First, Unlearn


two children of deaf adults (CODAs) teach each other ASL; photo by daveynin on flickr CC-BY-2.0

There’s a reason it’s so much easier for young children to learn things like new languages. They haven’t already “learned” the one best way to do things (like structuring sentences for example). With no preconceptions, they are not prejudging or trying to fit everything into their established worldviews and frames.

If your way of making sense of the world insists that sentences should have a subject, a verb, and an object, in that order, it’s going to be much harder to learn a new language that uses an entirely different order, and perhaps declensions and conjugations that change how a word is said and written depending on its context in the sentence.

We are the product of our conditioning, and that conditioning serves us well — it allows us to make sense of things even when large parts of it are missing. We just fill in the blanks the way our worldview makes best sense of it. It saves us a lot of time and energy, and informs our instincts to make the appropriate reactions, quickly.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that, if we want to learn a completely new way of doing something — speaking a new language, working in a self-managed business, or embarking on a program of self-directed learning, for example — it’s going to be hard.

Unlike the novice, to do these things you’re first going to have to recognize, or set aside, your existing conditioning about how these things are done (putting the words in a certain order in the sentence, following the hierarchical processes in a business, and doing what the teacher says is next to do). And then you have to unlearn those processes to clear the slate to learn this new way of doing things. Without that you’re going to be fighting every step of the way:

“This isn’t how I was told to do it. I can’t see how it could ever work. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Please lay it out for me in a way that fits with my current understanding and way of doing things. Surely these declensions and conjugations are unnecessary and can be dispensed with, no? Surely some degree of hierarchy is necessary even in a self-managed organization, no? Who do I talk to about that? What is the structure and steps involved in a self-directed learning program?”

“OK, just tell me what to do and how to do it, in a logical (to me) order.”

There are terms for the “unlearning” process — deprogramming, detoxing etc. But we’re not machines whose old programs can simply be erased. The neural pathways in our brains physically co-develop with our early childhood learning, and they’re not nearly as plastic as we might think. If we haven’t learned any abstract language by the time of puberty, for example, linguists tell us we are then unable to ever learn such a language. Our brains and their connections have been put to other, non-linguistic uses, and we’re set for life. That’s how deep our conditioning runs. Try to learn a second language, and every fibre of your brain is trying to learn it relative to your first language, by “translating” word for word. It’s a hopeless way of learning a new language, but, in a sense, it’s the only way we know.

So I think words like “unlearning” and “deconditioning” are better terms to describe the agonizing process of trying to do things a new and utterly unfamiliar way to the way you’ve always done it.

To effectively learn to self-direct our education, we first need to “de-school”, before we can “unschool”. To effectively learn to work in a business that is non-hierarchical and collectively self-managed, like Teal organizations, we first need to “de-work” before we can learn the radical new process of “un-working”. To effectively learn a new language with utterly alien conventions, we first need to set aside everything we know about how languages are structured —”unlearn” the rules of our current languages — before we will be open enough to easily learn a new language.

But how, when “the old way” is the only way we know to do these things, do we decondition ourselves from, and unlearn, the old way, so we can learn the new one?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. There is a process used to learn new and exotic (to us) languages called Where are your keys? The idea is to associate phrases with actions, without parsing them grammatically or syntactically. That is how children first learn languages, orally. So someone takes their keys out of their pocket, drops them in front of the group, and says, in Skwxwú7mesh, “Here are my keys.” The rest of the group repeats precisely what was said. There is no parsing what was said grammatically or syntactically. The presenter corrects the pronunciations, and then says, in Skwxwú7mesh, “Where are your keys?” and looks at the group. Almost instinctively the group, perhaps with one participant nodding and speaking first, repeats the learned phrase for “Here are my keys.” The group will then pick up on the process and repeat the question in Skwxwú7mesh “Where are your keys?” and the leader will respond with the now-familiar “Here are my keys”. And every time the group sees a key or someone reaching into their pocket, they will immediately recall the phrase. This is precisely how young children learn language. The leader can now ask “Where are my keys?” in Skwxwú7mesh and introduce the answer “Here are your keys.” in the new language, without any mention of how the language “handles” pronouns. You don’t need to learn syntax, semantics, sentence structure or orthography. Your brain will figure that out mostly subconsciously if and when it’s needed. That’s what brains do. They don’t need to be taught.
  2. When I went through my “unschooling” process at the end of high school, the way I learned was through observation and demonstration. I was clueless about how to learn how to learn. But we can all reacquire the skill if someone (a peer, a young child, a wild animal or bird) shows us how they do it. We can show way more than we can ever tell in words, and we learn much more from watching than from being told “how” to do something. Same thing in self-managed organizations — put someone in a group that already demonstrates this strange, unfamiliar, unintuitive process and in no time they’ll see, and relearn, how to do it themselves. That’s absolutely not “best practices” or “case studies” or any of the other failed ways of improving organizational processes. Don’t think about it or try to capture it, just watch, follow, and let the relearning take care of itself. If birds can do it, so can we.
  3. And a third technique for reconditioning yourself is through the use of stories. Stories are subversive in that they bypass some of your categorizing, sense-making, analytical inclinations and “transport” you to a new place where all your attention has to be on following the story line, not judging its premises. Whole organizations like the World Bank have transformed themselves just by “getting the message” of a story that led them to understand what had to be done, rather than being told (and instinctively resisting) what someone said had to be done. When you make a great story your own, you fill in the gaps, you make sense of it yourselves, you don’t challenge its logic. You make it your own, and then you act on it.

I’m sure there are other techniques that also help you decondition and recondition yourself and your colleagues to learn something important and radically new. It’s principally a matter of getting out of your own way. But it’s damned hard, so don’t be embarrassed if learning something that is seemingly child’s play to a child, seems akin to moving a boulder with your breath to the older, conditioned you. And don’t expect your fellow learners and work colleagues to find it any easier. You’re going to have to help each other unlearn, and then help each other learn. Just watch the kids and the wild animals. You can do it.


Thanks to Tree Bressen for the very useful discussion on this article, and to the Eugene Teal group for prompting it.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.