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      Unlearning is the new learning

      by Susan Dumas

      elearning design

      The science of learning has evolved significantly in the last ten years. If you work in learning and development, understanding the science of learning and new techniques and insights for workplace learning will help you to better support your staff.

      What is unlearning?

      Unlearning is the process of discarding something from your memory. When you unlearn something you forget it, put it aside, and you lose knowledge of 

      But - why exactly would you want to unlearn something? In many cases when you unlearn something you can get rid of a bad habit, preconceptions or something that is false. Alvin Toffler, futurist and philosopher said: 

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

      We all have skills and knowledge to unlearn 


      I've got lots of examples of unlearning. I was born at a time when society, education, workplaces were very rigid, structured and formal. In my early working years, management structures were very hierarchical and demarcation not collaboration was common. As I gained experience in those environments, I developed both learning and management skills to match. In the last 5 to 10 years though, workplaces have changed so much. I've had to unlearn habits of formal learning and communication to adapt a more agile learning and collaborative working approach.

      The role of unlearning is vital in today’s workplace. Why? Employees need to unlearn in order to move forward alongside their company so they can move ahead, work more effectively and further the company’s mission. In this blog post, we’re going to discuss seven tips for unlearning in the workplace.

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      1. Foster a sense of willingness


      Long-term employees often have a hard time unlearning especially if they’ve been doing something the same way for a long time. It’s not impossible to promote unlearning as long as there is an openness towards it. Instead of demanding compliance, a manager should foster a sense of willingness to unlearn and learn something new. Ease into the idea during a transitional period. Gradually assist employees by letting them unlearn and relearn slowly and over a specified time period.

      People are more co-operative in the unlearning process if they are willing participants. To make it easier, you can role model the new behaviour.

      Think of something like energy saving behaviours - you may need to first raise awareness of the bad habits to be unlearned e.g. switching off your PC if you leave your office for say more than an hour. But you could make this easier to do by buying new PCs or laptops with energy savings settings. Furthermore, you can involve people by asking them for ideas on how they save on energy bills at home.

      "Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.”

      Bruce Lee

      2. Pursue the unfamiliar


      Consider the employee who shows resistance in using a new agile way of doing presentations. They’re severely limited in their ability to work offsite and make presentations on-the-go. When confronted with new technology or a new idea, many people look backwards for something familiar. They want to view the new with an eye for the old. The problem is that this is self-limiting.

      In order to grasp new ideas and let them take hold, you need to pursue the things that are unfamiliar and get to know them. Consider the new release of Windows 10. How many people jumped on this right away? How many decided to wait until it felt comfortable? Unfortunately, they may never feel comfortable switching. When unlearning, you have to let go of the familiar so you open your mind to the unfamiliar. This book on leadership - yes to the mess, talks about handling complexity and the importance of being agile. Read our blog discussing messy learning here. 

      3. Change the location


      One of the easiest ways to unlearn something is to move away from the location where you learned it. New surroundings can help you notice new things. This is a bit of psychological manipulation. You’re basically tricking your brain into unlearning by engaging in a new surrounding so you can unlearn one idea and learn another. It is another subtle way of helping you break a habit.

      4. Learn from your opposite


      This isn’t exactly an “opposites attract” scenario, but it’s similar. When employees are surrounded by like-mind people, their ability to unlearn is hampered. When teamed with a business professional from a different background, employees are better able to look at things from a fresh viewpoint. Diversity in teams and organisations in general is good for everyone.

      By exposing themselves to something new, employees begin the unlearning process and open themselves up to learning something new.

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      5. Foster curiosity


      Consider a child’s capacity for learning. Help your employees see the unlearning from a child’s view. A child is usually open to discover new approaches and new techniques without much hesitation at all. They don't have the same 'adult baggage' of fear or looking stupid. Ask yourself:

      What would you do today if you weren't afraid?

       A child learns by engaging the five senses and investigating new situations through trial and error. The same methodology translates to the process of unlearning and then learning something new. What this really means is encouraging employees to find their inner child – their sense of curiosity that leads to increased creativity. To encourage employees to be open to new ideas and unlearn past knowledge, they can imagine learning as a child would from a place of curiosity. Read our blog on treating adults like adults when learning. 

      6. Set goals and make success clear


      Employees respond better to the unlearning process if they not only buy into it, but if they have specific goals. Socially and emotionally, people work better this way - as long as it is no more than two to three key goals. The most effective unlearning process provides clear and challenging goals without infringing on the learner’s sense of ownership of the goals. Goals have the ability to provide motivation and self-reliance.


      First, be sure the goals set during the unlearning process are actually attainable. Make the steps clear so employees can check them off their list. For example, if you are introducing energy saving measures, you might kick off the unlearning with a campaign. You could set some initial easy targets e.g. 1% savings in first month, with a leader board for each area to see where people are against target. You first goal, could be:

      Everyone turns their PC off at least once per day when leaving their
      office for the first week of the campaign.

       By setting small goals like this, your transition will be easier. You might have some 'energy champions' spend a few minutes each day, giving out gentle reminders for that 1st week. This encourages the unlearning and learning process while making it easier for employees to do.

      7. Continuous support and checking in


      Unlearning may be as difficult for the company as it is for individual employee. To ensure a smooth transition, encourage colleagues to help each other out. Consider creating a support team to handle the unlearning process. This team can handle any glitches that arise.

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      The take away

      Today’s workforce needs to embrace continuous learning in order to move forward. Employees must continue to unlearn, learn and relearn in order to stay relevant in today’s modern, digital workforce. Change is continual, and in order to stay current and not dive into the world of the obsolete, unlearning is a vital component to 21st century employees. The most overlooked aspect of learning is the process of unlearning. Everyone has acquired knowledge that built their mountain of ideas, some still viable and others outdated. In order to unlearn and move forward, employees have to be willing to work through the process. Our world is in constant flux, and the most successful companies will be the ones who unlearn, learn, relearn and evolve with it.


      If you want to know how you can be more successful in your role and make a bigger impact in your organisation - read our corporate guide to digital learning.  

      The future of workplace learning for busy people - Percipio 


      If you'd like to explore the new future of workplace learning - especially in a world where your staff need flexible, on-demand learning, take a look at our new intelligent learning platform - Percipio

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