

    So, was the conditioned stimulus of the bell unlearned? You bet it was!

    Next, let’s take emotions. These are stored in the Amygdala, directly. To unlearn PTSS (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), one method is to block the writing of the protein that stores the emotion. After taking the drug, the PTSS client is asked to recall the experience. They will remember the events and the feelings, but the emotions will not be re-encoded. (The drug wears off in about an hour). The next time they remember the event, the sensory experience will be the same, but there won’t be any emotional component (no fear). I think it’s fair to use Unlearning in this context. You can argue for relearning if you want, but I think you are on shaky ground to say unlearning is physiologically impossible, since clearly direct physiological change occurred, and a previous learning is gone. FYI, people can also unlearn the emotional component of an experience via therapy, and several different approaches have been proven effective.

    This unlearning of an experience is possible because all episodic memory is Read-Write. Every recollection of an experience is rewritten too. You cannot remember anything without also changing it. What you thought about prior to remembering and your current state (mood) will become connected to your remembrance, and thus it will be changed. This explains why it’s so easy to create false memories.

    And, just like emotions are not part of the nightly hippocampus-to-neocortex learning process, all skills and habits have their own non-hippocampus learning mechanism (you don’t seem to know this). The procedural learning neurons are biologically very different from the neurons used to store experiences and meaning. FYI, procedures are learned using the 21-day rule and variety. It’s here, skills and habits, that the term “relearning” is most appropriate. It’s tough to change habits for the reasons you state. However, if an old skill is not used for a long period of time, some of the neurons will be confiscated by nearby, growing, networks, but that can take years.

    Semantic learning (meaning, categories, abstractions, symbolics…) is learned best via the remembering curve and precise repetition. If someone believes the world is flat, and then learns that in fact, the earth is round, did they unlearn or relearn? In reality, the earth is now connected with the concept of round, which is something new. In addition, the earth-to-flat connection is now connected to the concept of “false” or highly doubtful. To me, neither “relearning” or “unlearning” precisely describe what happens, but either term is good enough for me. BTW, the mechanism isn’t so clear, but all our semantic and episodic memory is connected to “certainty”. When you want to destabilize this learning, the key is to introduce doubt. After doubt is introduced, what was learned is plastic for about 30 minutes.

    Clark are you still sure unlearning is physiologically impossible? I doubt it. :-)

    Best regards

    Comment by Michael Cushman — 26 December 2012 @ 9:36 AM

  9. What great feedback, folks! However, while unused neural pathways can atrophy, there also seems to be an amazing ability to suddenly remember something we’d thought we’d forgotten, so my understanding of the neuroscience is that it’s not completely atrophied. I have heard of the drug to block emotional responses (and had forgotten, thanks),. Not quite sure we’re not rewriting, as opposed to undoing, but glad the result’s there, regardless.

    My main point, however, is that learning over is typically hard (which is not the same as learning an alternative: electron orbits versus clouds, or flat versus round earth), and unlearning makes it sound easy, which I really don’t think it is. So the question is whether the term’s useful. If you carefully delineate what you mean, go ahead and use it. However, I will continue to rail against the shallow usage, which I do see being perpetrated.

    Comment by Clark — 26 December 2012 @ 4:15 PM

  10. Jonah Lehrer wrote the story on the forgetting pill for Wired this February: The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever.

    The relevant portion of the article states: “To delete the memory, researchers would administer a drug that blocks PKMzeta and then ask the patient to recall the event again. Because the protein required to reconsolidate the memory will be absent, the memory will cease to exist. Neuroscientists think they’ll be able to target the specific memory by using drugs that bind selectively to receptors found only in the correct area of the brain.”

    The article blew my socks off the first time I read it but it soon faded into the recesses of memory. The technology is not here yet.

    Is eradicating memories the same as unlearning? Damned if I know.

    Happy New Year! (I start celebrating early.)

    Comment by Jay Cross — 26 December 2012 @ 6:20 PM

  11. I am thrilled to see dialogueing about the correct and appropriate use of words. To my mind many people make them-selves guilty of lazy thinking by catching a word in mid-air that vaguely expresses what the person wants to say, without thinking through the connotations and appropriateness properly.

    Thank you all for sharing the various perspectives to “unlearning”. The acid tests is probably what is the physiology around learning and unlearning? Let’s start giving more attention to THAT dimension of learning and start creating a correct and appropriate framework of words and knowledge around that for our industry.

    Happy new year to all!

    Comment by Jacques — 30 December 2012 @ 10:48 PM

  12. I am reminded of the terms schooling, unschooling, and deschooling. Perhaps unlearning is a political term for the ascendancy of informal learning. I know that unschooling for me had a political element when I unschooled my three kids. I am also reminded of another dialectic I am beginning to use in my own college classrooms–routines and anti-routines. I think of routines in the writing classroom as algorithms for generating stuff. Anti-routines are subversions and usually result in breaking stuff. For example, I used of version of Bill Waterson’s ‘Calvinball’ to subvert the idea of quizzes in the composition classroom. Most memorable. Made me think that Shumpeter has a place in the classroom if we can manage to do no harm in the process.

    Comment by Terry Elliott — 7 January 2013 @ 6:11 AM

  13. […] involves cognitive, personal and social development. Learning is, according to Clark Quinn, strengthening associations between patterns in the brain. Learning, when it is expanded to include within its scope knowledge, understanding, […]

    Pingback by Learning in HE « Thoughts about Higher Education — 9 January 2013 @ 3:41 AM

  14. Hi Clark,
    Thank you for this interesting post! I agree with you about unlearning being extremely misleading, and I think it is based on the outdated view of knowledge being something stagnant we learn in chunks and can extract at will. Fortunately the modern understanding of learning agrees with you and me and defines learning as interactions between the students, teacher and information. This way learning (and the learned) is dynamic by nature and will be modified each and every time we revisit the same subject, hence the importance for reflection.
    Unlearning – or actually the non-existent need for it is also part of meaningful learning. And I think that is what all learning should be, so that it would also be a transformational learning experience, and this all is doable with the current technology tools, if we only got over the mindset of cohort-based education, where the system is build to model factories. (I lean on Mezirov’s definition on transformative learning: “a rational, metacognitive process of reassessing reasons that support problematic meaning perspectives or frames of reference” (Mezirov, J. (2009). An overview on transformative learning. In Illeris, K. (Ed.) Contemporary Theories of Learning (90-105). London/New York: Routledge.) My latest blogpost was also about meaningful learning at http://notesfromnina.wordpress.com/

    Comment by Nina Smith — 16 January 2013 @ 1:00 PM

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