Special Report
School & District Management

What’s Harder Than Learning? Unlearning

By Madeline Will — May 14, 2019 5 min read

“Unlearning” says that in order for people to transform their practice, they must confront and move beyond their previously held beliefs, assumptions, and values. In other words, it’s a shift in identity.

Experts say the method is ripe for teacher professional development: Too often, teachers are presented with new strategies and not given the time and support to unlearn their old practices.

“We as human beings are really good at learning new things, but we’re really bad at unlearning things that are no longer true,” said Nick Polyak, the superintendent of the Leyden High School district outside Chicago and the co-author of a book titled The Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today.

“That results in a lot of practices ... of things that we keep doing year after year,” he added.

For example, many teachers are working to unlearn some of the deeply entrenched traditions of schooling: daily homework, letter grades, and lecture-based instruction. But moving away from practices that teachers might have been doing their whole careers is hard work and can’t be done in a single professional-development session, experts say.

“Intellectually, you get it and you want to do it, because you want to be successful,” said Chris Dede, a professor in learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But emotionally and socially, it’s very, very difficult for you to change because you’re making a fundamental change to your identity.”

Dede is working to come up with effective strategies for unlearning and hopes that in the next few years, there will be a model that can be scaled across different schools. Right now, he said, this approach to professional development is uncommon in most places.

Unlearning the Familiar

For Margaret Goldberg, realizing there was a better way to teach students how to read was transformational. After working as a 4th grade teacher for a half-dozen years, she became a literacy coach and reading interventionist for 1st graders. She taught the students reading behaviors, such as guessing words based on context, meaning, and picture clues. But the students were still struggling to read.

Goldberg began researching reading instruction and determined that students needed to learn how to crack the alphabetic code through phonics, which explicitly teaches how letters represent speech sounds. That realization kick-started an unlearning journey—a process that resulted in gains for students but also prompted feelings of guilt.

“Once I actually learned how to teach children how to read, I thought about all the kids who I hadn’t helped,” she said. “If I had known what I know now, I could have really accelerated them. ... I didn’t know how to support them.”

Goldberg, an early-literacy lead in the Oakland, Calif., school district, now coaches teachers on evidence-based reading instruction. She said every teacher is different in terms of the unlearning journey—some are ready to embrace a new form of instruction, and others are more resistant to change.

“I think that’s one of the reasons that leading something like this is really difficult,” she said. “Partly you need buy-in and partly you need changes to happen fast for kids because they have one shot at 1st grade. But on the other hand, adult learners need longer than one school year to learn, grow, and change.”

She added, “We have to balance how directive to be, sometimes saying, ‘You actually just can’t do this anymore,’ and sometimes letting educators find out on their own that something’s not working for kids.”

Peer support is crucial for teachers who are doing the work of unlearning, Dede said, likening it to addiction support groups.

“People can help you celebrate your successes, and they can commiserate when you haven’t been successful,” he said. Typically in professional development, people “understand they need to make the shift, you tell them cognitively how to do it—and then everyone is surprised when it doesn’t happen. But that’s because the social and the affective supports are missing.”

Besides, unlearning feels more personal than the average professional development, Goldberg said.

“For teachers, we see ourselves as our teaching selves. ... It’s so wrapped up in our identities,” she said. “At least in the very beginning, it can feel inauthentic and clunky, and then once you really become automatic with the skill and you’re fluent in it, ... things go back to normal in the way you feel as a teacher.”

An Equity Focus

With enough support, teachers can even unlearn previously held biases or stereotypes, Dede said, adding that he thinks an immersion tactic would be helpful with that.

Some teacher-preparation programs, for instance, let aspiring teachers practice classroom management and culturally responsive pedagogy with simulated students (who are either played by computer avatars or live actors). Those types of simulations can help change the behavior patterns of teachers, Dede said.

Dede has also helped administrators at Beaver Country Day School, a private school near Boston, develop an unlearning approach to professional development. Teachers there are expected to unlearn traditional approaches to education and instead teach in a more student-centered, innovative way.

But equity is another focus: The school’s student body and staff are predominately white. Teachers are expected to participate in workshops and engage in conversations around issues of racial, ethnic, and gender identity, said Nancy Caruso, the associate head of school at Beaver.

For example, teachers might have to grapple with their preconceived notions about gender identity and instead learn to ask students which pronouns they identify with. “We don’t expect that everybody comes here fully formed with all this,” Caruso said.

After all, it’s critical for teachers to be constantly adapting, said Kader Adjout, the director of the upper school at Beaver. Just as the students are different every year, educational practices should be changing, too, he said.

“What other people might see as being vulnerable, we see that as a strength,” Adjout said. "[Unlearning] allows us to keep on rethinking all the time and to keep on saying, ‘What’s next? What can we do better?’”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2019 edition of Education Week as What’s Harder Than Learning? Unlearning

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