One of the givens in working with adult learners is the importance of helping them access prior knowledge and building on what they already know. But what if that prior knowledge is no longer useful, or the skills no longer applicable, or it was never very accurate in the first place? I have a friend, a former classroom trainer, who has lately been offering private bridge lessons. When I asked her the biggest challenge she faced in returning to a training role and working with her bridge students, she said, “Getting them to unlearn what they think they already know.” Many learned from novice players; others learned from experienced players who overestimated their own abilities; still others learned via the, “We’re starting a game in 15 minutes, here, let me show you really quickly so you can play too” approach. Sound familiar?

That was then, this is now

We’ve all run into this one way or another: “In my old organization we did it this way,” “My last boss wanted us to do it that way,” “But this is how I’ve always done it.” So we build training that works to sell the benefits of the change, of doing it the new way, of adapting to the new approach. But does tapping into prior knowledge while selling new approaches do enough to help create new room for new or updated knowledge?

Unlearning (or, if you prefer, overwriting existing knowledge or skill, or just pushing it to the background to accommodate something new, or rewiring pathways) is hard. You know this: remember when you switched from driving a car with a manual shift to an automatic, or moved from academic to workplace or technical writing, or confronted a new software release with a dashboard change? Old habits are hard to break, and revising old thinking patterns, even when one recognizes the need for change, is challenging. And when we’re under pressure the old learning may reemerge, as it has a longer history inside our responses.

So what?

Well, I can think of a few things. For one, as practitioners it’s important for us to recognize that the unlearning curve can be even longer than the one for new learning. Our challenge is to both work with what people already know, and work to overwrite it if what they know is not correct, or has changed, or has evolved, or is in lieu of something that might be better. And it’s especially hard when the learner is attached to old skills or beliefs and doesn’t recognize that the prior learning is no longer useful. Also, we’re challenged to figure out how to design for learning when only parts of prior understanding are no longer appropriate: for instance, when you switched from that manual shift to automatic you didn’t need to relearn everything else you knew about driving. This may speak to some shift in the needs assessment and design processes.

My special concern, though, is with the implications of the unlearning problem as we move from formal training experiences to learner-created content, and to supporting expanded social and informal workplace learning. Mostly? That’s going to require unlearning what we and our learners think we know about learning. That memorizing pieces of content and passing a “test” isn’t really learning. That just knowing something, with no accompanying change in behavior, isn’t really “learning” either. And that “learning” usually doesn’t look a thing like “school.” Finally, to cite J.D. Dillon from a recent Twitter #lrnchat discussion on this topic: one of our challenges is helping organizations unlearn the notion that they can control people, and instead learn to support them as they move instead to coaching, mentoring, and providing time and space for collaboration. As we have surely learned by now, simply pushing the benefits of new approaches isn’t enough.

What about us?

And for ourselves? We need to do some unlearning, too, if we’re to stay viable in a world where learners know what they need to learn and know how to choose solutions that suit them based on an array of available choices (see last month’s column on narrating our work). It’s up to us to identify and become fluent in alternatives and new approaches. From another longtime training buddy, Cindy Thacker: “The more behaviors or strategies you learn, the easier and faster you can choose a behavior to replace an old, undesirable behavior. The organism with the most adaptive behaviors always wins in the end.”