Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Exploring the Idea of Unlearning: A quatrilogue, with invitation to participate

alesnick's picture

The threaded discussion below took place in October, 2010 (over email) at the initiative of one colleague seeking ideas from others. The focus began with the idea of challenging students' mental models and grew into a consideration of the question whether there is such a thing as unlearning (from the point of view of the brain, of human experience, and growth) and how the idea of unlearning signifies in various fields and endeavors.  In hopes of continuing and broadening participation in the conversation, we have moved it to Serendip and invite all interested to join.

From Alison, October 30:

Hi Alice, Jody, and Paul,

For next week in one of the faculty pedagogy seminars, we are addressing this question: How can we get students to unlearn what is preventing them from new learning?

Do you have thoughts on that? This is the “challenging mental models” stuff Bain talks about, and I thought you might have strategies and explanations for why it's challenging that I can share with the faculty.



From Paul, October 30:

Alison -

Sorry I haven't heard Bain talk about this so I could share in a common vocabulary.  Everyone's deepest and most significant/stable understandings are unconscious.  I suspect this is what Bain means by "mental models".  Other terms that have been used for it include "tacit knowledge" (Micheael Polanyi), "folk knowledge"," and "intuitive knowledge" (cf /exchange/threedoors).  This knowledge, embedded in the "cognitive" unconscious (so as to distinguish it from the Freudian unconscious) is the knowledge we actually live by, as opposed to the knowledge we talk about.  It originates in genetic information, in day to day experience, and, to some extent, in repeated exposure to collective (cultural) stories and behaviors related to them.  It is not only the knowledge we live by but is also much more stable than the knowledge we talk about.

My own tendency is to think of that kind of knowledge not as something that has to be "unlearned" to achieve new learning but rather as something that should be built on.  In my experience, this involves three steps.  The first is to make the knowledge conscious, ie to give students an activity that reveals the knowledge they have in a form where they can see it.  The second to give students students an activity that reveals the limitations of that knowledge, ie a new observation that can't be accounted for by the existing knowledge. The third step is to show, ideally in several practical ways, that a different knowledge works better in the new context.

The point here is to connect the "new learning" to the ongoing natural learning process.  One doesn't want students to doubt the usefulness of their cognitive unconscious nor even to "unlearn" something that is there and perfectly useful in some contexts.  One wants to engage the natural learning process in a way that uses context-specific knowledge as a tool to develop new, perhaps broader, context-specific knowledge.

Hope this is helpful, one way or another.  Feel free to share if so.


From Alison, October 30:

Hi Paul,

This is all very in keeping with my sense regarding much/most learning. What Bain is talking about, though, is basic misconceptions about the way things work, for example, the  tendency for students to misunderstand basic principles in physics. The difference between what you are describing and what these examples get at is that in no context is the misunderstanding useful or appropriate. So the process you describe works, but in those cases it is less about building on existing knowledge and more about replacing that.

I will share your description of the three-step process with faculty colleagues. It's clear and helpful.




From Alice, October 30:

Hi All,

What an interesting conversation.

I was actually thinking in the 360 meeting Monday what fun a course on "unlearning" could be -- it could pull in ed, neurobio, cognitive science, trauma studies, and breaking . . .

When Anna Herbert, the Swedish Psych.  fellow, was here a few years back, she gave a talk in my senior seminar about how the brain recovers from trauma.  It focused on how the memory of trauma has to be literally dis-solved, dis-connected so that the neural pathways that make it possible are routed and webbed in new directions/new stories, and the trauma re-solves, via a kind of diffraction.

I am also thinking about the idea that matter is neither created nor destroyed.  Is this still it?  Well, if so, I wonder if this is in some sense true of thinking, too.  Is thinking "replaceable?"  Could an idea be come by -- be taken up into thought, without being appropriate or useful -- meaningful in some way -- in the time/to the person of its taking up?  I really mean these as questions, not arguments. 

To answer your question, Alison, about ways to get at tacit knowledge, here are some thoughts:

-- Ask students to write informally for 5 minutes their first thoughts on the issue at hand, then ask them to "tell lies" about the same issue. Ask if there is any way one of the lies could be true.

-- Believing and doubting could be another version of this, and really encourage people to take strong stands.  Role play the point/counter-point -- to show the possibility of the poles and stuff in between or a third way.

-- Give people some kind of text that pertains to to the issue/problem/topic.  Ask them, once they're familiar with it, to do a gap/silence analysis of it.  What is NOT here, NOT said/represented?  Compare with the gaps others find.

-- Use silent movement.  So for example, Sara Narva does "image explosions:"  You crouch down, she says a word, "Synapse!" and immediately without thinking, people burst up into a frozen physical expression of that term.  Do it a few times with different terms, more and less abstract.  Then choose a focal one, and do three explosions each time trying to go deeper past the already known, believed, or formulated.

-- Show students an answer that is incorrect and work through revising it with them.  My daughter's 5th grade math teacher looks at the kids' tests before she collects them; if there are incorrect answers, she marks them with a red dot and the students have the opportunity to revise.

