Unlearning – Part 1

You can lead a man to knowledge, but you cannot make him think. Every teacher eventually learns the truth of this. Those who can survive this revelation and still find a sense of purpose in what they do, often manage to stay in teaching. Many others drop out when they realise the futility of much of what we do.

It is at this time of year, marking exams, that the reality of this is truly foregrounded. As I wade through the essay responses to texts I love dearly, which have the power to radically transform lives, and about which I have facilitated hours of (I believed) fruitful discussion (despite what appears to be jaded cynicism, teachers are – on the whole – an optimistic breed), I am – even though I should know better – disappointed by the superficiality of many of my students’ thinking.

You know all those humorous exam answers published on various websites that you think could not possibly be true, because nobody could be that stupid? They are, and they can. A colleague of mine in the music department discovered last week that the part of the grandfather in Peter and the Wolf was played on the basset. She said she supposed it did make a weird kind of sense, because the basset did make a low mournful sound. I suggested that what sound it made would depend on which end you blew into. As you can see, it is contagious: I can sometimes feel myself dropping IQ points while I mark.

This kind of exchange is common at exam times, and it highlights the reality that people only learn something when they care about it. And most of the time, young people don’t care about Peter and the Wolf or Othello, or any of the stories that have profoundly shaped some of us. And schooling is not really designed to get them to care.

Those of us in the field of education should know this better than anyone, but we – tragically, I think – overlook it: learning is an inherently uncomfortable and often unpleasant process. Even when it is being done on a very superficial level – the memorisation of facts – it is nasty, but when learning is done properly, it takes a lot of motivation to persevere in it.

This is because a key skill in acquiring deep learning is the ability to unlearn and then relearn. This means being humble enough to accept that your views are probably faulty, the courage to determine where the faults lie, and the tenacity to rediscover by asking the right questions.

Now people have a remarkable capacity to endure hardship, but only when they perceive the rewards for doing so to be more valuable than the inconvenience and discomfort caused in doing so. That is why so many of the most naturally gifted athletes at school level never go to achieve much after school. I have heard many professional sportsmen speak at school assemblies over the years, and I cannot tell you how often they begin with the words: “I was never the best [insert sportsperson of choice here] at school…” It is not necessarily the most naturally gifted who excel in life, but those willing to tough out the sacrificial journey to success.

I don’t think learning is any different. It is just that we are so seldom provided with the incentive to learn. It is easier to adopt a wilfully ignorant stance, because it is less work, and creates the comfortable illusion that the world makes some sort of sense. But until you are willing to take the terrifying journey of unlearning, you will never realise your potential.

It is only when you become skilled at unlearning, for example, that you can avoid those horrifying moments when you open your mouth and your mother comes out; when you catch yourself acting like you swore you never would, because you hated it when your dad did that. In life, most of our learning does not happen at school, and – even at schools – not everything taught is worth learning. Not everything we have learnt is worth keeping. Recognising that is the start. Now, as I have already stated, learning is rarely fun and never comfortable, but the rewards far exceed imagining. There is a power in realising that you do not have to be like your mother, that angry is not “just who I am”, and that you have the power to unlearn those habits. The greatest gift you can give to another, is to show them how to unlearn and relearn.

The real tragedy is that for the first time in history we live in an age where we have at our fingertips – literally – all we need to facilitate the process. I frequently – perhaps cynically – remark to my classes that they have in their pockets the most potentially powerful, life-altering device on the planet. Even now, you may be holding it in your hands. Your smartphone grants you access to the most profound insights of the greatest human minds from all ages. When last did you use it for more than downloading videos of cats and uploading selfies?

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