I am currently participating in Cathy Davidsons’ MOOC on The History and Future of Higher Education, and the post below is my essay for week 1. The prompt was to write about an experience of learning and unlearning. In the course, I’ll get feedback from five other participants next week, and I am happy to hear from anyone who wishes to comment here as well. In future posts, I’ll share more about my experience in the MOOC as well as my thoughts on the future of learning. Stay tuned.
No such thing as unlearning
When asked to consider an incident of unlearning and relearning, the topic that came to mind was shifting my educational philosophy from cognitivist to constructivist.
If you are not familiar with those terms, most cognitivists describe learning as information processing, and their theories highlight the role of memory and perception (primarily visual and auditory). From them, we have learned a great deal about the effectiveness of chunking material and using spaced repetition. In contrast, constructivists view learning as a process of constructing meaning from experience and most acknowledge the critical role of social interaction in shaping the meanings we construct. (1) While many educators (corporate and academic) are content to take a “both-and” approach, some would say the two philosophies are founded on different assumptions (objectivist and constructivist), and you can’t have it both ways.
To begin composing the essay, I considered the differences between those two approaches to learning, the ways that I have been determined to change my own “teaching,” and the supports and obstacles to that shift. I started by trying to expound on differences and choices (which, by the way, is a pretty long essay).
In the process, I realized that part of the difficulty in unlearning and learning is that you never really “unlearn” anything. Every day, you learn on top of the learning you carry around from your past studies and experiences.
It’s like scratching out something you’ve written on a notepad – you can ink over your writing until it’s obliterated, but the original notes are still there, buried beneath all the new lines. If I understand the neurobiologists, that’s exactly what our brains our doing – laying down new neural pathways that make getting to the old ones more difficult. But unless we have some sort of catastrophic brain episode, those old neural pathways are still there, broken and obscured though they may be.
In day to day “unlearning” and relearning, as in my shift from cognitivist approaches to constructivist approaches, the old pathways are still pretty clear and can be very tempting – especially if the environment better supports old ways of doing things.
Herminia Ibarra describes career transitions as a process of experimenting in new directions until you find the right fit. (2) Learning, similarly, is a process of identity creation, not a process of memorizing facts and concepts. In learning constructivist approaches, I can see myself taking bold steps in the direction I want to go, but it will take time to become who I mean to be. To become constructivist, I need to be constructivist, to act it into reality.
Just like our identities are formed from all of our experiences in life, so is our learning the result of all of our learning to date. Unlearning should not be a goal, in my opinion. Our “old learning” is part of who we are, and it’s a building block on which we build our new understandings, even if our “old learning” becomes unrecognizable, buried or reshaped in the process.
(1) For more on learning theories, my favorite texts are: Learning Theories: An educational perspective by Dale Schunk (Pearson, 2012); Learning in Adulthood: A comprehensive guide by Sharan B Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella and Lisa M. Baumgartner (Jossey Bass, 2007, 3rd Ed.) and Psychology of Learning for Instruction by Marcy P. Driscoll (Pearson, 2005, 3rd Ed.).
(2) See Working Identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business School Press, 2003)