We know Alvin Toffler as a sociologist, writer and a futurist, not as a learning expert. It is said that this quote is from his book, “Rethinking the Future.” As I haven’t read it, I really don’t know the context of this quotation. But I think his definition of the illiterate makes us ponder. It also reminds us of a quotation by Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines unlearn as “1: to put out of one’s knowledge or memory, 2: to undo the effect of: discard the habit of”.
There is so much we unlearn without much effort. Knowledge not often revised, skills not regularly practiced and beliefs shattered by contradictory experience are all day-to-day examples of unlearning.
But what about a situation where person’s knowledge, skills and beliefs serve him well and is therefore reinforced? How can he unlearn them in the face of a superior learning, which will serve him better?
In a company where I worked, head office staff used to call long distance to collect current sales figures from branch offices spread across the country. Email was introduced to increase efficiency and reduce cost. Although adequate training was conducted on email, the phone bills never came down substantially. The reason – people continued to use the phone to find out if the emails were sent or received!
Another more personal example of unlearning, a habit, is quitting smoking. I too quit smoking some years ago. I remember trying everything under the sky – sticking patches, chewing gum, counseling…nothing helped. One day, suddenly, without any apparent reason my urge to light up just wasn’t there. I unlearned but I don’t know how
We learn as much as we unlearn. I am sure you will agree that one’s existing knowledge is one great hindrance to future learning. That brings me to my questions
Is there a formal process for unlearning? Can we just plainly unlearn knowledge, skills and attitudes? Or can we unlearn only when we discover a substitute behavior or skill?
How useful it would be for both organizations and individuals if they master unlearning! Imagine organizations casting away ineffective and inefficient processes and methods effortlessly so that they do not hinder learning better ones.
Can organizations conduct “unlearning programs”? If so, how can we facilitate unlearning? Can we think of having an unlearning module before we start a learning module so that we can clear the old hindering structures before we build a brand new one?
Thank you for reading my blog and look forward to your comments and opinions.