Teachers as Educators Should Learn to Unlearn


Source: The Hindu

Is teaching-learning limited only to application of knowledge already acquired? Or does it also call for looking at things anew?

“The illiterate of the future are not those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler

When we allow ourselves to be controlled by our preconceived and misconceived notions, governed by myths, conditioned by false assumptions and (mis)guided by wrong opinions we have formed about people, we are not open to new ideas and are unwilling to undergo a paradigm shift. When we fail to allow our minds to let go of “mis-and-dis-beliefs” we have held and learnt over a period of time, we don’t allow ourselves to blossom.

A close introspection will help us know whether we are really interested in unlearning what we have learnt. Unlearning makes us literate, educated, and wise. Unfortunately, the topic “unlearning” has not been much discussed in academia and the need for it is not emphasized in our educational institutions.

What is unlearning?

Unlearning is the process of realising that something which we learnt earlier is incorrect, ineffective, or obsolete, admitting it and deciding to erase such bad conditioning and misconceptions from our mind for good. It is the process of exploring what we have stored in our system and deleting all the unnecessary data. It is the process of saying bye to an old, obsolete, and outdated paradigm, and embracing a new paradigm and willingly undergoing a paradigm shift.

Unfortunately, we are controlled by myths which do not allow us to open our eyes to reality.

Common myths

About two years ago, The Guardian published a news report which stated that four neuromyths are still prevalent in schools. The myth that students will learn better if they are taught in a way that matches their preferred style of learning (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) was believed by over 93% of the teachers surveyed, though there is no evidence to support the claim. The second myth that people only use 10% of their brain was also found to be most prevalent among teachers — no scientist has proved it. The third myth that the difference between the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere results in individual differences among learners was believed by 91% of teachers. The fourth myth is that playing brain-training games can help improve one’s memory, concentration, or intelligence.

The author contacted world-renowned psychologist Howard Gardner, who developed the theory of multiple intelligences (MI), and Professor Michael W. Connell, Principal, Institute for Knowledge Design, via email to get their views on the myths. Replying to his query Gardner replied, “…I am not an enthusiast for the concept of learning styles – and am frustrated when “MI theory” is erroneously collapsed with ‘learning styles’… I agree that #2 and #4 are myths. #3 may have a shade of truth to it, reflecting hemisphere dominance and specialisation, but the statement itself is not helpful.”

Similarly, Michael W. Connell in his response stated, “I agree with Howard — #1, #2, and #4 appear to be persistent myths. As for #3, the popular notion of “right-brained vs. left-brained” is almost certainly a gross over-simplification that is not useful and may be used to justify ineffective teaching practices…”

Alas, myths become viral in the era of social media and make academics believe them as facts and scientific truth. That is the power of “post-truth”.

There are many more myths that are prevalent in India. Here are some such myths: 1) The teacher is the source of knowledge. 2) There are slow learners. 3) To help learners learn English pronunciation better, phonetics must be taught. 4) Only brilliant students can crack Civil Services examinations.

Categories of teachers

A few years ago, the author had an opportunity to interact with a group of school teachers. A few had over 25 years, some over 10 years, and the rest had 5-10 years of experience. When he asked them, “Do you teach various subjects (courses) the way you were taught by your teachers about 20 years, 10 years or five years ago?”, some nodded their heads and gave an affirmative answer.

“Don’t you think it is important to be aware of the modern teaching methods and learn new skills and also to bid goodbye to traditional teaching methods and let go of false assumptions?” Their response was similar to this: “We have many years of teaching experience. We know everything. We are comfortable with our teaching methods. We don’t need to learn any new skills.” It clearly showed that they resisted change and were not ready to unlearn.

In this context, the author categorise the teachers into three types: Neomethodophobes, Neomethodomaniacs, and Neomethodophiles.

Neomethodophobes are allergic to anything new — new methods, new approaches, new knowledge, new skills, new ideas, etc. They are neither open-minded nor willing to accept any change. Neomethodomaniacs are teachers who like novel ideas and methods of doing things but are uncritical of anything. They blindly accept changes and are very easily influenced by anyone as they lack critical thinking. Neomethodophiles are those who look at things critically and are willing to unlearn. (P’Rayan, A., IATEFL Cardiff 2009 Online Forum).

Teachers, as educators, who constantly unlearn are able to enable their students to learn to unlearn.

Ways of unlearning

The first step towards becoming an “unlearner” is not just to have a thirst for knowledge but to question our knowledge. Discussing our knowledge with those who are competent in a particular field, being challenged constantly, and being ready to be proved wrong will help us understand whether what we have learnt is still relevant or obsolete. It is also important to question one’s belief system and check whether we are treating myths as scientific facts.

The next important step is to take steps to develop creative and critical thinking.

Unlearning is required not only in educational institutions but also in workplaces. Not only teachers and students but everyone, irrespective of his/her profession, needs to learn to unlearn as it is the first step towards acquiring real knowledge.

Attaining knowledge is easy but attaining wisdom is difficult.

What Lao Tzu says is quite relevant today: “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”


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