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What Are Words For; Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning

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

Bruce Dixon, from Modern Learners, says, " matter who you are, this time, right now, is a truly awesome time to be a learner. "  While I agree with Bruce, his observation makes me wonder, "if this is such an awesome time to be a learner, why aren't we seeing numerous, wide-spread examples of awesome learning in schools?"
  • Where is learning happening most readily and effectively?
  • What does it mean to be educated?
  • How and when are modern learners becoming educated?
The key to advancing our education, and creating innovative, relevant schools may rely on our willingness and ability to unlearn. How do we unlearn?

In his recent post, "The Urgency to Unlearn", Will Richardson acknowledges, "educators have learned through personal experience what constitutes an education, and we have learned as participants the “best path” to get one."

Will, as he typically does, challenges our thinking, "What is the most profound UNlearning that needs to happen in education?" Dig a little deeper if you want to read the LinkedIn comments to his posted question, they are interesting.

Marga Billing, from Harvard's Learning Innovations Laboratory, says our reluctance to change often lies in our inability to see beyond the way things have always been. Billing poses these four questions when trying to figure out if something needs to be unlearned.
  • Do I need to think, behave, do or perceive in a new way?
  • Is there previous learning that is getting in the way of my thinking, behaving or perceiving in new ways?
  • Is what I am trying to learn a threat/challenge to my identity, to how I see myself or how I see the world?
  • Would trying harder give me the results I am looking for or might it create more entrenchment?
A satisfying slice of my professional learning occurs when I facilitate conference workshops. I would get all puffy chested during introductions, mentioning my half-century of school-based experience. On one hand, I proud to be living life in a school setting, on the other, my history means I likely have more to unlearn if I want to move forward as a relevant, innovative educator. 

I have spent a lifetime playing the game of school, with varying degrees of success. My parents prioritized learning and becoming educated. Our Rolling Meadows home was one block from the grade school, one-half mile from the junior high school, and just over a mile from the high school. The local school districts were and still are, among the best in our state.

Early on I recall enjoying elementary school. It wasn't until I was tested for the gifted program that I started becoming competitive about academic achievement. While this approach put me in good graces with my teachers, I realize today this was not a great approach for making and keeping friends. In middle school, I adjusted my approach and put forth just enough effort to achieve average marks. It was more important for me to make friends and I thought to be like everyone else, to achieve average performance, was the way to do this.

I started high school with a drive to prove my worth to the teachers and coaches in my new school. Over time, I found the high school game less than satisfying. I was learning more by playing sports and by working part time jobs. The payoff for exerting effort became clear to me, authentic assessment and clear, personal objectives. Am I alone with my disenchantment with school-based learning? Apparently not, high school sophomore Isabella Bruyere shares her perspective in this interesting post, "Why School Sucks".

My half-assed strategy did not translate well, at least initially, to college. I floundered without purpose for a couple of years. I bounced from school to school, and major to major, not really sure why I was there. Once I realized my friends, opportunities, and life were passing me by, I isolated myself and mastered the college game. Graduating with honors and straight As through two masters degree programs seemed satisfying at the time, but was I truly educated? At the time, I thought I so. Then, about seven years ago, I started reading and writing, a lot.

More than sports pages and sticky notes, I developed an insatiable appetite for words. I credit my dad for getting me hooked on books, primarily history, sports, and who-done-its. I also came to recognize my parents, without college educations, are among the most intelligent people I know. Granted, they weren't smarter than me when I was in high school because we all know teenagers know everything. Fast forward to present day, I am constantly surrounded by intellectuals and teenagers, how did my parents become so smart, so educated? The answer, of course, WORDS.

"Knowing more words makes you smarter."

How do we learn more words? By making reading and writing, like other healthy habits, essential parts of our daily routine. In "The Wealth of Words", E. D. Hirsch, a professor at the University of Virginia, shares some interesting research supporting the impact vocabulary has on our intelligence and education.
  • Vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities.
  • Correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.
  • A large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one’s general cognitive ability.
Hirsh recommends making vocabulary development a focus of early childhood education. He also recommends a cumulative, skills-based curriculum, and immersing learners in informational texts across all disciplines. In short, knowing words helps us learn more words, accelerating the relatively slow process of learning that sticks.

Personally speaking, my education became real and impactful with my absorption and regurgitation of words. The processing of informational text and the acquisition of a richer vocabulary has ignited a spirit of unlearning and relearning. Other educators in my learning community have mentioned the satisfaction of becoming educated through personal experience and through immersion into reading and writing. This helps to explain why many educators speak highly of blogging to process, document, and share their learning.

It's difficult to be critical of an institution that has impacted my life positively and profoundly, at the same time, unlearning has exposed unsettling differences between school, learning, and education. Recognizing, and asking challenging questions about these differences will help us move schools from the fringe to closer to the center of our learning experiences. For many of us, unlearning could hold the key to better learning. No disrespect to Alvin Toffler, reading and writing will lead the way.

Is there something you want to UNLEARN? Are you rethinking assessment and evaluation, classroom design, homework assignments, learning objectives, or course content? You are invited to summarize your unlearning plan in the comments section.

References and Related Reading

Dixon, Bruce, and Garreth H. Says. "Learning About Learning." Modern Learners. 29 July 2017.
E. D. Hirsch, Jr. "A Wealth of Words." City Journal. 27 Jan. 2016.
Richardson, Will. "The Urgency to Unlearn." Modern Learners. 20 July 2017.

photo credit: Onasill ~ Bill Badzo Port Colborne Ontario Canada ~ Reconstructed School Room ~ The Port Colborne Historical and Marine Museum and Heritage Village via photopin (license)


Aaron Davis said…
Interesting post Bob. I think that it can be easy to encourage more reading, but what blogging uncovers for me is the power of engagement. Having completed a few different courses of late around coaching, one of the points that was made was the ability to listen. I think that there is still a danger of reading the text that we want to read. This is where the challenge maybe, to uncover new ideas and take them on. Not sure 🤔

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