Trying to unlearn

The real voyage of discovery is not seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.  Marcel Proust

After I acquire new eyes, what do I do with the old ones?  Ramon Soto-Crespo, paraphrasing Freiderich Nietzsche

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The Queen in “Through the Looking Glass”

The problem we have is that when introducing change programmes and organisational transformation we need to address staff needs to learn, unlearn, and relearn.  As a manager, coach and teacher I often need to attend to the process of unlearning and relearning.

As I tune in to unlearning I need to attend to the old knowledge, assumptions and ideas that will not work in a new environment. I have found it to be beneficial to learners to be upfront and clear about this from the start.  Our staff, players, and learners need time to identify what they are discarding and why. It is worth listening to those things they want to hold on to tightly because they may indeed be valuable, and a key component in performance. Be attentive and listen carefully.  List the items that are being given away and those in dispute.

Sometimes our staff, players and students refuse to learn.  Should they be able to do this?  Yes, of course, it is their right, but one important attribute we would like them all to demonstrate is commitment to continous improvement.   Our role is to help them see the need to need to continue to learn if they are to improve their performance.  It is OK to have Off days and non-cooperative moments.  Unlearning can often have some moments of conflict, the skilled faciliator acknowledges, listens respectfully, and gives time for learners to find their own learning space.

What processes are going on while we are unlearning?  Hedberg, (1981) believed we were deleting while new knowledge was created.  Klien (1989) thought all knowledge was stored, and could be retreived at any time.  Wheatley (2006) believes the all knowledge is continually redefined, added to recomposed in a continous process.  She believes we are not losing anything but rather sharpening or softening the gaze.

It is our role to faciltate unlearning, to help our learners, analyse their current performance, break it down, and find the faults and correct it.  We need to be supportive and creative as we help them re- build with new components. We are often taking the assumed or the implicit and making it explicit.  Helping learners to build their own six dimensional curriculum can help this process. We can help them find coherence in what they think they know and do, and what they actually know and do.

In designing for unlearning we can use our six dimensional model. 

Know: What concepts and principles are we learning?  Which ones are we unlearning?  Which words are we adding?  Which ones are we taking away?

Skills: What skills or parts of skills are we keeping? Giving away?  Acquiring?

Values: Which ones are needed now? Which ones are not working?

People:  Who do we need to form alliances with?  Who is moving into sharp focus?  Who is softening in our gaze?  Who is our host on this journey?  Who are our co-learners? Who are supporter’s and resourcers?  Who is playing the agent provocateur? (the agitator)

Learn: What do we need to starting learning?  What do we need to stop chasing?

Integrate: What are we bringing into our professional profiles? What are we moving to the background?

Opportunities for new learning arise in two different ways, firstly there is a genuine desire to bring about change, to create something new or achieve new results, secondly, we receive feedback which contradicts a belief we hold. Both events provide the opportunity to learn, and a faciltator can ease the learning with:

Regards: We must accept where our learners are, even if it is frustrating to us.

Awareness: We must acknowledge that it is our job to help them deal with the upheavel of unlearning.  We must do this openly.

Compassion: We must bring our compassion and more to this task.  Once we start the journey we must be prepared to walk with the learner to the end.

Here are a few tips and tricks that might help you to manage unlearning with your staff, players and students.

1. Establish the principles of unlearning.  A nice way to do this is to devise 10 questions that will serve you well through the process of unlearning and learning?  Questions like, what will we do when we disagree?  And how to we record our unlearning? are good places to start.

2. Create a picture of what the new learning will bring about. You can do this using a sketch, a mindmap or a rubric. The important thing to to describe the qualities and nature of an exemplary performance.

3. Create some case studies to discuss. You may need to make them up, but case studies with dilemmas are a great way to get everyone talking. 

4. Takes turns at ‘creating controversy” Let everyone practice arguing the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to new knowledge, skills and attributes.

5. Encourage constructive feedback by co-learners and supporters.  Set up supportive environments for giving and receiving feedback based on the premise that feedback is only given to improve performance.

6. Deal with unexpressed emotions creatively.  You can invent ways of jettisoning their negative emotions, outdated knowledge and skills, for example have post it notes and a trash can. People can write down their thoughts and toss them in the can.  Encourge a Dear John note for things that are not longer needed, and are welcome note for incoming ideas, information, skills and values.

7. Create an online community.  The community will ensure that the conversation does not die. Closed blogs, are a great way of having the group work through something together, and increase confidence and capability.

Next time you have responsibility for bringing about major change, especially change in culture and values, think about it as an unlearning exercise. You may be surprised at the results that can be obtained with some planning and creativity.









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