In order to grow, ‘unlearning’ can be just as important, if not more so, than learning.
That feels like a funny thing to say as someone who works in education.
Schools are in the business of learning. It’s where we learn how to read, how to write, how to pass exams, how to make friends, how to deal with conflict, and ultimately how to become an adult, ready to enter the world.
They are ‘learning’ and ‘thinking’ institutions.
But as much as we teach students to learn, we should also be teaching them how to ‘unlearn’, ‘rethink’, revise and update not only their knowledge and ideas, but also their beliefs about the world.
Recently I started reading a book called ‘Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know’ by Adam Grant, and it quickly became one of those books where I ended up bookmarking every few pages and found myself constantly nodding away like a crazy person.
Grant’s book examines the art of critical rethinking and encourages us to question our opinions and open our minds. He explains how in life we favour the ‘comfort of conviction’ over the ‘discomfort of doubt’. In doing this we have a preference for ‘echo chambers’ which reaffirm our views, and we surround ourselves with people that agree with us to a fault.
We tend to shy away from and actively avoid environments and people that challenge our assumptions, and cause us to rethink. These are threats to our egos and sense of self.
Grant argues that given the magnitude of information, knowledge and technology that is now available to us, there is a need to question and update our beliefs more readily than ever before.
In the book, Grant draws upon an observation made by a colleague of his, which outlines how we all take on one of three different personas when expressing our views or opinions; the preacher, the prosecutor, or the politician.
The preacher – this is where we are the ‘enlightened one’ who knows the answer. We often take on this persona when our closely held beliefs are in jeopardy, and we need to protect and promote our ideals.
The prosecutor – this is where we demonstrate our opinions by setting out to highlight the flaws in other people’s thinking. We prove we are right by showing that they are wrong. We shift to this mode when we vehemently disagree with another person’s reasoning.
The politician – we slip into this persona when we’re trying to win over an audience by campaigning and lobbying for the approval of others.
The problem with taking on any one of these three personas is that it means that we don’t rethink our own views.
Instead Grant calls for us to take on a different persona; that of the scientist.
The scientist searches for the truth and does so by seeking to test out hypotheses about their thinking, and gathering updated knowledge that can prove or falsify their beliefs. Adopting this persona requires us to grant permission to ourselves and others to have the flexibility of thinking to change our minds.
The problem with granting a flexibility of thinking is that when we’re in preacher mode we can view it as a sign of moral weakness, as a prosecutor it means admitting defeat, and as a politician it’s because we are fickle.
Grant jokes that the facts that we defend most strongly often tend to be the things we know less about. Rather than basing our arguments upon the latest scientific studies, we fall back on lines we remember from conversations past, hearsay, or ‘that thing I heard from my friend’s brother in 2006’.
This really made me laugh, and also forced me to acknowledge how true this is.
How many times have we regurgitated or asserted an opinion based on that thing we heard someone say that one time that we really liked the sound of.
I’m embarrassed to say that I have done it many times, without even recognising it!
I didn’t question it. I never fact checked. I’ve rarely sought to update my views.
The fact is that our thinking should be constantly evolving. The more we change our mind, the closer we (hopefully) come to the truth.
When I reflect upon when I have seen these personas in an educational context, I feel that the preacher and the prosecutor personas are most prevalent.
Just this week I had a student tell me that she wasn’t going to choose Sociology as one of her A-Level options (although she wanted to) because her father had told her that ‘it wasn’t a proper subject’. She went on to say that she didn’t think she would be going to go to university because he had also said this would be a ‘waste of time’.
This sort of preaching can be dangerous when it is projected upon impressionable young people.
I’m sure we have all been subject to damaging views like this growing up.
‘PE is pointless, Drama won’t help you in the real world, you’re going to fail in life unless you’re good at Maths.’
Parents (and teachers) often like to give their opinions on A-Level subjects, and even career choices, but often their schooling and experience is frozen in time, and ten, twenty, or even more years out of date.
Many jobs and careers now require degrees, and the world isn’t what it was. People can have multiple careers in their lifetime, and the skills gleaned from the social sciences seem to be increasingly sought by employers.
Sidenote: I really don’t believe that going for university is what is best for everyone, and there are many different routes to success!
My worry is that often our students will stand by the beliefs of someone they love and respect, even though these views may be outdated and no longer ‘true’. So, they need to be able to become the scientist, to either prove or falsify this hypothesis for themselves.
I distinctly remember having a sports sociology lecturer at university who I thought was the cat’s whiskers, saying that (sport) psychology was a waste of time, and I held that to be true for about ten years. It wasn’t until I became more of a scientist in my thinking that I started to challenge my beliefs by reading and listening to podcasts on this topic area, and I actually found out that I thought he was wrong! Ten years of avoiding something that I now enjoy, because I held someone’s else’s beliefs to be unwaveringly true.
Words matter, and as educators we must use them wisely.
We need to give students space not only to make their own minds up, but to become scientists in their own learning and unlearning, thinking and rethinking.
We must encourage our students, as well as ourselves, to see our knowledge and understanding of the world as an evolving process, rather than a syllabus we learn and forever know.
We need to guide them to realise that as things change, so can we.