Learning Not Unlearning: Change

Learning not unlearning? I’ve read a couple of posts on LinkedIn over the past few months that talk about ‘unlearning.’ It seems to refer to the need to change your thinking to better cope with ‘new’ opportunities and threats, as the world becomes increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). I wholeheartedly agree that we’re living in a ‘VUCA’ world. I can’t remember a more dangerous time in the 58 years I’ve been around. However, having tinkered with learning theory and practice for a wee while now, I long since concluded that you can’t ‘unlearn.’ I believe that this is known as ‘forgetting.’ It’s impossible to do on purpose, but, trust me, comes easily with age.

Unlearning is Choice?

Now, Mark Bonchek, writing in the Harvard Business Review, tells us that unlearning: ‘Is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model … to choose a different one.’

That’s an interesting perspective. However, it seems to ignore how we learn. It also ignores that fact that we’re rarely taught to learn. Search through your memories of your education. Locate when you were shown to learn? For most of us, that’s an unfilled gap.

How We Learn

We learn by constructing our knowledge of the world through formal and informal experiences, increasingly augmented by digital connections. Digital or not, we find our way and develop our unique set of operating ‘rules’ (heuristics) from which we make decisions: Bonchek’s ‘mental model.’ Our heuristic model develops throughout our lives as we adapt decision-making rules to new stimuli. Adaptation is usually incremental, occasionally disruptive, but, except where there is brain trauma, never destructive. We don’t choose an alternative model. Alternative models stimulate adaptation of what we have.

Change is About Learning Through Experience

In short, if we seek to change, we can’t unlearn, but we do need to learn. To do so, we need to experience new phenomena and experiment with new ideas and fresh thinking. Learning not unlearning.

Want change? Want to learn? Watch, listen, read, write, and join in. Seek out new experiences. As the saying goes “live your life; it isn’t a dress rehearsal.”