Providing Opportunities to Unlearn and Relearn

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”— Alvin Toffler, Futurist and philosopher

Importance of Unlearning and Relearning 
Almost all of us are born with an intense desire to learn. But, somewhere along the line, we end up losing our passion for learning. The pressure to excel in school by scoring high on tests can make the process of learning less enjoyable. Thus, once the basics are learned, people tend to stick to what they know and avoid challenging situations or situations where they may be forced to learn something new. They try to stay in a safe, secure and comfortable, but ultimately confining, cocoon. Here, they try to force-fit the changes with their current ‘mental maps.’ They do their best to avoid change while maintaining that they are open to change. In the long-run, this makes them maladapted to the future that may well require an entirely new set of maps.

The world we live in today is one of relentless change. Welcome to the 21st century. One of the most important skills we need today is unlearning activities, skills and formerly productive activities such that new learning or relearning can take place.

This is also true in academics because new knowledge is being generated at a breathtaking pace and old syllabi are getting outdated very quickly. Sometimes educational practices need to change either because they are not working, because approaches to education have shifted to meet new goals or because technology has changed the landscape. But adapting to new ideas often requires that old notions be unlearned. This puts tremendous pressure on teachers and students to stay up-to-date. The only way out is to learn strategies to unlearn and relearn with ease and comfort.

Also, the old methods of learning are constantly being shown as no longer capable of making us ready to tackle the new challenges in the 21st-century world. For instance, we could ask ourselves what is the best way of teaching certain subjects when some modern problems like climate change straddle different subject areas. There are well-known cases like Finland, which is taking a thematic approach to their curriculum, as opposed to the traditional academic discipline-based approach. Climate change may be one of the themes through which you learn about science, economics, and geography. You might explore equity issues by asking whether it’s fair that wealthy countries that largely created the problem in the first place are now asking less developed countries to stop what they’re doing. So rather than studying geography, science, history, and economics separately, you integrate their study around a theme (Wan, 2019).

Singapore, for instance, takes a unique problem-based approach in teaching mathematics. The textbooks there do not place as much of an emphasis on formulas. Instead, exercises are expressed as everyday problems. While you may need to know the formulas to solve them, but math is articulated in the form of solving real-world problems, not abstract symbols (Wan, 2019).

But, teachers have been known to respond thus when advised to be aware of the modern teaching methods and learn new skills and also to bid goodbye to traditional teaching methods and let go of false assumptions: “We have many years of teaching experience. We know everything. We are comfortable with our teaching methods. We don’t need to learn any new skills.” (Rayan, 2018) Clearly, this is an attitude of resistance when it comes to unlearning and relearning.

Providing Opportunities to Unlearn

“Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.” ~Mark Twain

As a Forbes article (Warrell, 2014) put it, “Unlearning is about moving away from something—letting go—rather than acquiring. It’s like stripping old paint. It lays the foundation for the new layer of fresh learning [relearning] to be acquired and to stick. But like the painter who needs to prepare a surface, stripping the paint is 70% of the work while repainting is only 30%.”

However, unlearning might be harder than learning. “Unlearning” says that people can transform their practice only if they confront and move beyond their previously held beliefs, assumptions, and values. This involves a shift in identity, which is a challenge not so much intellectually as much as emotionally and socially.

Too often, teachers are presented with new strategies and not given the time and support to unlearn their old practices. These are some of the ways you can provide opportunities to teachers and staff to unlearn:

Make them aware of the need to unlearn:This is the first step towards unlearning. To make them better at unlearning we have to start with awareness. They need to be made more conscious of their need to unlearn, and then from that comes the opportunity for practice. This can also be reinforced by making them question whatever previous knowledge they have acquired to see if it stands up to facts and evidence. To do this, professional development programs that teach new facts, ideas and methods of pedagogy are the way out.

Help them develop creative and critical thinking: Without this, not only will you not question your previous knowledge but also you will not assimilate the current knowledge in the right fashion so that you understand it in all its conclusions and implications. One way to do this is to introduce such methods of creative and critical thinking in teacher development programs, say by introducing them to elementary logic and art.

Use simulations: Some teacher-preparation programs let aspiring teachers practice classroom management and appropriate pedagogy with simulated students (either computer avatars or live actors). Those types of simulations can help change the behavior patterns of teachers.

