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Need New Skills? Upgrade Your Learning by Unlearning First

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Need New Skills? Upgrade Your Learning by Unlearning First

Written on Jan 26, 2017 3:25:42 PM, by Ilie Ghiciuc

As the world becomes more complex, the workplace does as well. Leaders and managers want employees who have general knowledge about various topics, not just a set of specialized skills. This type of knowledge requires employees to gain knowledge quickly and efficiently.

For many people, this is easier said than done. Jobs require us to learn various skills related to topics that may not be in our fields. For example, many jobs make use of technology in some way. These skills may not be familiar to everyone.

Also read: What Are The Workforce Skills Of The Future?

People also have to learn various systems and ways of doing things when they change companies or when the company they are working for adopts a new system.

When most people feel they need a new skill, they think in terms of learning. But trying to fit more and more into our already stressed, overworked, and multitasking minds is not always easy. Many experts in the field of learning have come to view unlearning as an important step in the learning process.

What is Unlearning?

The practice of unlearning is not as simple as one might think. It is not simply forgetting something over time. A better description might be active forgetting. This means that people need to understand what they know and decide whether or not it is still useful for them to have and to use that knowledge. Subsequently, they need to challenge their old ways of thinking and making decisions, in order to have room for something new.

When we learn something, we build habits. Neural networks form in our brains that react in expected ways. When we unlearn, we have to make an effort to step outside of our habits and our way of being.

As an example, let’s take the way you get to work. Like most people, you probably take the same way to work every day. Whether you are driving, walking, or taking some other form of transportation, it usually follows a similar route. This type of route cements itself in your brain after a certain period. If one day, there is some kind of construction along your normal route, it will take some effort to go a different way.

You have learned one way of doing something and it will probably take a lot of reminders to go another way. You may even start to take your normal route and then halfway there have to turn around. It will take a lot of unlearning to remember to go a different way from the start of the trip.

This is a more simplified example, but the process is the same for other types of learning. We have to step outside of our learned ways of doing something and remind ourselves of why we need to unlearn in order for the process to be successful. Only then will we be able to learn something new. Only then will we open ourselves to creativity and innovation.

The Process of Unlearning

The process of unlearning can be broken down into six key steps:

1. Question

People who want to start unlearning need to begin by questioning themselves. One of the most powerful questions is ‘Could I be wrong?’ Most people who have developed a habit would say, ‘No, of course not.’

We usually think that what we are doing, especially when it is working, is right. To ask yourself if you are wrong, you need to add another question to the mix: How much information can I find to contradict what I think is right? This question assumes that you could be wrong and encourages you to search for proof. 

2. Recognition

After thorough questioning, you might be at the point of recognizing that your old method or model of doing this is no longer effective. Some people may find this stage difficult because it means admitting that we have to let go of old patterns. These old patterns have developed over such a long time they can become a part of our identity or status.

3. Information

In order to consider alternatives, people need to gather information about different ways of doing things. This may include getting information from sources we would not normally use.

Most jobs and workplaces are so diverse, that consulting a few resources is not enough to capture all the available ways of looking at a new situation and learning what needs to be learned.

4. Creation

Once you have questioned your old ways and gathered information about possible alternatives, it is time to start creating something new. This new learning opportunity should align with your goals, either professional or personal.

5. Repetition

As we all know, change is rarely easy. In order to make real change, we need to do something over and over. This is especially true when we are trying to unlearn something and replace it with something new.

It is natural to feel the urge to fall back into old patterns and ways of thinking but with enough effort, a new way of being can emerge. Learning and repetition create a new neural network that replaces the old one.

6. Challenge

As we practice a new skill through repetition we may have moments of doubt. Part of the process is pushing ourselves to move beyond our comfort zone. It can take months for new learning to consolidate in our brains.

There is a lot of room for failure if we cave to fear and doubt. Part of the unlearning and learning process is the belief that it is possible.

Also read: Learning Skills Essential to Every Job

Unlearning in Use

Unlearning can seem like a complicated process but many companies are using it to learn new skills faster and more efficiently.

Let’s look at an example from a company that we will call, Maximum Inc. At Maximum they are struggling with a data entry system they use. Many of the employees are making mistakes or the system is not analyzing the data in effective ways. The system has been in place for a few years and all the staff are well trained on this system.

The first step in making a change and learning a new system is to question what is going wrong. Leaders do some research and find that even with updates and adjustments the current system is no longer useful. Although they do not want to make a change, all the evidence points to the fact they need to.

Throughout the process leaders recognize that they need to make a change and learn a new system. After they agree that they need to make a change, they find information about various systems and how they could be better than the current system. They then create a plan to start phasing out the old system and training people on a new system.

They help employees go through the process of questioning and looking at information so they are included in the process. Leaders in the company repeat the training process as much as possible to help employees learn and adjust to the new system.  They also have various meetings and create coaching sessions to help employees meet the challenges of adapting.

Change was not easy but using the unlearning process, Maximum was able to improve their business practices by learning a new system.

Unlearning may sound counterintuitive, but it is an important step in trying to master new skills and learn how to live differently. The change process can be difficult but following the steps of unlearning can help us all upgrade our learning and our lives.

 44 Facts About Learning In Companies

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Ilie Ghiciuc
I've been an entrepreneur for the past 10+ years building great software companies together with fantastic teams. I like to spend most of my free time reading :)
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