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Mission to Learn – Lifelong Learning Blog
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Unlearn spelled with dice

What is unlearning and what does it require?

I’ve defined learning before as “…the lifelong process of transforming information and experience into knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudes.”

I stick by this definition, but I’ve also come to realize that it may represent learning as too much about adding. In reality, learning – if it is truly going to lead to positive change and growth – is just as much about subtracting.

There is after all, nothing to say that whatever we learn is actually right. We may mis-learn in the first place. In other words, acquire knowledge, skills, behaviors, or attitudes that are simply wrong, or at least not fully right.

Or, maybe we had it right, but the world around us has changed, so what we learned no longer serves us or others well.

In any of these cases, we must unlearn. We must reverse or significantly redirect the process of transforming information and experience into knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudes.

I’ve read other definitions that suggest that unlearning requires actually removing what you’ve learned from memory. That’s a steep requirement, and I don’t think it is actually achievable. But I do think there are specific requirements for successfully unlearning something.

What unlearning requires

I see three basic requirements – the 3 Rs of unlearning:

Recognition

Consciousness that our current knowledge, skills, behaviors, or attitudes are no longer producing positive results (if they ever were)? In my experience, this is usually the hardest part.

Release

Letting go of what we have learned. Doing our best to stop doing whatever actions or activities our learning has led to and becoming available for new learning. (Charles Duhigg’s work on habits is very helpful here.)

Replacement

Letting go is, of course, usually really hard to do. While we never truly erase what we have learned before, we can replace it or modify it with new learning, learning that serves us and others well.

None of this easy. Indeed, unlearning is usually significantly harder than learning. But the good news is that many of the same practices – mindfulness and curiosity, for example – apply.

The trick, of course, is to apply them.

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