By Jim Shimabukuro
Like gold, we horde what we’ve learned about education and expect to live off the interest for the rest of our professional lives. Tossing it out with the garbage is unthinkable. Crazy. Yet we also know that we can’t re-envision or change education as long as our slates are filled with the dusty remnants of prior learning.
Jim Finkelstein, in “Simple Minds Think Alike: The Art of Unlearning Complexity” (Huff Post, 4 Jan. 2013), says that “Unlearning how things have been done in the past, while seemingly unnatural is entirely possible….When it comes down to it, the stuff that gets us stuck in the first place is what we’re striving to unlearn…. All it takes to change and escape from a habitual rut is a single thought or idea that is swimming in the opposing direction of everything you’ve ever learned or been taught.”
The idea of unlearning, of wiping the slate clean, of “swimming in the opposing direction” to envision change is not new. It has a long tradition in Eastern philosophy, and educators such as Karen Windeknecht and Brian L. Delahaye, in “A Model of Individual and Organisational Unlearning” (Proceedings 18th annual Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management, 2004), say that “The major reason for encouraging or engaging in unlearning is to allow the inclusion of new information or behaviours, and as a means to assisting learning, innovation and change” (3).
Emily J. Klein, in “Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning: Lessons from One School’s Approach to Creating and Sustaining Learning Communities” (Teacher Education Quarterly, winter 2008), defines “unlearning” as “letting go of deeply held assumptions about what it means to be a teacher, what classrooms look like, what the essence of teaching and learning is” (80). However, unfortunately, she leaves us with a bit of wiggle room to keep some of the old stuff on the slate by saying that “a certain amount of unlearning or changing of beliefs is necessary for any school reform” (95).
Obviously, any vision of reform will retain some of the old, but Klein’s “a certain amount” is vague and an open invitation to retain enough of the old to doom any chance for meaningful change to emerge. The problem in education is that we’re not giving unlearning a fighting chance to show us what the possibilities for change and innovation are. What are we afraid of? It’s only thinking. It’s not as though we’re going to bulldoze and dump what we have before we’ve had a chance to invent a better model.
The first step is just a mental picture, an idea. Nothing more. If we determine it’s worth developing, then we will. If not, then we won’t. If we’re willing to risk this first step, then the question is, how do we create a vision of a model we’ve never seen? The answer is simple and as old as time itself but also baffling. Imagination. We use our imaginations.
Here’s an exercise some of us might want to try. (See the “school” box above.) It should be familiar. It’s called thinking outside the box. As long as we stand inside the box, our ideas of what education can be will remain pretty much the same. The challenge is to step outside the box and, without looking back, to rethink education. Can we imagine models of education that are completely free of the elements in the box? Can we describe and discuss education without relying on the vocabulary that kept us rutted in the old model for over a century?
With today’s computer and web technology, this is no longer just an exercise. We have the tools and resources to construct a new vision of education. All it takes is imagination.
Filed under: Theory