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Lifelong UNlearning

As the Web continues to challenge traditional education models, educators have a lot to relearn.

Are you an "unlearner?" If not, you need to become one—fast. Of the many important messages articulated by Duke professor Cathy Davidson in her newest book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, that may be the one that is most relevant for educational leaders at this moment. Quoting author Alvin Toffler, who said the key literacy skill of the 21st century is the "ability to learn, unlearn and relearn," Davidson goes one step further: "Unlearning is required when the world or your circumstances in that world have changed so completely that your old habits now hold you back. You can't just resolve to change. You need to break a pattern, to free yourself from old ways before you can adopt the new."

In case you haven't noticed, the circumstances in our world of education have changed radically. The information that our students once came to us to learn now resides in millions of places online. If they are savvy at connecting to the networks and communities that the Web now supports, they can find their own teachers—teachers who, in many ways, may be more effective than the ones provided to them in the classrooms they attend. This learning can happen anytime and anywhere they have a connection, which, increasingly, is anywhere.

The fact is this: Our system was built for an era of learning that no longer exists. To fully embrace this new era, we're going to have to unlearn and relearn much of what we currently know.

Preserving the Problem

This is a difficult moment to consider any serious unlearning. Every initiative coming out of state and national conversations—Race to the Top and the Common Core are two examples—is meant to improve the status quo, not change it in any meaningful way. There is little in these initiatives that really challenge us to reimagine education in truly transformative ways. Davidson quotes author Clay Shirky, who correctly points out that "institutions will rightly preserve the problem to which they are the solution." Schools are no exception.

Regardless, as the Web continues to challenge traditional education models, we have a lot to unlearn. Davidson suggests that we need "a time of systematic unlearning" when we "rethink what we want from education from the bottom up." That includes rethinking assessment, the structure of the classroom and the school day, the ways in which we deliver curriculum, and the roles of teachers in the learning interaction in order to more accurately reflect the potentials and challenges of living in a globally connected, ubiquitous-access world.

Students as Unlearners

Even more importantly, the students in our classrooms need to be adept and agile unlearners, as well. At a moment when knowledge is expanding at an ever more rapid rate, much of what they "learn" from us will be obsolete or irrelevant in short order. They'll need to be constantly able to unlearn and relearn using the technologies of the moment as part of an ongoing interaction with knowledge. As Davidson writes, "The process of unlearning in order to relearn demands a new concept of knowledge not as a thing, but as a process, not as a noun, but as a verb, not as a grade-point average or a test score, but as a continuum. … It means alway relying on others to help in a process that is almost impossible to accomplish on your own."

It's that last part that we as educators have to begin to model more transparently for our students. How are we connected with the larger world in ways that show our ability to learn differently and to collaborate with others? How are we ourselves engaging in the process of unlearning, of constantly challenging our long-held beliefs about education and the world in light of a moment when becoming educated now encompasses many paths, and when we carry classrooms and teachers around with us in our backpacks and in our pockets?

We have much to unlearn.

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at