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Unlearning to Learn – LILA Summit Animation

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One of the ways in which LILA supports the learning of its members is to create an animated short presenting key ideas from the year long exploration.  The theme during the 2013-2014 season was Unlearning to Learn.  Below is the transcript from the animation in case you would like to read more about what is presented in the animation.

Unlearning to Learn

This year [2013-2014] at LILA, we take a whirlwind tour of unlearning, approaching it from three angles: mindsets, habits, and systems. Here, we take stock of our two main quests around unlearning: understanding it and fostering it.

Unlearning is what we do when prior learning creates problems. It’s called for when what used to work stops working, either because we change, circumstances change, or both. While learning can’t really be “undone”, we can, and often do, sideline old skills and knowledge, or at least confine them to contexts in which they’re still useful. While unlearning may take time and redoubled efforts, our inquiry focuses on the cases when trying harder doesn’t help, and in some cases makes things worse.

Our shared understanding of the sources of stuckness is deepened by many big ideas. One source, Habits, islargely unconscious, and automatically triggered by internal & external cues. One reason habits are so hard to unlearn is that they are encoded in our brains with a close connection to their triggers, but not to the reward or goal that motivated them in the first place! [Wendy Wood, Bas Verplanken] As a result, we often enact the habitual even when unenjoyable. Surprisingly, even in cases of addiction, we usually “unlearn” habits that no longer serve us. The way we frame choices, as well as the dynamics of value, influence whether that happens and, if so, how long it takes. [Gene Heyman]. A desire for instant gratification draws us toward a local frame, while experience draws us toward a global frame in which we weigh the costs and benefits of our decisions over time as a package.

Our ability to choose is further complicated by the fact that self-regulation is a limited resource, and our reserves are depleted by an astonishing number of everyday activities including attempting to modify our own behavior and even by shifting mindsets [Kathleen Vohs ], which themselves can be a source of stuckness.

A mindset is a mental stance, which mediates both how we interpret our experiences and how we respond to them. Mindsets can pose particularly tricky unlearning challenges when shared by a group encountering opposition, for instance to their ideology [Corky Becker] or identity [Michael Pratt].The first is exemplified by the long running pro-life, pro-choice debate. The second arises when the shared identity of a group, for instance surgeons, define themselves by way of a common enemy such as hospital administrators. While the surgeons might have identity strength, in defining themselves in opposition to another group, they lack identity security. The result is intractable conflict since identity is threatened any time the opposition is seen in a positive light.

These and other threats trigger protective mechanisms that become a source of stuckness when our hidden commitments to warding off threats make us immune to the very change we seek. [Lisa Lahey]. This Immunity to Change can emerge at the collective level as well, acting as a source of stuckness in teams and organizations.

When looking at unlearning in systems, it would be easy to assume that another source of stuckness resides in our organizational routines, but in practice their interdependent, varied, and contextualized performance allows them to evolve over time [Martha Feldman].

The 4 Quadrant model, used here as a guide for taking stock of our unlearning inquiry, can itself [Ken Wilber] be used as a tool for surfacing the sources of system stuckness. In a nutshell, by crossing two dimensions, [interior<->exterior and individual<->collective] four realms of inquiry are formed: the exterior-individual [the individual measurable physical world, human behavior, biology], the interior-individual [the unseen, I, thoughts, feelings, identity, sensations, interpretations, ideas, concepts, mindsets], the interior/collective [we, shared meaning, belonging, culture, & relationships] and the exterior/collective [social structures, systems, ecologies, environment].The 4Q’s highlight that unlearning in systems cannot be addressed at either the individual or the collective levels – we must do both.

So, what can do we DO to support the unlearning challenges we surface? [fostering] Back in real-life, the hard kinds of unlearning are likely held in place at multiple levels. Fortunately, we take away 10 ways to unstick stuck learning, including changing the unlearning habits game by piggy backing new behaviors on old ones, disrupting the triggers, or even the enactment, of a habit [Wendy wood], and reflecting on who we want to be and what we value. While habits are unlearned at the individual level, some habit game-changers can be initiated at the system level, for instance, offering local rewards for global acts.

Making a map of our Immunity to change [at individual and collective levels] can reveal the hidden commitments that make it seem like we have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes. In addition to surfacing our interior dimensions, Deliberately Developmental Organizations [Lisa Lahey] offer many game-changing ideasas unlearning is woven into their everyday work.

While Discontinuities and game-changers require us to pause, we don’t have to throw out everything and start from scratch. We can even use existing routines as a starting point by reflecting on how we understand and perform them, revealing prospects for making our work more efficient, enjoyable, and aligned with our values.

As we bring our exploration of unlearning to a close we find there are no recipes to follow, but we do have 10 game-changing techniques for surfacing, understanding, and unsticking stuckness. As we approach the “discontinuities” these game-changers entail, we can borrow a strategy from the engineering and design world: building fast prototypes from which to learn as we create containers that make it safe to unlearn [David Perkins].





Harvard Graduate School of Education