The art of unlearning

The art of unlearning – how to not get stuck in the same routines

Mastery of skills is not just about learning but also about unlearning.

When I first started doing Cuban Salsa, I was impatient. I thought that I could just grasp everything within a few classes. Every time our instructor taught us a new move, I would try to quickly execute it without taking the time to absorb the knowledge. Instead I assumed that my brain could just internalise everything within a few minutes. In addition, I thought that I could accelerate learning just by doing long workshops or taking private classes. Soon, I found out that this was not working.

The art of unlearning

When we talk about education, we unconsciously refer to a linear process of adding more knowledge to our memory. This has been described by Paulo Freire as the ‘banking’ concept of education, where the teacher ‘deposits’ information into students similarly to someone adding money to a bank account.

According to this concept students passively receive information, and then memorise it and repeat it. There is no critical thinking, just following instructions. This sounds similar to what me and other students had been trying to achieve during our dance classes. We thought that we were going to learn faster if we would just increase the amount of information received through workshops. Despite our best efforts, it is not possible to cram knowledge in our heads, as if they were hard drives.

Looking back, it seems that we were acting as if we were robots. Was it our education system that has conditioned us to view ourselves like robots? Dancing certainly made this painfully obvious.

We were literally dancing like walking robots.

There is a false assumption that learning is a static process of information addition and storage. However, learning is a very dynamic process where information and ideas are deconstructed, recombined and continuously adapted in a constant flux. In addition, as we grow as humans, many learned behaviours, habits and routines do not serve us anymore because the environment around us has changed with new challenges.

Just because we think we know something it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t challenge our knowledge. In fact ,we should reject ideas that do not serve us anymore. Who we were yesterday is not who we will be tomorrow. We are constantly evolving, learning, unlearning and relearning.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

Heraclitus – Greek Philosopher 544 BC – 483 BC

We need to feel comfortable to abandon our routines, build new habits, and reinvent ourselves.

The seductive power of routines

In a previous article I talked about the art of Shu Ha Ri and the three learning stages of mastery. During the first stage the student follows what the teacher is doing without questioning. It is all about disciplined learning of the fundamental routines and techniques. This first stage may almost feel a bit mechanical but it is a crucial foundation for what comes next.

To achieve the second level of mastery the student needs to break with tradition and depart from existing practices. At this level, the student has internalised the underlying principles and feels comfortable to make changes. This is the stage where the magic of creativity starts happening. Finally, at the third level of mastery the student becomes the master by creating her own rules and taking her art to new unexplored and fascinating places.

Unfortunately, I think that our formal school education is most of the times stuck at the first stage. We spend most of our time absorbing and memorising basic knowledge. But much less time in challenging what we learn or adding to it. We get used to rely too much on pre-existing learned patterns but fail to learn how to unlearn.

Somehow we have conquered the first level of mastery but never realised that there are higher levels of mastery we can reach. Of course, there are people who do realise this and become extremely successful, creative, and original or else we would never have had any innovations. But for most of us there is so much untapped potential as we have been trapped in our routines.

How to enable unlearning and reinvention by embracing chaos

In the role of improvisation in life and dance I talked about how business and life are unpredictable as every day we are dancing with risks and unforeseen events. Improvisation is about being in the moment, proceeding without a plan and responding to novel situations. Teams and organisations can only improvise and innovate if they are used to operate with this frame of mind.

For many years, teams were viewed as just groups of individuals performing predictable tasks based on their functional expertise. However, as we saw in my previous article, this is a very narrow view of teams. We now understand that teams are complex adaptive systems. They comprise of diverse specialists who depend on each other to make sense of a complex reality, operating usually in an uncertain and chaotic environment.

Successful leaders deliberately disrupt routines in order to create situations of organisational learning. They bake into the everyday workflow an element of unpredictability to help everyone become more mindful, improve their critical thinking and come up with new and better solutions to increasingly complex challenges. However for this to happen leaders need to let go of control and allow individuals and teams to self-organise and improvise as the future unfolds.

The goal of unlearning becomes a daily pursuit in the life-long journey of improvement.

Teams, like Jazz bands, need to be able to embrace chaos in order to innovate and reinvent themselves. To be able to respond in the moment, and discover skills they’ve never knew they had and find solutions they’ve never previously imagined. But this doesn’t mean they should be chaotic but rather being able to dance on the brink of the chaos.

Learning and unlearning take time

Learning happens daily with small eureka moments. It might not seem like much but over a long period of time small changes completely transform who we are and how we think. Many times, we mistakenly have the idea that with intensive training sessions we can achieve the same faster. Although, they can perhaps accelerate some elements of learning intensive accumulation of knowledge (banking concept of education) doesn’t have the lasting impact that small daily insights have over the long-term.

On a daily basis we build our wealth of knowledge in small chunks. Experience helps us understand how to add, remove and recombine segments of knowledge and create new patterns of thinking. It helps us recognise what new options are possible within the constraints arounds us.

I have always found that training which is more spread out over a number of months provides a much richer learning experience. Time is a key parameter in the learning process. It allows our brains to process the information in great depth at its own pace while consciously reflect on new knowledge and make unconscious connections to other thoughts and ideas. Even more importantly it take time to unlearn old routines and replace them with new ones.

It is a maturity process similar to making a fine red wine.

However, in our fast-paced lives we rarely consider slowing down and allowing things to take their course. It takes a certain approach unlearning our routines and noticing the small learning opportunities in our daily lives. True mastery takes time and it relies not only on our ability to practice but also on our ability to learn, unlearn, experiment, make mistakes and continuously evolve as human beings.

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