The Hub Opinion: Unlearning and why you need to do it

Opinion: Unlearning and why you need to do it

By: Dr. Alex Clark and Bailey Sousa

None of us are perfect, and we need to be able to acknowledge that and unlearn to improve, write Athabasca University’s Dr. Alex Clark and Bailey Sousa

Keen to improve and succeed? If so, get ready to learn new things. But more than this, get ready to unlearn: to stop, change, or do less of the things that are getting in your own way.

Unlearning is officially defined as: to put out of one’s memory. But at a deeper level, unlearning means change. To be fair, unlearning is easier when what you’re changing is peripheral to your identity.

However, other aspects of unlearning can disrupt us to our core. There’s the bolt of sudden feedback from a well-regarded peer or friend that strikes your heart: “You talk too much,” “You’re always on your phone,” “You’re so self-absorbed.” And the dreaded: “Don’t be so condescending.”

The unlearning that’s hardest to face is usually the most needed.

Academics who care about results also care about unlearning, because it combats a trait almost universal in human beings: to follow the same path today as yesterday.

Authors Adam Morgan and Mark Barden—drawing from mathematics—label this tendency as “path dependency” in their book A Beautiful Constraint.

A path dependency is a set way of thinking or a group of set behaviours. For example, those who developed the fuel engines of a space shuttle set them to be four feet eight-and-a-half inches across—because that was the width of the rail line from Utah to Florida.

That, in turn, was a distance set previously on the width of the roads designed to accommodate the size of Roman carts 2,000 years ago. This is telling, as it shows decision-making for no valid reason than to continue to do what had previously been done.

More recently, the much-researched field of cognitive heuristics shows our thoughts and habits provide a similarly set but flawed path.

However, Morgan and Barden argue that path dependencies cause harm by locking us into wrong assumptions, biases, or success indicators from the past that may not apply to the present or future. We miss vital information, fail to see possibilities or maximize our chances of future success.

Our egos can push back at every turn when it comes to unlearning. This is because unlearning is entwined in our innermost selves.

It may mean changing parts of yourself you have held on to dearly for years, or threaten your own sense of self or identity. Essentially, unlearning can be scary as hell.

Unlearning is also a hard sell. Comparatively, unlearning existing things is much less commodified than learning new ones.

As humans primed to like the shiny and new, unlearning is also less enticing. Stopping doing things is much harder than the joys of starting.

Yet, our ability to improve and succeed is, we believe, as much dependent on us unlearning as it is on learning. So what should we do to unlearn well?

1. Recognize your agency

In challenging situations, we waste most of our time and energy waiting for other people or circumstances to change—and then get ever more frustrated when this doesn’t happen.

Yet, we neglect to focus most on that which we can definitely change: how we individually see things and what we choose to do.

Unlearning requires taking real ownership and accountability for not only our favourable impressions of our best selves, but truly owning the parts of ourselves we run from and need to change to be most effective.

We’re cognitively hard-wired to fail to recognize the blind spots we need to unlearn, but taking seriously our personal accountability for improving ourselves is a vital first step.

2. Get deliberative

When we place ourselves at the epicentre of unlearning, we can then act with intention to specify what we must unlearn.

Reflect and write down in stark detail what you most need to unlearn. Take your time and focus. Get a critical friend to act as an accountability partner to help you dig deep into your blind spots.

We can’t change what we first don’t acknowledge.

3. Stay open

To comfort our ego, but also give into it, it’s tempting to counsel yourself on your need to unlearn the multitude of selfless virtues of workplace martyrdom: “I just have to give less” or “be less generous with my time.”

It’s far more challenging to push to the last unlearning you want to really own—that which brings you shame and vulnerability.

Our individual sense of what we need to unlearn is likely to be influenced by wider social factors linked to gender, race and class, combined with our inner saboteurs: the negative self-talk we engage in to put ourselves down.

Try to disentangle the noise of what conventions or others suggest you need to unlearn and come to your own conclusions.

When you think you have gone deep enough, push deeper to truly confront what you must unlearn to succeed.

4. Be humble

People who are perfect don’t need to unlearn. For the rest of us, the need for unlearning remains. But our personal fixed mindsets can beguile us into thinking we’ve arrived or to prioritize proving our talent and skills over improving ourselves.

Use the recognition that none of us is perfect to help you be and stay open to the prospect and process of unlearning. Understanding more about your own personal mindset—growth versus fixed—in different situations can help you identify where you may be least open to unlearning.

Unlearning entails grappling with that which is both different and the same: holding space to recognize our weaknesses and the habits and patterns that define us while also being strong enough to change.

It takes energy and effort and is never the easy path. Focus on your unlearning—and learn to do better.

The column originally appeared in University Affairs. Read the original version on their website.

Dr. Alex Clark is president of Athabasca University. Bailey Sousa is associate vice-president of quality, planning, and assessment at AU.

  • November 30, 2023
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Guest Blog from:
Dr. Alex Clark and Bailey Sousa