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Learning, unlearning and relearning

Some people don’t like this phrase. It was first popularised by Alvin Toffler – he of Future Shock.

Those who think the ’21st century learning’ meme is a load of baloney think this is just another cliche, a kind of branding tool for those who think of themselves as ‘progressives’ and visionaries but have no better claim to predicting the future of education than anyone else. But I like the phrase. Here’s 3 reasons why.


As I kid I learned drums. At first I learned them very badly. I used to go round a nice old geezer’s house and shuffle along to Chattanooga Choo-choo. I got into lots of bad habits. My teacher didn’t keep an eye on many important parts of my technique, although I made an attempt to practise my rudiments, like you’re supposed to. My left hand and right hand worked differently – not in the way they can do if you play with the jazz grip in the left hand, but just in a wonky, unbalanced way. This led to back problems which came back to grab me in my 20s and can still be a problem today.

It also meant that, actually, I wasn’t a very good player. I had some nice ideas and played ‘musically’ (underrated in many drummers – see e.g. Steve Gadd) but I struggled sometimes to keep time because there were some fundamental imbalances in my playing posture and grip. I got a shock when I was then kicked out of a band I was playing in at 17 as they thought they could find someone better. I felt deep down that I had what it took to play well so this episode shook me into some fundamental re-thinking. I thought I’d better retrain.

I got a new teacher but, more importantly, I started to analyse for myself what was wrong. There is a beautiful symmetry possible in drumming: your left hand should be able to do what your right hand can do – same with the feet. And even, some might say, your feet should aspire to do what your hands can do!

So I unlearned my bad drumming habits.

Hold on! The doubters say. Didn’t you just learn new, better drumming habits? I think the answer is no. An important part of the process was stopping myself from doing it the old way. Every time I picked up my sticks or sat at the kit I thought ‘Don’t sit like that, don’t hold them the old way. Now do sit like this, do hold them this way’. That little piece of awareness that allows you to break old habits is important. It is the unlearning before the new learning can start.

In the end I got to be a good drummer. Definitely no Steve Gadd, but I can hold down a groove, have some nice chops – and I never get a bad back, my left hand is alright. But I’ll have to prove that on YouTube one day :-).


I reckon much of the above analysis could also apply in sporting settings. If you have a dodgy forehand and play too square to the net you need to stop yourself doing this before you can learn the new, better way – more side-on. It may only be a small moment, but that awareness to stop doing it the old way so that you can consciously change and do it a new way is the unlearning that people mean when they talk this way.

Learning to learn

Ok music, maybe. Sport, maybe. But what has this got to do with learning in classrooms, in universities? Actually, I think the description carries through pretty well. You could build a similar story about ways to approach maths problems or learning a language. But what really seems to divide people is the ‘learning, unlearning and relearning’ idea when applied to learning itself.

Do we ‘unlearn how to learn’? Sounds odd. Too clever to be sincere. But this is precisely what someone of my generation has had to do with respect to technology. Here’s why.

When I don’t know something, my first reaction is still often slight panic or dismay. Then I think ‘Where can I find a book on this?’, or ‘Who can I ask?’, but the obvious solution, the one with me wherever I go is to ‘ask computer’. Grammar doubt? Ask Miss Grammar. Forgotten how to integrate a function? Type it into YouTube. Can’t remember the correct accents for a French word? Ask Google translate.

These solutions mean that I have had to unlearn how to learn (this is ongoing, of course). I have to stop old habits at a fairly conscious level and think about how to acquire new ones.

And I think there is no doubt that this process will apply to all of us several times in our lives. How we learn is being fundamentally altered by technology and we may need to learn stuff, unlearn it and relearn new stuff several times over. Toffler has it, for me. What have you unlearned and relearned recently?

Image under CC license from  Ben Chau

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