Before We Can Learn, We Need to Unlearn

Before We Can Learn, We Need to Unlearn

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I was struck by the first line of a recent post by Velvet Chainsaw's Jeff Hurt (emphasis is mine): "In order to be successful in the 21st Century, organizations must make continuous learning and unlearning a core competency." I can't speak for you, but I have never, in my long and dubious career, been taught how to unlearn something.

And I would argue that the unlearning is more important than the learning, or at least has to happen first. Because if you don't understand why what you're currently doing isn't the best way to go, and I mean really understand it, you're not going to stop doing it and start doing it a new way. Change is hard, and we're not going to do it if we don't absolutely have to.

Yet education is all about how to do the new, not how to undo the old. How do you get someone to unlearn something? When I broke a finger on my right hand a few months ago, I spent a lot of time learning how to do things leftie, but I also out of necessity had to unlearn how to do things rightie, at least temporarily—pain is a great teacher. But you can't whack people out of their ruts, at least not physically.

Continuing medical education providers talk a lot about creating teachable moments by introducing cognitive dissonance in learners, and comparing individual physicians' outcomes with recommended guidelines or their peers. But that kind of data isn't available for many  professions outside of healthcare, and even when it gets shoved in your face that yeah, you need to change, how do you unlearn what you had been doing to make way for new knowledge and skills? I see it a lot in journalism, my chosen profession, where even when life is forcing us to go online, we still are clinging to writing and editing as if it were for print. I see it in meeting planning, where even as the content shifts and expands to meet new audience demands, it's still being shoehorned into the same old lecture and panel formats.

I think it's time we figured out this unlearning thing. If we don't, we'll continue to try to layer the new over the old and tuck in the edges in hopes that it looks like a good fit, when in fact we need a whole new base to build on.

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