Saturday, March 4, 2017

How do you teach students to unlearn?

It was futurist and writer Alvin Toffler who wrote;
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
What I find particularly significant about this quote is the play on the word learn. My interpretation of what Mr Toffler is saying here is that to be literate in the 21st century, it is not sufficient to be able to learn a lot of stuff, or to put it another way, it is not sufficient to only teach kids a whole lot of content and skills.

To unlearn, we must first acknowledge that what we know is wrong. In some cases, this is pretty easy, we can simply change one fact for another. In other cases, where we have built a mental model, a way of making sense of the world around our knowledge, this is much, much harder. To put this into context, this is the difference between learning the names of the seasons (learning more stuff), learning that Greenland is disproportionately large on most world maps - it is not nearly the size of Africa (substituting an old fact for a new one), and learning that the earth rotates around the sun rather than the sun around the earth (changing a mental model about how the world works and how we make sense of the world). If you know even a little bit about the history of science, you will know that Galileo's heliocentric views of the solar system caused such a kerfuffle, that he was declared a heretic, condemned, and that he died under house arrest. These mental models, our way of making sense of our experience in the world, are often such deeply rooted beliefs, that we sometimes don't even know we have them, or why we have them. And what's more, when people begin to question these mental models, we often respond with aggression, discomfort, conflict or denial. Just think about how angry people get when you question them about their religion and politics!

How then do we teach students in such a way that they are able to truly unlearn? What does an education look like where students are expected to unlearn? In fact, how would parents react if you informed them the next week of school will be focussed on unlearning? When so much of school is focussed on learning, to read, to write, to discuss the evidence for atoms, or to speculate about the motivation of Shakespeare's Hamlet or Macbeth, what emphasis do we give to unlearning? How often do we teach how, or even give the opportunity for students (or teachers?) to unlearn at a deep level?

Over the past year, I have been working alongside Di Cavallo, Lea Vellenoweth Ros Britton and Jayne Dunbar to develop a curriculum for the Learning Hubs at our school. This has been a huge amount of thinking, refining and more, and we have been excited to kick off this seriously refined and increasingly rigorous curriculum this year. As part of this new curriculum however, we were grappling with how we might engage students with rethinking and reframing their visions of the possible futures that lie ahead for each learner. Not an easy ask! But together we settled on the idea of a Learning Hub Inquiry, where students might engage with all kinds of possible futures for themselves, and take action towards this.

As it happened, the Learning Hub Inquiry became one of my areas of responsibility to develop, with lots of feedback and input from the team (thanks lots in particular Di!). As I got really stuck into this project, I got more and more excited. Increasingly, this project morphed into something that felt really special, something that could potentially toe the line between doable and scalable in schools, yet truly future focussed, combining a mix of personalisation, learner agency, digital fluencies, learning to navigate complexity and the unknown, and of course, unlearning.

So what does this look like? You might recognise some of the ideas from the Spirals of Inquiry, with hints of Adult Cognitive DevelopmentKegan and Lahey's Immunity to Change, a dash of the Essential Fluencies, and a sprinkling of Keri Facer's Possibilities of the Present thrown in for good measure.

Each student will go through the process of gathering information about what is going on in their own lives, stretching across broad areas such as their digital footprint, their financial profile, their passions, interests,  wellbeing, grades, etc. From this, they will look for patterns, analysing the big picture to identify a focus area for a goal. In partnership with their learning coach, the student then constructs a goal. Each student's goal would be highly personalised, however with each student the intent being that the goal is an adaptive rather than technical goal (You know you have to exercise more and eat healthier, but you never do? That's an adaptive goal! The kind where you have to change the underlying beliefs, rather than the technical things on the surface if you wish to see long term change). Students will then devote time to research their goals, specifically seeking out new perspectives, ideas and expertise. From here, each student will create an action plan which they will carry out, reflecting, refining, and readjusting along the way. Finally, each student will then present this entire process to their family and whanāu, before beginning a new inquiry cycle. The students are of course supported every step of the way by their learning coach (kind of like a form teacher on steroids), this support looking very much like a coach and mentor rather than a teacher.

For me, this is the very picture of student agency and personalisation. Not only does each student have a personal goal that they come to based on making sense of their own personal data, but they also learn to navigate the true complexity and uncertainty of genuine self improvement. They learn to find new ways of looking at what is going on in their life, new ways of looking at their problems, and then to try out new models of doing things. This could look anything like students setting goals to learn to collaborate more effectively, manage work flow more effectively, lead their responsibilities in the school more effectively, or even make academic shifts. Anything!  Meanwhile, the teacher shifts from knower to coach, entering into a partnership of facilitation rather than director of learning.

Enabling our students to learn, unlearn, and relearn will hopefully develop the capacity of our students to take on any challenge they may face in the future, regardless of how complex it might be. I am also excited about this model because it incorporates opportunities for students to bring their own diversity to the table, rather than always relying on the teacher to bring the direction. It potentially also provides the space for students to mentor each other, as different students will inevitably have different strengths and expertise to offer.

Now... The big question as we launch into our first round of the new HPSS Learning Hub Student Inquiry is really just this: As teachers, are we willing and able to learn, unlearn and relearn enough to take this from possibility to reality?