The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn – Alvin Toffle

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn – Alvin Toffle

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.

RK Prasad


View on E-book How To Start E-learning in Your Organization: 5 Basic Considerations

  • I don’t think that we ‘unlearn’…we merely adapt to a newer, more effective learning when necessity demands it. For example, you don’t ‘unlearn’ typing with two fingers, you practice typing with all fingers until the results are superior to the prior behaviour, which then atrophies through disuse over time because it is less functional. The issue is not ‘unlearning’, but experiencing a tipping point that convinces you that a nmew learning is not merely desirable, but necessary, as the old learning is no longer successful. There is a great book on change by Arthur Koestler called “The Act of Creation” which essentially says that an old paradigm adapts to explain change in nthe world around us until a new new paradigm provides a simpler, but more meaningful explanation…. but it usually takes a generational change, as there is institutional investment in the prior paradigm that can only be discarded by those who were not brought up in its heyday…..
    Des Martin

  • Des points to some very interesting areas. As a cognitive science undergrad many years ago I was involved with some very interesting research on the cerebral cortex within the context of learning new input. In short, novel input does not add incremental knowledge nor does it remove historical knowledge. Rather, new, important information produces a high level of cortical activity in the area it responds to and other activity associated with that information shifts in response to it. In other words, significantly important new learning changes not only its small domain but possibly an entire perception of the world.

    The question about a formal process for unlearning has merit in the materialist realm as well. It has been shown that environmental factors such as extreme stress create chemical cascades that would not otherwise occur. The relationship between these cascades and the plasticity of the mind for change is correlated. Horse breaking through near death experience is but one example of how extreme stress can lead to extreme behavoural change, and I would argue that there is an attendant neuronal change.

    I would assume that people who have a greater propensity to unlearn in rapidly changing times are those with naturally high neuronal plasticity or who have prior experience changing in similar situations. Perhaps biological health, a habit of learning new information and an openness to an ever-changing perception of the world are all that we can do at this point in order to keep the pump primed for times that necessitate rapid, fundamental change. I’d like to hear where the current research is on this issue.

    Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolution” points to the displacement of paradigms by better paradigms as necessary when new information is so substantial that if affects the entire perceptual framework. Incremental knowledge certainly has its limitations. The important stuff often relies on us really creating a whole new world.

  • a questions I’ve struggled with. I don’t think we “unlearn” any more than we can solve the “try not to think of a pink elephant”
    problem. but there is “spontaneous” extinction and substitution is one strategy. the most significant strategy is of course a creative response to a given problem….

  • Adele Buchanan

    I continue to go through my ‘unlearning’ phase as I move further into my adulthood and truly understand who I am. I believe that we do need to unlearn many things we have been taught, from the second we are old enough to understand we hear “no” from our parents, our pairs, our teachers in school… we continually second guess ourselves and question if we are able to do something. The second that we unlearn “no” (don’t do that, you can’t do that, you aren’t old enough, don’t touch that, don’t eat that) and learn that whatever we are doing right now is right for right now, we will all be a lot happier.

  • Thanks folks, for sharing your views.

  • Murali, you have an interesting question. The view I take is we really do not “unlearn” but rather alter our current belief, thinking, habit and action to a new paradigm, thus a new outcome.

    If we have continually been told “no” and believe we do not deserve something, we are not un-learning, rather we are changing the base belief and altering it to a new belief, thus a new thinking, new action and new outcome which say “yes”.

    In the past I thought one had to completely quit one “habit” before you could replace it with a new “habit”. Damn that was hard and never worked. Now, address the belief at the base of any action or thinking, work to alter that belief and suddenly the outcome changes! Generally on a permanent basis.

    This changed my training significantly.

  • Tammie

    I am currently going through this unlearning experience. I have worked for the same company for 14 years and have been accustomed to doing my job a certain way. For years I thought that I was really good at it. In March of this year the company was purchased, I now have a new boss who has what I believe to be a great outlook on the future of our business, with that being said I now realize that everything I thought I new and was confident about was not necessarily correct. At this time I am trying to “unlearn” some of the past 14 years and “re-learn” for the future. I do see the benefit and agree there are better ways of doing things but this is not an easy process. I do also see that the employee’s who were not willing to unlearn and re-learn are no longer employed. So saying, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn may actually hold some barring.

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  • Usep Abdul Matin

    Enjoyed reading all of your responses to Alvin Toffler’s theory on learning, unlearning, and relearning. Since Toffler is a futurist, I understand these three terms as follows: to learn refers to what we have to do in this present time, to unlearn means that we have to know what we have done in the past time, to learn inlcudes our plan for action in the future based on the present and past knowledge. I said so because to Toffler, change is not linear, but it can lead us to see what we have done so far, what we are doing today, and what we plan for tomorrow. So the main idea of Toffler’s statement refers to change. It should act on our priority. Hence, we should not forget the past that is good, in the meanwhile we need to cultivate the present that is better, and yet we have to plan it best for the future.

  • After reading through your article post, The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn – Alvin Toffle | Custom Training and eLearning Blog , I think I have learn something and thus would like to write a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation……All the best for all your blogging efforts.

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  • great defination.indeed,learning capacity is more important than reading and writing. in country like india experience is more relevant than any other thing so thia defi is more suitable here.good toffle ,,be of luck…………

  • Ashwani

    I completely agree with Alvin Toffle. I also believe ..In the times of rapid change experience is the biggest enemy… Though learning, unlearning, and relearning again is the continuous cycle to keep moving on with the change.

  • I enjoyed the post 🙂

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