-- Barometer, especially when, after hearing from classmates about why they stand where they do, we ask who wants to shift position and why.

I'm intrigued by the idea of basic misconceptions and what might happen were we to compare its pedagogical meaning in say chemistry  and education.  In Ed, something I'd call a basic misconception might be the idea that "poor people don't care about their children's education."  This is an idea we want students to re-examine, recognize as a social construction, and move beyond -- we want them to perceive the world, and interact within it, without this idea as a foundational, unquestioned pivot.  I suppose I would like students to replace this idea with the idea that most parents everywhere are caring about their children's education, and that caring looks/is expressed variously and not transparently across differences of sociocultural standpoint, and that the work to do is figure out how people are caring and how to strengthen that, rather than judge them.  I believe that if someone preparing to be a teacher persists in this belief that poor people don't care, this will hobble her future study of ed and effectiveness.  So I suppose this is similar to a physicist not wanting a student to persist in a misconception about how the world works. But I don't think the person HAS to give it up in order to keep going/learning/working -- I suppose because I think the world doesn't work so well anyway, so there's lots of scope for this person to keep learning-and-doing. And I think there are limits to how fully some individuals CAN give it up, given how deep prejudice goes. Is it here that I depart from the chemist who needs students to get something before they can continue?


From Jody, October 31:

Hi all,

Yes, interesting conversation.

I have been thinking about whether/under what conditions someone's misunderstandings would actually be not at all useful and appropriate. Taking up Alice's example ("Poor parents..."), and agreeing with the importance of and the approach to challenging that misunderstanding, I'm playing with the idea that it could still be useful (if not appropriate) in the sense that tapping into those assumptions that we all/most of us carry allows for a deeper grasp of people think.  This goes to Paul's point about making the tacit explicit, and suggests that this act of tacit to explicit is itself useful, beyond the movement to a more appropriate/accurate/useful paradigm.  But moving to physics:  while this would be valuable to someone teaching physics, since it would be important to understand how learners are thinking, I can see that it might not be valuable to someone doing physics.  So maybe, as Alice was posing, the whole idea of 'basic misconception' differs across disciplines or even categories of disciplines (soc science, etc.).

In terms of ways of helping students to "unlearn mental models," great list that you propose, Alice, I especially like the idea of asking students to 'tell lies' about an issue and then interrogate lies for truth.  I'd add to those suggestions that I think field experiences can provide a powerful opportunity to undermine paradigms, particularly when these are framed with questions/issues targeting the mental model at stake and followed up with opportunities to identify and write/discuss misconceptions and possible new conceptions.  I'm wondering whether/how this might apply to physics, chem, education, sociology...

One of the questions that arises for me in all this has to do with the role of the teacher in fertilizing/prompting/directing both the 'unlearning' and the 'new learning.' I'm also thinking about student 'readiness' for dropping/picking up new paradigms.  In the scenario in which the teacher creates ways that position students to 'unlearn,' etc., my way of thinking about it is that students will be at different places in relation to this, so some will question old ways of thinking, some may just note the tension, etc.  This range seems to me almost inevitable in Ed classes and not really a problem, whereas in physics I can imagine that someone not yet ready to question/unlearn could get really stuck as a learner in that subject matter...


From Alison, October 31:

Thanks, all, for all the great suggestions and thoughts on this.

I definitely think there are differences across disciplines, so when one person in my seminar (a sociologist) thinks about this, he is conjuring a different set of mental models than someone else in the seminar (a language instructor), although of course there are also overlaps. Some examples have to do with socio-cultural interpretation and others with less marked issues (false cognates in languages, for instance). I agree with Paul's original assertion, and Alice's and Jody's subsequent reflections, that you can start with whatever beliefs students bring and build on them/problematize them, etc. But perhaps more so with the unmarked issues, it is hard to get students to be conscious or caring enough to revise that model (that's not a criticism of students, just an echo of Bain's point that there are so many ways in which students' thinking is challenged constantly that they tend to take up only some and not others lest they be completely overwhelmed and destabilized).

Another dimension of this phenomenon that occurs to me is evaluation. One of the reasons this issue has become clear to folks in physics is because of the way that much testing is done and the effort some faculty have made (e.g., Halloun, Hestenes, Mazur) to test whether students' basic beliefs in fact change after they take a course in the subject. And what they have found, as we know, is that, no matter what grades the students received during the class they took, their basic understanding, both immediately after they took the class and subsequently, didn't change. (We also hear this about teacher education --  that it doesn't change people's basic beliefs and approaches, but we have less concrete evidence.) I think in fields like education and sociology, it's harder to tell because we don't formulate pre- and post-tests to see what students actually believe. If you ask a student to explain a phenomenon in physics, such as, "If you swing this ball around your head on a string and let go at this point which way will the ball go?" and ask students to explain why, it's fairly easy to tell whether they have a Newtonian notion or more of an Aristotelian one. And again, there is no social valence to this question, as there is to "poor people don't care about their children's education."

