Learning to unlearn

Learning to Unlearn: The Importance of Unlearning and How to Use it

In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge speaks of a “learning organization”, an organization that recognizes that the key to growth is individual and collective learning at all levels. He recognizes that in situations of rapid change only those that are flexible, adaptive, and productive will excel. To keep up, evolve, and survive, the practice of learning is pivotal. However, learning is no longer a linear, stand-alone process – first, one must invest in learning to unlearn.

For years, through social and personal conditioning, education, and work experience,  we fall into a rhythm of functioning. Routines and mindsets become rooted in consistent practice without encouraging much change. In fact, not just people, but businesses and organizations also fall into the repetition of practices that have helped them succeed to a certain degree. 

With time, the major concern that arises for individuals and organizations alike is slowing down or even coming to a complete halt. As social, economic, and digital systems change rapidly and continuously, so do the processes that run these systems. Older processes get outdated and are replaced with new ones regularly. If we want to successfully navigate the changing market and business landscape, we have to let go of outdated knowledge as well. Thus, to navigate the changing systems of the world, learning to unlearn is the most crucial first step.

What is Unlearning?Learning to unlearn

Unlearning is the act of eliminating a previously regular practice from habit. That which we can do with our eyes closed, that which we know like the back of our hand, is no longer the same. We live in continually changing times. Unlearning is a tool that allows us to learn from a previous experience or pattern while making room for new learning. If we are to keep up with the transformations occurring in all spheres of life, it is necessary to let go of older operating systems and practices to make room for new ones. That is, in order to adapt to new means and methods, it is important to unlearn the older ones. 

But unlearning is part of the end goal. What comes before it, is the need for us to learn to unlearn. 

What Happens When We Refuse to Unlearn?

It is true that the systems we have deeply relied on for years are now evolving at a dizzying pace. Keeping up with them can be a challenge. But a refusal to address this evolution can threaten growth and even survival. 

There is no question that unlearning is uncomfortable. It is certainly difficult to forego the behaviors, mindsets, and practices that have governed our lives for long periods of time. Learning to unlearn requires focusing our energies on limiting or stopping our use and dependence on older, outdated means of attaining a goal. A sudden change can throw us off balance. Refusing to unlearn would mean rejecting the disruptions that are deeply and rapidly affecting the world’s systems today. If we want to keep up with the present to prepare for the future, there is no alternative but to accept and adapt to the changes that are occurring around us. Failing to do so can lead to stagnancy for both individuals and organizations. 

The need of the moment is to accept the fact that disruptions and transformations will continue. Innovation and invention are unstoppable forces. And if we want to survive and thrive in these changing times, it is up to us to take responsibility and learn to unlearn. 

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What are the Steps to Unlearning?

Unlearning, like learning, is an extensive process. It requires mental agility and patience. It can even seem a bit daunting. Having to accommodate renewed knowledge while simultaneously letting go of old knowledge can be a demanding activity. Therefore, when learning to unlearn, it is crucial to keep an eye on the ultimate goal, growth. 

  • The first step to unlearning is acceptance. We have to recognize that the models, systems, and processes that have worked so far do not achieve the same results anymore. In fact, the results from these models, systems, and processes cannot sustain us in the present times. Thus, the sooner we learn to accept that something isn’t working, the faster we can move forward from it. Learning to unlearn requires admitting that what we once knew and followed, is no longer effective or useful. It is an indication to start the process of learning anew if we want to get ahead in the game.
  • The second step to unlearning is finding sources of learning and relearning. It is important to note that learning to unlearn means finding the opportunity to relearn. Once a habitual process has been eliminated, it has to be replaced with renewed knowledge. Fostering our curiosity can be key when attempting to relearn. As newer doors open to us, we might also find newer perspectives for looking at old problems. This can help us open ourselves up to experimentation and exploration when relearning. 
  • The third step to unlearning is being open to new experiences and knowledge. As we recognize the patterns that we engage in, we need to find ways to break them. We must put a stop to existing thought patterns and focus solely on the new ones we are trying to assimilate into our consciousness. This step requires a dedication to learning to unlearn by allowing relearning to occur in its place. It necessitates the practice of immersing ourselves in the new to eliminate the old ways of thinking and doing altogether. 

How to Continuously Unlearn and Relearn to Grow

Unlearning and relearning require us to change and challenge our own beliefs, habits, and comfort zones. Recognizing and resolving internal resistance can help us overcome the fear of the new. 

The future is a not-yet-into-focus picture from where we are standing. But what is clear enough is that the processes and systems that brought us here cannot sustain us beyond today. Embracing the discomfort of change, accepting the unceasing evolution of knowledge and innovation, and accepting that learning to unlearn and relearn is our best course of action. 

Learning to unlearn makes way for better, more effective practices to take charge. However, it is crucial to remember that this knowledge will also change. This necessitates a mental preparation for relearning. The continuous cycle of unlearning, learning, and relearning can help us tread uncharted waters successfully. Ultimately, it is a question of what our goals are. If they are to sustain themselves, remain steady, and grow despite the world’s changing circumstances, the key is unlearning and relearning. 

Keeping Up with Change

Times will continue to change, disruptions will consistently emerge and we will always need to grow and thrive in the world’s current environment. The ability to question it and find answers to it lies indubitably in the practices of unlearning and relearning. Unlearning has become an important skill today. The pace of business change has intensified dramatically now as nearly 70% of executives agree that their industry will change more in the next five years than it did in the previous fifty. Thus, organizations are looking for individuals who can adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of the marketplace just as quickly. 

Unlearning can help us avoid skill set imbalances, reduce repetitive errors, and enable extensive growth. Learning to unlearn allows unlearning the past, learning from it, and opening yourself up to relearning skills to equip yourself for the future. Ultimately, deliberate learning cycles of unlearning and relearning will make all the difference. 

If you are looking for online courses to upskill and reskill, check out Emeritus’ portfolio today. Learn from the world’s best universities and faculty in just a few clicks.

By Juilee Kamble

Write to us at content@emeritus.org

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