unlearning – a tiny reflection

My photo – Tate Summer school a long time ago.

There’s a lot of learning that goes on in universities. Of course, I hear you say, that is what universities are about. Yes, but I’m thinking particularly about the learning that goes on during the doctorate and afterwards. On and on and on, it’s always learning. Learning more and learning different. Always are to know and more to learn.

As someone who works in the field of education, learning is my bread and butter. So everything I do work-wise is about teaching and learning. But my job is also about unlearning. Forgetting what you know. Doing it no more. And a confession – I’m particularly interested in unlearning.

Unlearning sounds easy but is actually really tricky. It;s mot just a matter or forgetting or replacing one thing with another.

Imagine you know how to ride a bike. You’ve ridden a bike for years and years, probably ever since you were a child. Knowing how to ride a bike is second nature, you don’t think about it consciously. You just get on the bike and pedal/steer/balance. 

Now imagine unlearning bike-riding. Not so easy. How do you tell your legs that they don’t know how to pedal and your body it doesn’t know how to balance? Yes, if you unfortunately have an accident or illness, you may find yourself inot knowing how to do something you once took for granted. But if nothing untoward has happened since you learnt to ride, how do you unlearn something that you just know?

Some of the things that we have to unlearn as part of becoming a scholar are not as tricky as riding a bike. We can for example unlearn how to write the essays that got us to the doctorate. At the same time we can learn the craft of writing an authoritative argument about a topic or question that we think matters.  

But you know, if you are writing argument and have got through the most painful stages of unlearning the essay, that this unlearning/new learning is not necessarily quick. Nor easy. You have to work at it. Practice, get feedback, put texts out in the world to see how they get on. But you can do it.

However, some unlearning is not tied to learning something new. Unlearning is not always about re-learning. 

Think for example of the common phrase making the familiar strange and the variations on it. You hear this phrase said a lot in relation to research practice. When you go into a new place as a Researcher, you need to set aside what you think you know. And be open to new insights, opinions, ways of doing things. You have to make an effort to understand what is going on, to comprehend new ways of relating and speaking.

But making the familiar strange is a lot harder than it first seems. And that’s because some of what we know is exactly like riding a bike. Some of the ways that we see, hear, feel and respond in new places are deeply held parts of who we are – or at least who and what we have been. 

So being “reflexive” – as we researchers call the recommended way of dealing with beliefs and taken for granted ways of being, thinking and relating – calls for unlearning. We often need strategies for unlearning. Writing is one unlearning strategy and probably the most commonly  used in the academy. We write out our interpretations and then critically appraise the texts, looking for hidden assumptions, implicit beliefs, unquestioned knowledges.

But there are other strategies too, some of which involve putting our selves into new or uncomfortable situations where we have no option but to try an approach that we wouldn’t ordinarily take. See the picture above. And writing can be helpful here too. Some of the more experimental academic texts can for example jolt us out of our usual habituated ways of reading what we write. Make us wonder whether the academic writing we take for granted is the only way to communicate. Make us question the nature and traditions of academic communications. Speculate about the usefulness of particular genres.

, questioning and speculating, musing even, are all paths that can lead to unlearning. Although they don’t automatically lead to it. 

We take a lot for granted about academic writing and about academic work. Even when we know there are things wrong with our institutions and their customs and we are able to talk about the problems, we may not easily be able to find alternatives. That’s perhaps a case for sticking with unlearning. Refusing to relearn. Remaining in a state of questioning and wondering. 

Sticking with the trouble, as Donna Harway puts it, may be significant in universities. I’m particularly thinking here of some of the really toxic institutional practices that we live with – highly individualised competition. Practices that produce and reproduce gender, race, sexuality, neurotypicality and able-bodiedness. Despite the presence of decals, positions and processes that signify different intentions. These temporary solutions often have unintended consequences. Seemingly sensible strategies decay and become impotent. 

Unlearning the deeply socially ingrained is as hard as unlearning riding a bike. But so much more is at stake. And there is no easy end point to this kind of unlearning – it really does require a perpetual state of critical uneasiness, and readiness to put yourself and the institution on the spot.

Unlearning while doing and being is difficult and very tricky.  But also integral to the work of scholarship and our institutions. I think we need to talk about it more. But then I would, given learning/unlearning is my job!!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in de-familiarisation, reflexivity, the familiar, unlearning and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to unlearning – a tiny reflection

  1. It’s hard. Takes headspace, time, energy. Worthy of course, but not easy!


  2. Z.Anwar says:

    it is really hard to unlearn especially when the learning has taken place through cultural conditioning, to ‘unlearn’ sometimes seems to be a betrayal to my identity and cultured community. I like that I have selected a topic that I feel passionate about yet I am not directly involved in it. I look forward to learning about those who have different lived experiences to mine


  3. Glenys says:

    Interesting thoughts on unlearning. It seems painful and so difficult but hopefully it leads to personal growth.


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