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Unlearning In Order To Learn

“The only thing harder than starting something new, is stopping something old.” -Russell Lincoln Ackoff

The challenge most of us face whether in our personal or professional lives is that we often operate with mental models and ideas that are outdated.  In our personal lives, it may or may not matter. But most professions would never tolerate that. Could you imagine doctors operating on outdated or obsolete science to care for patients? The expectation is that doctors will continually learn, unlearn, and relearn to provide the best care. 

Unlearning can be very difficult as it challenges us to let go of long-held ideas. Unlearning requires risks whereas, “the way we have always done it,” feels safe and comfortable. Ideas and beliefs often become entrenched habits. Our brains must expend a lot of energy to rethink and relearn activities that our brains prefer to avoid. It is therefore not surprising that most people are skeptical of new ideas and approaches and even more resistant to trying.

In Russel Ackoff’s article, A Lifetime of Systems Thinking, he writes that many systems pursue objectives “other than the ones that they proclaim, and the ones they pursue are wrong.” My favorite quote from the article comes next,  “They try to do the wrong thing righter, and this makes what they do wronger. It is much better to do the right thing wrong, than the wrong thing right, because when errors are corrected, it makes doing the wrong thing wronger, but the right thing righter.”

For education to change in meaningful and productive ways so that our children can truly learn and learn deeply, we need to unlearn some long held educational beliefs and master research based strategies and techniques that foster lasting learning for our children.  This is a process, we as adults, can model for our children – one where we truly learn from mistakes, not from what we already know. Making mistakes and correcting our errors increases our knowledge and our skills. We become better when we are challenged, when we are stretching our ability and challenging our assumptions, skills, and knowledge – that is when we grow and learn.

Avraham Aveinu in Parshat Lech Lecha role models this understanding of unlearning in order to learn. Lech Lecha, which can be translated “Go Forth” is understood in a midrash to mean, “Go forth to find your authentic self – to learn who you are meant to be.” In order to do this, Avraham has to leave behind what he knows. He has to unlearn in order to embrace and understand God’s promise to him. He does not forget the past, but it does not hold him hostage.

We cannot be held hostage either. Our children deserve better. We honor the past but we must be informed and adjust to what we know today about learning.

In order to better meet the needs of our children and to set them up for deep and meaningful learning, these are some of the ideas we need to, at least in part, unlearn:

  • Education is primarily about delivering information that children need to know.
  • The more homework children receive reflects the rigor of the school program and as a result children with more homework will be better prepared.
  • IQ is fixed and students should be grouped and taught according to their IQ.
  • ACT and SAT are the best indicators for future success in college (and life).
  • Standardized tests are an accurate measure of a student’s overall academic achievement and therefore are also a reflection of the quality of the school and the teacher.
  • Tests are the most effective way to measure a student’s performance and knowledge.
  • The more rote practice and memorization the more learning and skill proficiency.

If we do not unlearn these notions, they will remain obstacles to “sticky” (lasting) learning for our children. The professional field of education has years of brain research and, specifically, research on the science of learning that debunks many of the ideas and strategies listed above that many parents, politicians and even some educators still hold dear. The resistance to the process of unlearning in education is multi-layered. For high achieving, successful parents, there is comfort and security in having their children experience the same educational system that they did. The problem with this is that the educational system of the past one hundred years simply cannot prepare children for the world of today and the future. Most importantly, our knowledge of the brain and the science of learning impacts, in meaningful ways, how we understand how children learn, and what they need to become successful learners.

At Schechter Bergen, we are among the ranks of schools and school districts in this country and all over the world who are challenging outdated models and ideas based on a large body of educational research on learning, and what children need for the world that they will live in.  It’s scary for some of us to unlearn some of our long-held beliefs about education. Let Avraham be one of our models and let us – Lech Lecha together for our children deserve the best we have to offer.

4 Comments

  • Lawrence Solomon - September 30, 2021

    What an excellent article! I like the way you took a biblical concept and made it relevant.

    Reply
    • Steve Freedman - September 30, 2021

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Ilana Lerner - October 1, 2021

    Very true, I think it’s essential to refresh our teaching methods to keep up with the changing environment. Shabbat Shalom

    Reply
  • Daniel Rubin - October 1, 2021

    Outstanding essay. Lots to think about unlearning not just in education but many pursuits – politics, business, etc.

    Reply

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