How important is unlearning? I’m not even sure that unlearning is the right word to use, but the notion of revisiting and reforming our assumptions is increasingly important. And frustrating. Becoming willing to accept ambiguity in our assumptions requires a core revision on our perception of what it means to know something. Once we know something, we assume that it’s true indefinitely. David P. Ausebel’s theory of subsumption assumes that we continue to revise and rebuild our knowledge structures as new information becomes available. Unlearning is different. Unlearning requires that we regularly tear down our thought schemas and rebuild them based on new information. Our schemas fit into two separate categories – our beliefs and our technical knowledge. Revising belief schemas is slow. When I’m suggesting we tear down and rebuild schemas, I’m referring to those that are technical in nature. I imagine it would be impossible to continually rebuild our belief schema. Personally, I don’t believe I’ve significantly altered my own belief schema more than once or twice in my lifetime. My technical schema (which is probably largely filtered through beliefs) is a different story. I find I’m changing it significantly. Frequently.
John Seely Brown also has some thoughts on unlearning: “Now the problem is that an awful lot of the learning that we need to do is obviously building up this body of knowledge, but even more so the unlearning that we need to do has to do with challenging the tacit. The problem is that most of what we need to do lies in the tacit, most of us can’t easily get a grip on.”

One Response to “Unlearning?”

  1. I’m not sure if ‘unlearning’ is a fitting description. Nothing is ever unlearned if you think of the brain in terms of a network. Connections are re-formed, yes, so if making the connections is learning, then I suppose you could say one is un-learning when connections are re-routed. But I think a key advantage lies in the dynamism inherent in our ability to restructure when new information is made available. To ‘un-learn’ suggests changing a moment in time. Would I ‘un-live’ yesterday, just because today is a different day?
    Each of those various learning states we have found ourselves in contribute to the whole of our learning. Just because we have re-formed our thinking doesn’t mean that the prior way of thinking wasn’t valuable in some way.