Learning & Unlearning – “Partners in Crime”

“I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.”

Unlearning is a term that still receives far too little attention. The focus is primarily on learning something new. 

At the same time, we are in times of transformation, increasing complexity, and uncertainty, which invite us to question established ideas.

When I bring up the topic of unlearning, the reactions are usually very mixed. They range from absolute enthusiasm and keen interest to a hint of horror and resistance. “Unlearning? How is that supposed to work? I don’t want to forget anything that was once important to me.” 

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What does unlearning mean?

One of the challenges of unlearning is captured by the phrase ‘Not forgetting what was once important’: the misconception that we need to ignore something valuable from the past.

Losing the ability to perform something triggers emotions of regret, shame, and sorrow. When we talk about unlearning, it should actually support the path of transformation to think and act differently.

Difference of Unlearning und Forgetting

Unlearning

The deliberate and intentional letting go of knowledge, mindset, behavior, concepts.

Forgetting

The loss or elimination of knowledge, routines, etc. that is often unplanned or unintended.

Why unlearning should be part of the learning process?

As adults, we have already accumulated a vast repertoire of knowledge and expertise. Imagine this as a suitcase of experiences that you have packed tightly during your personal and professional journey. You have invested a lot of energy in packing it just the way it is. Some favorite items have gathered over time, even if some of them might already be considered “vintage.” For a long time, this knowledge has been a reliable companion in your (professional) life.

Aligning our baggage with the new travel destinations

However, our travel destination changes continuously due to new opportunities and challenges. This results in a continuous learning process that demands packing new knowledge into out baggage. In the context of business, this often involves new leadership approaches, digitalization, New Work, etc.
New content is thus presented, which is currently seen as meaningful and necessary, requiring new knowledge acquisition and training.

BUT – How many times have you been excited about training sessions with new knowledge input, only to remember very little to nothing after just a few weeks? From personal (consumer) experience, unfortunately, this happens very often! Have you ever wondered why that is?

The importance of the baggage check

One reason why new knowledge doesn’t stick: there’s no check on what’s already packed in the suitcase of experience. If existing knowledge isn’t meaningfully linked with new information or if the new contradicts the “old,” sustainable learning is at risk. Our brain is an energy saver and prefers to rely on information that has been known for longer.

My unlearning recommendation 

Therefore, I recommend facilitating a sort of inventory of participants’ current mindsets, experiences, knowledge, etc., through various experiences during a workshop. By engaging with specific questions or topics and exchanging ideas within the group, participants proactively and individually engage with the subject matter rather than being passively “lectured” to.

This allows participants to see what they can take out of their baggage or deliberately add to it. Making these contents visible, opening the baggage, is thus a first step towards intentionally letting go of hindering knowledge, outdated concepts, and rigid mindsets.

Yours sincerely,
Janine

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