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Posts Tagged ‘unlearn

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. -- Alvin Toffler.

A constant refrain from organisers of continuous education (CE) and professional development (PD) is “learn, unlearn, and relearn”. This is because schooling and formal education are not sufficient for dealing with most forms of modern work.

The tweet below provides a rare nugget of wisdom on the critical need to unlearn.

I agree.

However, it is not enough to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Most providers of adult CE and PD find ways to help learners learn. If they put the tweet into action, they must also help them unlearn bad habits and old mindsets first.

I clarify the mantra by pointing out the relearning should not reinforce what was previously learnt and then unlearnt. If this happens, this is like taking two steps forward and three steps back.

Take providing PowerPoint training or IWB skills as examples. These do not challenge a teacher to learn how to be more learner-centric. They also leave the tools and the power in the hands of the teacher instead of the students.
So by all means promote learning. As you do that, remove barriers by helping participants unlearn harmful attitudes and behaviours. Then ensure that they learn something new and different as a replacement.

The hardest part of learning something new is not embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones. -- Todd Rose (In “The End of Average”)

I am preparing for a keynote speech that I will deliver next week in the Philippines. I have been asked to share some thoughts about building 21st century competencies (21CCs).

My plan is to ask my audience to tell me what they think 21CCs are. I anticipate that they will provide answers that are similar to any Googleable framework. Once such framework is MOE’s “Swiss roll”.

I will not recommend that my audience bite into the roll wholly and uncritically. After all, our contexts, readiness, and mindsets might be different.

 The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

My sources

Instead I will outline three basic approaches based on a quote from Alvin Toffler. I will then suggest what they might need to do in education by learning, unlearning, and relearning.

I am probably going to ruffle some feathers because I am straying from “model” answers. But that is what one organiser expressed as the main reason for inviting me to speak. If you are going through so much trouble to fly me over, why worry about some lost plumage? What century are we living in?

This is one of my favourites quotes. I was not sure which image to use so I created two.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. -— Alvin Toffler

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. -— Alvin Toffler

Both capture a sense of helplessness.

The first is the person who is not 21st century literate by circumstance. The second is one who is not 21st century literate by who they are or how they choose to act.

One way to show that I am is 21st century literate is to cite my sources. These are the original images shared under Creative Commons.

You are biased and I am biased. If you choose not to admit that, then you are stubborn and biased.

We are biased because we learn things that help us survive. Things like talking or acting a certain way. We are biased even when we learn to balance a bike a certain way.


Video source

This amusing and informative video illustrates just that. If you ride a bike that turns right when you try to turn left, you cannot ride it even if you already know how to ride a normal bike well.

The creator of the video declared: Once you have a rigid way of thinking… you cannot change that even if you want to.

Most people can relate to this if they think about value systems or mindsets. Change agents learn this lesson the hard way and very quickly when trying to implement change.

But an anecdote with multiple demonstrations, no matter how intriguing, is not necessarily representative.

The man and his son illustrated that it was possible to unlearn something deeply embedded. He learnt to ride the “backwards bike” in eight weeks; his son did it in two weeks.

He then made a statement about neuroplasticity that reeks of Prensky-speak that should be ignored in this context. Neuroplasticity is a physiological process that refers to how the brain can change throughout life.

While it might be true that a young brain learns faster than an old one, we also retain the capacity to unlearn and relearn throughout life. It is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. It just takes time and effort.

One thing the video did not explore is mindset. This is not a function of brain physiology but of many other things like work culture, social environment, individual drive, risk-taking capacity, etc. We will change only when we

  • are aware there is a different way of doing things (e.g., just-in-time and just-for-me learning via Twitter)
  • realize that there is a problem with the status quo (e.g., meaningless mandatory workshops), and
  • think we have the capacity to change (e.g., mentors to guide).

If you want to teach an actual old dog new tricks, it will require practice and rewards. The process is Pavlovian.

If you want to change people, you must not only persist and incentivize. You must also address their mindsets.

Learn, Unlearn, Relearn #change11 by ecmp355, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  ecmp355 

Last week, TODAYonline claimed this exclusive with our Minister for Education in an article titled “A call to relearn how we teach our children“. The same article was published by TODAY’s parent body Channel News Asia.

I have no problem with the principle or even the rhetoric of putting the child first. Education Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat said:

Fundamentally whatever we do, we must rest on one clear focus – what is best for our students. We have to just keep doing that and getting it right.

But the way this was reported indicated what the press thinks parents still buy into.

Predictably, the article started with what parents would want to read, i.e., parents attending workshops conducted by schools to show them current math teaching strategies so that they know how to help their children with homework.

Read carefully and you realize that 1) it is the parents who are learning new math teaching strategies, and 2) the goal is still teaching to the test.

If you follow the original line of rhetoric, you could highlight how the reforms in math instruction are meant to activate broader thinking skills. These in turn help the child prepare for a less predictable future.

The larger issue is the need for change. We cannot teach the way we were taught because the circumstances have changed. What Alvin Toffler said holds true in this mathematical context:

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

A few readers reacted to the news article:

The first response was written by someone who mostly “gets it”. Parents need to change their expectations of what and how their kids learn. Furthermore, in the larger scheme of things what matters more is “the social, emotional and moral growth of our children”.

However, not all parents or readers are ready to unlearn, much less relearn.

The second response was a tirade against MOE and tuition centres. The gist of the argument seemed to be that MOE set unrealistic standards and that tuition centres bridged the gap that schools and parents could not. The writer argued for a return to fundamentals instead.

The third response echoed the previous sentiment, but in a different way. Absolving herself of being responsible for academic development, the parent wrote:

I do not want to “learn new ways to teach (my) children”. What my grandparents taught us is still the right track. I am my children’s teacher, but only to raise them to be good people and citizens.

Both wrote about going back to basics. One parent focused on academic fundamentals (the three R’s?) while the other focused on fundamental values.

I support the need for fundamentals, but we need to build on them.

The reality today is that kids are growing up in a world that is changing faster than when their parents were kids. Parents must continually unlearn what they know and relearn what is new and relevant. This applies to both information and values.

The cynic in me might point out that if those same parents grew up not just learning (or memorizing) in school, they might be more open to unlearning and relearning.

We need to learn and teach light. By this I mean being less heavy on content dumps and not hanging on to emotional burdens like old is gold. We need to learn all the time and teach our charges how to do the same.

Yesterday an RSS feed from a Facebook page reminded me of a famous quote by Alvin Toffler.

The quote was embedded in an image that did not reveal its licence. I used Tineye to do a reverse image search but was unable to find free-to-use alternatives.

So I turned to my usual source of CC-licensed images, ImageCodr. It did not disappoint.

The image I embedded here is not as nice as the one in the Facebook feed. Why did I use it?

  • I have already learnt an important 21st century literacy skill of attributing my online sources. I have also learnt more than one way to find usable images.
  • I chose not to go with the aesthetically more pleasing version because I have unlearnt the need to only impress with visuals.
  • I will relearn how to attribute as the standards of practice evolve.

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