LILA ~ Learning Innovations Laboratory at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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April 2014: Changing Systems Animation

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LILA April 2014 animation script: Changing Systems, Unlearning to Learn.

This year at LILA, we explore the theme of unlearning, this time, adopting a systems perspective. Unlearning is what we face when we are trying to learn something new, but prior learning gets in the way. LILA’s own David Perkins notes that even though we can’t really UNlearn, it is helpful to have a name for this type of learning as it presents unique challenges. While trying harder often succeeds in moving outdated skills to the fringes of our repertoire, some things resist even our most earnest attempts at sidelining. In these stuck cases, Dave suggests that, instead of trying harder, we change the game. Before imagining how we might design game-changers for our organizations, we look at several tools, models, and theories to test if and how they might help us understand the nature of system stuckness.


We often think of routines as a source of stuckness, but could they also be the birthplace of change? This seems more plausible when we consider two facets of routines: the ostensive and the performative. While the ostensive aspect is the idea of a routine, the performative aspect is an enactment of it, with all its micro adjustments & coordinated actions. Variations in performance provide a mechanism for routines to change over time, while another source of change lies in making explicit what is implicit in how we understand and perform routines, revealing ways to make them more efficient, enjoyable, and aligned with our values.


This implicit<->explicit dichotomy, when paired with the distinction between individual and collective, form the four quadrant model, a tool for looking at any human experience from all angles. We can inquire into anything, for example, a routine, from the perspective of any quadrant that makes sense to us, and then explore it using the other quadrants. The flexibility of the four quadrants is enhanced by its fractal nature – not only can we move around the quadrants, we can move to another level of inquiry from any quadrant.


One reason some impediments to unlearning are so entrenched is that we are actively working to prevent the very change we seek! This “Immunity to Change” emerges in systems as a protective response to threats. We can reveal the hidden “brakes” by creating a map of this immune system, starting with the change we want to create –our One Big Thing– & what we are doing instead. Once we name the big worries that surface when we imagine doing the opposite, our unlearning challenge becomes evident. There are big assumptions that drive us to spend energy every day to forestall our worries, in effect creating a second job! The unlearning challenge represented by our One Big Thing cannot be met with more knowledge. Instead, it demands that we transform – to become larger versions of ourselves.

Very few of us actively seek these kinds of growth challenges. Mostly, it happens when triggered by acrisis, but what would it look like for an organization to choose a culture of personal growth? While they are rare, Deliberately Developmental Organizations do exist, exhibiting an array of unconventional practices, principles and communities we find intriguing, but wonder, are they for everyone? How could we create one? While there are no easy answers, it is easy to identify a DDO. In a DDO every employee will have ready answer to these questions including, what’s your personal growth goal? who’s helping you?


Our foray into these big ideas reveals their common denominator: they’re all are useful in surfacing the inner unseen, a key to both understanding and fostering unlearning. Ostensively, we ‘get it’, but we’re still left puzzling about what to DO once back in our organizations. As Dave points out, the key to unsticking stuck learning is in escaping the trying harder track. We’re not likely to find recipes, but we can look to the DDO’s for inspiration on how to create containers that make it safe to engage in the destabilizing work of surfacing our “interior” dimensions. We return to our organizations with many ideas from three lenses on unlearning [with the 3 sub-themes on screen], inspired to prototype low-stakes game-changers from which to learn. We look forward to sharing our discoveries at our next gathering as we bring the theme of learning to unlearn to a close.


Harvard Graduate School of Education