The key to unlock 21st Century problems?

Alastair McGregor discusses the benefits of what he sees as an essential 21st century skill – ‘unlearning’.

Ditch irrelevant thinking!

The challenges and problems our students will face over the next 50 years will be nothing like the problems of the past. What we have “learned” will often stand in the way of a solution, and we end up with a post-mortem.

If we learn how to deal with challenges of the past, we think we are prepared for the future – but when have we ever really been able to predict the future accurately? When a problem or challenge mutates we are left fixed, brittle and psychologically unarmed.

If we constantly continue to learn without at least a willingness to unlearn irrelevant methods, theories and practices,  then we continue to cling to the status quo and become wonderfully efficient in skills and practices that deal with the here and now but leave us unequipped to deal with tomorrow.

What does it even mean? Acquiring skills, knowledge, understanding? The definition of learning itself is growing; it is mutating. As it grows and mutates, the methods and content that still make up the fabric of education systems across the globe don’t seem to be changing fast enough.

Learning in school is cumulative, with one layer built on top of another, like a wall. Once an almighty structure of learning is built, why on earth would one want to take it apart? Perhaps we have built walls around our intelligence and ability that are so sturdy they are holding us back from what we can accomplish?

So much of the learning that happens in school is forgotten as we progress into adulthood, not because it was poorly taught or because the teachers were inadequate but because it is becoming increasingly irrelevant. As the rate of progress increases in our society, “walls” are not what students need.


Unlearning is not a skill that sits well with current education systems. A metaphor to engage with the idea of unlearning can be found by looking at medicine. We live in a “symptom society” in which we want the fastest and easiest solution to relieve us of pain. The first response is usually aimed at treating the symptom and often takes the form of drugs. It usually appears to resolve the issue. Or does it? The flaw in this process is twofold:
1. Even if the symptom is successfully eradicated, the root cause/issue remains unsolved and often undiagnosed.
2. The second line of defence becomes weak and under-researched because it is seen as irrelevant.

Treating the symptom

So it is in education. We are very good at treating symptoms because we are very good at measuring results. We treat the symptom (eg, poor behaviour, low grades, disengagement in lessons, low employment after school) then measure how good we are at this (exam results improvement, attendance, English and maths progress…) without looking at the cause of the problem. If we were more accountable for our school drop out rates, the level of anxiety and depression in teenagers and the chronic lack of independent thought, I think we would pay much more attention to their root cause. It could be argued that overt revolution hasn’t been fully successful yet in education because we are too efficient at dealing with the symptoms of problems rather than the problem itself.

Unlearning as standard

Future issues such as managing the consciousness of artificial intelligence and the political and economic power shifts ahead will require revolutionary thinking to produce powerful solutions.

What if unlearning was our “second line” of intelligence?

Students who have learnt everything they needed for the exam, got their top grades and have psychologically attached their identity to their success at school, may or may not evolve to address these challenges and problem . . . . . and as we know, evolution is slow.

Let’s advocate revolutionary thinking as opposed to evolutionary thinking in our students by giving them the courage to unlearn, so they can progress with enthusiasm and excitement into an uncertain future, not with trepidation, hesitation and unquestioning obedience.

In practice

What does this look like in practice and how can we as teachers/lecturers initiate the process in our learners? The process involves Failure, Flow and Future mindset. I believe that a learner who is unlearning will often be:

  • Frustrated;
  • Operating in a structure of psychological safety, no anxiety or punishments;
  • Making lots of mistakes and producing lots of output at a draft level, written, verbal or artistic;
  • Comfortable with realising failures, untruths and irrelevant information as often as possible;
  • Able to produce the research and evidence as to why something is flawed, then sometimes be able to present a solution;
  • Operating within a strong, positive relationship with their teacher/lecturer.

Flow is the psychological state of trance where one is completely absorbed in what one is doing, often losing track of time; it is where the level of challenge is just above the level of skill. (Do see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on this in the video as well as Jef Van Den Hout’s work on team flow.)

How do we achieve this?

1. Ask seemingly impossible questions and/or questions that are designed to frustrate that particular learner and get them used to failing in a safe space.

2. Be honest about all the flaws, mistakes and issues with the current situation/task.

3. Challenge the individual student’s beliefs, values, previous knowledge and even character traits. (e.g. playing devil’s advocate.)

4. Try to put the learner into a future mindset; we need the answers for the future – we often have the answers for now.

5. Change the brief over time, adjust the parameters, resources and expectations.

If all our children were adept at unlearning, they could jettison a procedure or theory that has become obsolete and then apply themselves with enthusiasm and dedication to new methods. Imagine if this process could occur without a teacher, emotional distress or students making a link between being right and being “clever”. Imagine an entire education system that could facilitate learning and unlearning whilst retaining motivation and enthusiasm. Anyone who is able to unlearn what they know rapidly and then apply themselves to a new situation without getting caught in negative emotion, doubt and self criticism is perhaps the ultimate learner?

Alastair McGregor

Alastair is the author of “Demanufactured – Taking Education Apart”. He is currently studying a doctorate in education and working with new teachers, having spent over ten years teaching in secondary schools in deprived areas. Alastair is committed to enabling schools and teachers to meet the future with confidence and has lectured at universities internationally.



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