Jack Uldrich
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Evolutionary Unlearning

Posted in Culture, Education, Evolution, Science

I am not an evolutionary biologist. I do not play one on television and, even though this is the Internet, I won't try toFrom Ape to man to computer hunchback pretend I am one. Nevertheless, I have come to the conclusion that unlearning will be an essential skill in the future because I am of the opinion that human evolution is an exponential trend. 

Let me put it another way. Until about 200 years ago the average person could expect two constants in his or her life. First, life didn't change much. If your grandfather was a farmer (or peasant) it was likely that your father was also a farmer or peasant and so were you. Moreover, you all lived life in much the same way and used the same tools and equipment. 

The second constant was that your life was short. Assuming you successfully survived the first few years of your life (and this, by the way, was no easy task), you could expect to live until the rip old age of 50.

Under such conditions it was appropriate to put a premium on learning because whatever you learned you could expect to utilize the remainder of your life.

In today's era of accelerating technological change, however, the equation has been flipped on its head. The shelf life of knowledge is growing ever shorter and we must realize that much of what we will learn will need to be unlearned shortly thereafter.

Society has not yet fully recognized the extent of this shift but it will have profound implications for how we educate ourselves and our children. I'd love to hear your ideas about: 1) Whether you agree with my premise; and 2) How you'd try to help society deal with this change. (One idea I have is that we must teach unlearning beginning in kindergarten.)

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6 thoughts on “Evolutionary Unlearning”

  1. This is such an important concept in the context of increasing the rate of educational improvement. There is not much doubt in my mind that it will become just common sense sooner or later.
    The challenge is that the time and space organization of schools, not to mention the old “common sense” still regins supreme at the policy levels. On the ground in the classroom the best teachers understand and act upon the ideas without being able to articulate them.
    But the further one goes up the policy level and the further they are from the daily realities of teaching, the more prevalent are the unexamined assumptions of the era in which they grew up.
    To further complicate matters, the mindset, self definitions of “experts” is that they have superior knowledge. Add to that the reality that their career success most often is based on this notion that they have “superior knowledge.’
    It’s not a surprise that there is much resistance.
    The counter tendency is that the ed system has been revealed for what it has always been, a filtering and time training institution that has never really worked for the bottom of the pyramid. Now that the bottom of the pyramid has a political voice, it will inevitably lead to a major change.
    The trick is to make that change go faster, rather than slower.

  2. Jack Uldrich says:

    Well said. I especially like your points about “unexamined assumptions” and the problem of “superior knowledge.” I will explore these notions in future posts.
    Together, I hope we can both make the “change go faster.” For, as Darwin said (and I am paraphrasing here), “those who sruvive are those who adapt the fastest.”

  3. Kristina says:

    Teachers who have learned that phonics is detrimental or other practices not supported by research have much to unlearn. The cognitive dissonance makes it impossible at times.
    Students who have learned to read a word wrong or a math fact incorrectly or the wrong spelling of a word need at least 600 times of doing it right to relearn and put that information into long term memory. That’s when they are in the elementary grades. By high school, it takes up to 1200 times.
    Our focus on unlearning needs to be research based drawing in from the vast body of knowledge in cognitive psychology, sports and neurology. Systematic teaching procedures reduce wasted time students have when they have been mistaught — dysteachia. It’s much more difficult working with a teacher whose entire education training has been that teaching is natural and she/he will do best as a guide to the side — in the face of powerful research indicating that for basic skills especially with at risk learners, direct teaching of a carefully sequenced curriculum is most effective.
    When businesses go through paradigm shifts, they have trainings for staff to develop each person’s recognition of how they meet dramatic change to alter their thinking. This approach is needed if the current crop of teachers who have been brainwashed in general education training programs are to ever become more effective with their at risk students, students from poverty, or students with disabilities. They plow on ahead with education college dogma that is unsupported by any quality research.

  4. Jack Uldrich says:

    If you haven’t read Ian Ayres book, Super Crunches, I recommend you do. He addresses many of the same points in one chapter on education.

  5. Jack, I think that we need to develop a synthesizing mind ( 5 minds H Gardner) or a whole new mind (D Pink). In short becoming a T-shaped professional, how do the dots connect, what is linked to what. An holistic/integral view is crucial ortherwise no problem (climate finance, government etc) will be solved.
    And…….. unlearning al those limiting beliefs which we have.

  6. Dennis Franklin says:

    I’m not sure about exponential evolution of the human, but exponential evolution of the mind – yes. Is there a difference you ask? I think so, because when I say mind, I mean that bit that thinks abstractly – but not, unfortunately, the reptilian bits. Our emotions are having a difficult time keeping up with the evolution of the mind.
    This exponential evolution is all about memes (see Dawkins “Selfish Gene’)and some of the exponentiality is to do with communications technology – an interesting convergence of mind and technology. Furthermore, technology enables other things like education which help people have access to new ideas.
    Unfortunately though, our emotions remain mired in the distant past for times when we only wold expect to know about 30 people well, maybe 150 at most. We knew our spot in the pecking order very well. Sagan and Druyan coverd this nicely in “Shadows of Forgotten Anscestors”.
    In terms of your premise about changing the way that we educate ourselves, I think the answer is to go back to providing an education that teaches you how to learn as opposed to the current propensity to train people towards a skill (nothing wrong iwththat of course – we will always need the trades). I guess this means going back to history, the classics, philosophy, and science to let people develop their own curiosity.
    One last comment though. We always look at these issues in terms of how it will affect our affluent lifestyles – but 1/2 the worlds people live in abject penury and this will never be an issue for them.

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