Learning un-learning

Uploaded on 12 May, 2006 by Marvin (PA)

I hot-footed it from Cheltenham to the Pervasive Media Studio a couple nights back for a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe. The topic was ‘unlearning’ which is a sufficiently interesting topic for a Knowledge Transfer/Exchange professional to drag me out and through the wind and rain that Bristol chose to throw at us!

I wasn’t entirely sure what ‘unlearning’ was; I’d constructed a meaning that was roughly a bit more purposeful than forgetting. The brief presentation from Daniel Doherty (University of Bristol, Management School) ranged from the quite possibly certifiable Institute of Unlearning through to more constructivist (and believable) approaches.

There was quite a bit that bordered on (or was overtly about) brainwashing and ‘re-programming’ people Leaving aside the ethics and morals of those particular applications of unlearning, the discussions were mainly around trying to decide if there was more to it than situational flexibility. We touched briefly on meta-physics in trying to figure out how far back into perceptions of reality you had to go before it became ‘unlearning’.

Quite a few of the examples described were really just putting one set of learnt behaviours or patterns of thought aside to more effectively address a particular situation. We didn’t feel (and I’m speaking in the royal ‘we’) that this represented unlearning. Quite a few of the proposed unlearning situations (miltary training, regime change, etc) are externally imposed. Even if there is a degree of consent there is an external mechanism, framework and big shouty Sergeant Majors moulding you to become the best of the best of the best. Sah!

Uploaded on 12 May, 2006 by minxlj

I was curious to see if anyone could propose an instance where that level of ‘unlearning’ could be initiated and carried through in a purely individual framework. Apart from physical impact injuries to the skull, or psychotic drugs, there didn’t appear to be. Which got me to wondering if in fact unlearning is something that you can consciously undertake.

Even more benign approaches to unlearning, such as the coporate merger or unlearning intolerace require external intervention. The incoming organisation (or new CEO) will impose ‘their’ view on the organisation being absorbed. The UN has a conference series on unlearning to help people identify strategies to tackle intolerance in their societies through education, inclusion and example.

There’s no doubt that you can learn new patterns and behaviours that are more effective to the changing circumstances and social ‘norms’. Can you unlearn without the rather scary brainwashing aspects, I’m less sure. The brain is remarkably good at retaining data, sometimes we are less good at retriving it and most of us can’t recall every detail of every second of our lives, but I think it’s all in there.

Thanks go to Ed for organising and the Pervasive Media Studio for the venue.