Sunday, 5 April 2009

Unlearning...stop before you start...

I read an interesting article on the Training Zone site this week that focuses on the need to unlearn old ways before you can really take on board new ideas and techniques.

The ability to continuously change and develop is something that I have experienced and witnessed so many times not just in myself but in my work. It is always interesting to observe people who are stuck in their old ways of working and just stuttering in their ability to move forward.

From a training perspective it is really important for people to be able to take on new ideas so a technique that can help prepare them for this is worth taking note of. Here are some excerts from the article:

"Research in Denmark and the USA sheds new light on how most adults learn. It is based on the old concept of unlearning. As adults, much of the time we need to unlearn what we have picked up in the past before we can properly take on the new learning

At the University of Copenhagen, Professor Avril Einn has been working on the psychological principles behind this approach. "It is rather like having to empty a glass before we can fill it again," says Professor Einn. "Except that is not what actually happens in the brain. It is a mere psychological trick. If we believe we are letting go of old learning then somehow we are more open, more willing and more able to take on the new." This is based on ideas in psychosynthesis. "If you write down on a piece of paper something that has been troubling you and then tear up that paper, or burn it, somehow that symbolic act allows us to let it go. We have conducted research with over 2,000 subjects asking them to symbolically let go of past learning. Some have done this using their imagination, just in their own heads. Some have spoken it out loud. And some have written it down and torn it up."

What is most significant is the second phase of the study. What they have found is that almost every person is able to learn more and faster immediately after taking this preparatory action. On average people are able to learn, remember and use 39% more than was the case in a control group. This is a staggering increase. I have looked over the comprehensive research evidence and I have to say it looks both sound and compelling."

I can remember a leadership course that I developed and delivered with a third party. We gave the delegates the task of writing down some behaviours on a slip of paper and then screwing up the paper and throwing it in the bin. For some it sounded like a stupid gimic but they went along with it. For others they found it quite a difficult task and getting them to part with the piece of paper was quite a challenge.

However I do remember that for all of them it was clear that there was an emotional trigger taking place by undertaking the act. What was more interesting was observing any behaviour change that then took place. Those that grappled more with the parting of their paper typically had a greater change in behaviour....their glass had been emptied and was ready to be filled up with the new learning.

If you are currently designing a learning intervention and are particularly looking for people to take on new ways of thinking or behaving then consider how you will help them unlearn their old ways first....


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Cheri Baker said...

Interesting study, thanks for posting it. There are some interesting techniques for "unlearning" in the systems thinking playbook, around releasing old beliefs and judgements.

I think that creating an atmosphere of play and curiousity can also contribute to unlearning.


Anonymous said...

Interesting study & post. It resonates with some of the concerns I've had with the notions of double-loop learning as an intellectual endeavour. I suppose it comes down to the processes of unlearning and re-learning and whether you're generating a new hypothesis that needs to be tested, or taking a more incremental process of experimentation that generates new knowledge/ theory about the world. (sorry that's a bit garbled - i'm thinking out loud rather than commenting. Good post. Thanks)

Chris Morgan said...

Thanks for your comments and thoughts.

It's a good point that sometimes it is not so much 'unlearning' but a case of building on what people already know. However people sometimes create a bit of a barrier to this without them knowing by clinging on to a strong belief.

Whilst it may be a bit corny (and used too much by trainers in an ineffective manner), juggling can be a great metaphor to help with this. People often have a belief that they can't juggle...but it is actually quite straight forward to learn. When people make some progress in this it can really bring down some of the belief barriers. Also, juggling has some great metaphors to link to 'focus on the throw, rather than the catch....'