Provide a supportive environment: Unlearning process takes time and so, a supportive environment can be incorporated by the school leaders into an ongoing professional development program.

Modeling: As school leaders model the ability to change and adapt for their teachers and staff, they will find more buy-in for the ideas they are trying to introduce.

Mentoring: Teachers learn through their interactions with other teachers. Some of this occurs during formal and informal mentoring that is similar to apprenticeship learning. Formal mentoring occurs when an experienced teacher takes a new teacher under his or her wing to provide insight and advice. Informal mentoring occurs through conversations in hallways, teachers’ rooms, and other school settings. Novices also learn through supervision by department chairs, principals, and other supervisors.

Providing Opportunities to Relearn

Consider what happened in Colombia, through a program called Escuela Nueva. The rural schools in Colombia lacked resources as they were in remote areas, with small populations and separated by great distances. It was hard to attract enough teachers to these areas. And yet, the country was able to raise the quality level of rural schools to the level of urban schools through Escuela Nueva. They did this by making use of technology and re-conceptualizing the role of the teacher to be more of a facilitator. Teachers were provided access to good materials through technology, and they facilitated peer learning among students. So students who were good at a particular subject would help and end up teaching the ones who were maybe a little weaker. And that actually helped both groups because there’s no better way of learning something than having to teach it (Wan, 2019).

What makes relearning unique, and what needs to be emphasized so that people do not revert back to their old ways? Here are some ways teachers can relearn, which really amounts to learning after unlearning:

Leverage existing knowledge: In any transition, one of the first questions people ask is “What is different from what I am doing now?” This is an opportunity to build on the foundation of “old” knowledge. Relearning should leverage the power of existing knowledge since “Prior knowledge helps us understand what we are learning.”

Regular training program: Begin by partnering with outside experts who can help develop multi-level programs and provide guidelines to best practices for beginning a learning and development program. Getting advice and direction from known experts provides a sense of assurance to the teachers that relearning is an option for a better future. Knowing that the methodology being used to provide career development has already been proven to work, encourages teachers to engage fully in the process.

Engage the head, heart, and body: In any learning experience, it is critical to engage the head, heart, and body. It is even more important to engage learners at all levels when relearning is required. Your learning deliverables should be targeted at the following:

• Head: Reinforce the “why” and What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) in all learning materials so that the content has urgency and relevance.
• Heart: Learners engage with content if their emotions are evoked with humor, characters, high-quality graphics, real-life scenarios, challenges, and stories. Keep the WIIFM close to the learner’s heart at all times.
• Body: Provide opportunities for application of knowledge with hands-on practice, simulations, and role-playing.

Provide hi-tech performance support: Relearning initiatives should include hi-tech methods. Hi-tech support methods include self-paced learning (eLearning, microlearning, searchable FAQs, knowledge bases), social learning (blogs, wikis, microblogging).

Easy access to re-skilling material: The most successful programs allow flex-learning, allowing teachers to learn at their own pace alongside their busy work commitments. To ensure engagement, choose learning programs that allow your teachers the ability to learn and refer to the course material anywhere and anytime at their own convenience—even when they are on the go. Look for online courses that deliver content in short durations and allow them to learn quickly within a short period of time.

Taking ownership: Assess the continuous learning mindset of a teacher. A commitment to adopting new learning will help teachers succeed in the future. Encourage teachers to take ownership of their own learning and development and to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach to their careers. Give them ownership by allowing them to determine their own paths to success.

Call to Action

Butterfly Fields has been creating opportunities to unlearn and relearn for students and teachers with its hands-on learning methodology and products that have been designed after understanding the needs of Indian education system through 1000+ hours of teacher interactions, 10,000+ hours of student interactions. Call us in for a demo and discussion to see how we can make a change to the scenario of unlearning and relearning at your school by making you learn scientific concepts not by rote, but by understanding its application in real life of the theories covered in textbooks.


Rayan, A., 2018. Learn to unlearn. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 16 Nov 2019].
Wan, T., 2019. What We Need to Unlearn and Relearn to Thrive in the Future. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 16 Nov 2019].
Warrell, M., 2014. Learn, Unlearn And Relearn: How To Stay Current And Get Ahead. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 16 Nov 2019].

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