So interesting about Anna's talk in your class, Alice.  That description is also how language learning happens for adults -- less emotional trauma (for most people, anyway) but the same kind of having to re-route (I wrote about this some in Education Is Translation). And here again, I think we all agree (and one of the reasons I like the metaphor of translation) that any new learning in formal education is already building on/transforming something.

And yes, I think I agree that there are conceptions that should change (for deeper, more accurate [or less wrong, in Paul's terms] understanding to occur), but there are others that have to change if someone is going to be able to understand and do something (physics, a new language).

I am going to put together all of your thoughts to share with the faculty.  Very very helpful! And I love the idea of a 360, Alice, that takes some of these up. It would be so interesting to explore these issues with students struggling with them in courses. (No doubt students would challenge some of our own mental models around this topic!)

Thank you!!


From Paul, November 1:


I too am very much intrigued by this conversation.  The issue of the nature of "misconceptions" and "misinformation" and how to deal with them became a spontaneous focus this summer in a science lab session with K12 teachers in our summer institute program (/exchange/bsie10/15) and has been a repeated issue in this fall's senior seminar in biology in society (cf /exchange/node/7938).  I do think there are certainly "differences across disciplines," but my hunch is that those differences have less to do with differences in the subject matter of the disciplines than with differences in objectives and associated pedagogical approaches that generally characterize different disciplines.

Yes, of course, if the objective is "to understand and do something" in the context of existing understandings in a particular discipline, then there are clearly "misconceptions" and "misinformation" that get in the way and so need to be "corrected."  The physics example is a good one, and was in fact the origins of my own thinking about this sort of thing umpty years ago.  My point though is that in a broader context, that of inquiry in general, believing a ball will follow a curved path when the string breaks is not "wrong;" it is a summary of observations that works in some contexts and not others (and was, in fact, taught as part of physics in earlier centuries).

My point here is not only that the context-dependent nature of truth transcends disciplines and should be taught as a part of all disciplines (see forum discussion in a recent brain/ed/inquiry course session at /exchange/brained10/8), important as I think that is.  What's at least equally important is the generality of the "basic understanding ... didn't change" observation.  My guess is that this is inevitable when one simply labels existing understandings as "misconceptions" and "misinformation" and acts to "correct" them in order to get on with the business at hand (in the mind of the educator).  Genuine "translation/transformation" occurs, I suspect, only when the origins and inevitable limitations of existing understandings are exposed and challenged by new observations.  Irrespective of discipline.

Delighted to have this all available as grist for the TLI group, and intrigued by Alice's 360 suggestion so as to continue and expand the discussion.  In the meanwhile, how would people so far involved feel about my archiving the discussion on Serendip in a way that would make it accessible for contributions by additional people and available for use in a variety of courses?


From Alice, November 2:

I would be happy for this conversation to dwell on Serendip and include others. 

At the conference I just attended with Anne, we heard Karen Barad (prof. of feminist studies and a physicist at UCSC and author of a theory of "agential realism" and, most recently, of the book Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning", (Duke University Press, 2007).  She, together with her co-speaker Vicki Kirby, said a lot of suggestive things. One of these has to do with Derrida's claim that culture is not a second system to nature -- that everything in the universe is written, and is writing.  A word isn't second to a thing, interpretation isn't second to facts or texts.  We've all heard a lot of this over the years (I for one was taken back, or aback!, to my college years at Yale which were literally riddled with deconstructionists), but hearing them in this time, this moment felt fresh to me.  Here, they suggest another way to think about disciplines than those involving more or less social valence.  There are worlds beyond the human world, but I don't think any academic disciplines are among these.  And of course, in the human world are many non-human things (beginning, say, with the teeth in our mouths).

The conversation we've begun here has parallels with other conversations we are all in: about "college access/completion/access to the future/pathing;" about the purpose, point, and scope of formal education; and about the relation of knowing to innovation.  It is very difficult today to speak about limitations of learning as knowing/knowing how without sounding flaky, irrelevant, retro, or ignorant.  In a sense, our conversation here is a place to explore ways of speaking about this, and that's exciting to me.

At the conference I also heard an art historian speak about Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" -- that big landscapy art work in the desert -- she said in her talk that it was a failed piece because it didn't move enough, didn't fulfill Smithson's vision of the earth "gyrating."  Another person in the audience, though, pointed out that it gyrates with the movement of the earth.  Again, important questions of scale (time and space) are in play here. 

Today, the conversation makes me wonder whether, when it comes to learning about and how to do certain things in the world, this goes better with minimal teaching all together -- with people being maximally active and minimally "taught."  I realize this could simply be read as arguing for inquiry or "hands-on" approaches, student-centered, etc., but I'm wondering if the model we need shouldn't actually be even more independent/student directed than this.

This connects, of course, with the idea of "motivation" -- as you suggest, Alison, students aren't always committed to replacing their stories with those of other people, and they may do it temporarily but not transformatively. 

People, like all living things, are always motivates towards continued living and exploration.  And the work with First Person last week suggested that being in touch with one's passions really is a survival-and-liberation skill, important as any other.

Looking forward to more,