Unlearning: The Forgotten Skill for the 21st Century


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Gary Larson

In his great little book, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About School and Rediscover Education, Clark Aldrich suggests that the purpose of education today is threefold: Help kids learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be. As I’ve mentioned previously, I think his book is worth the read and provides some fascinating rationale for these three goals. I have believed this for some time and immediately shared with my wife that someone has finally recognized the wisdom of my long-held position.

It didn’t take her long to burst my bubble by asking. “So, Mr. Thought Leader, how many schools have you straightened out with this wisdom?” My silence spoke volumes. “Fewer than I would have hoped”, I replied humbly. So, like any thought leader worth his salt, I began… well… to think.

I thought about the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are closely identified with 21st Century Learning… creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, flexibility, adaptability, self-directions, perseverance (grit), responsibility. Who could argue with these, I thought.

I thought about the gifted school leaders I’ve met, the talented and dedicated teachers, the colleagues, the programs we’ve hosted, the PLC’s I’ve guided. On and on I thought. Why has so little changed?

The subtitle of Aldrich’s little book came back… 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About School…. There it was! All of the people that must be involved in the process of helping us develop the critically important and, oh so sensible, 21st Century skills have spent years learning how to learn, how to be, and sometimes even, how to do in school.

We are explaining, urging, often demanding, changes in the way we do things… and sometimes even evaluating people on their success in this transition. We do this as if the logic of the need for change is sufficient to overcome years of learning…learning how to be successful in the “old” school.   This is true for kids and for adults alike.

We get cranky with the slow adopters. We move them to the left side of “bell shaped curve” of dedicated teachers. We do this with no regard for our knowledge (gained through experience) about how hard it is to abandon things we’ve always done, especially if we’ve been positively reinforced for doing them in a certain way.

Our success in transforming the experiences for our adults and students will hinge on our ability recognize, and even honor, what people have learned. It will depend more on our encouragement and support for their unlearning of old ways than our ability to exhort them to try new things. As Danny DiVito said in the film Other Peoples Money. “ I bet the last company that made buggy whips made the best @#$&*@# buggy whips on the day they closed.”

We must learn new ways of designing learning for our students. But first we must learn how to unlearn those things that, while once valuable, now stand in our way.

What have you had to “unlearn” in order to be really successful at helping our kids acquire those College and Career Ready skills for the 21st Century?


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