Lucka 19: Unlearning

I came across the term unlearning and felt curious about its meaning. Especially because in Academia, where I work, everything has been about learning new things, learning to learn and learning through problems like in problem based-learning (PBL). Learning by constructing knowledge and not by mere knowledge transfer. Therefore, I wanted to know why we need to unlearn things after putting so much effort and taking so much pride? After all, when we know a lot of things for a long time we can call ourselves experts, right?

However, unlearning turned out to be an old concept with several definitions. It was formally defined as the ability to discard obsolete knowledge (1), as the process of reducing or eliminating preexisting knowledge or habits that would otherwise represent formidable barriers to new learning” (2) and the discovering of the inadequacies of old ideas to discard them (3).

Unlearning, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is defined as “ to make an effort to forget your usual way of doing something so that you can learn a new and sometimes better way” whereas Mark Bonchek put it this way: “Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one”

It seems that unlearning is also about breaking dogmas or shifting paradigms.

For example, like when the central dogma of genetics stating that the flow of genetic information goes from DNA to RNA to proteins was broken with the discovery of non-coding RNAs that never translated into proteins or the double nature of light as a particle (photon) and as an electromagnetic wave was discovered. Also when the gravity law explained by Newton was refuted by Einstein and now again the scientist might find that Einstein’s theory has its limitations inside the black holes

It seems that when we unlearn, we might need to look at old things with new eyes, from a different perspective like children giving a piece of lego thousands of different applications.

So unlearning may be very important to quickly reevaluate our facts, like when assembling a puzzle or perceiving the upper part of an iceberg. Is having the notion that everything we know can be provisional until new facts come to light and make us change our insights (4)

Unlearning things might be good to find better and more rewarding, innovative solutions, to improve our lives, to feel happier, to find a better job, to make better decisions in life.

Yet we refuse to unlearn because leaving our comfort zone, the place where we have been for a long time, the routine work that we can do with close eyes, the easy and quick and effortless, can cause frustration and stress.

Deviating from habit and security is not easy. It demands more attention and more energy to do things in unusual ways. It makes us less efficient at what we were doing. It can be disorientating if we change professional roles, duties, and are forced to make reforms. We fear the unknown and in many cases feel a sort of reform fatigue (5) when things are changing a lot and fast. Like with the Corona situation that makes people confused and tired.

Also because many times we don’t know how to unlearn things, we are only told that to obtain a better job or receive money from a prestigious grant office we need to stand out, think outside the box but no one tells us how to do that.

We went to school and collected facts, some we have revised now but some not, we may have learned how to learn but never learned how to unlearn. We found a job that we did well until we realize that the old knowledge we took for granted was incomplete in the light of the rapid changes taking place in society.

Paradoxically enough school didn’t prepare us for that, didn’t prepare us to cope with how we were going to unlearn about the reality or ourselves in order to make us suitable for what is happening now with the pandemia or the climate issues. No academic program include yet all literacies that we need in order to acquire the 21st century skills

-Disruptive innovation
-Daring to argument, to provoke without being conflictive
-Dealing with the unknown and uncomfortable?
-Non violent communication and netiquette
-Critical and divergent thinking
-Adaptation to rapid changing circumstances?
-Anticipation of future problems
-Successful intelligence
And of course unlearning things

Some good ways to unlearn things are by observing and learning facts from unknown areas and trying to apply them to known areas. For example Biomimicry where clever designs have been produced borrowing adaptations from plants and animals. By confronting and debating our beliefs with other people with different backgrounds and experiences we might see things differently. By problem solving and experimenting like in the NuVu schools and especially trying from an early age.

However, the dark side of unlearning is of course that the one deviating from a norm may need this “high tolerance for feeling inadequate, embarrassed, or humiliated; and to face a potential loss of status and credibility” (5). However, the thing with unlearning is that sometimes it hurts to get away from old ideas, habits. For a period of time we might feel disoriented, frustrated, lost. Like the ones trying to lose weight while building muscles. The weight indicates no difference in weight if not an increment no matter how food deprived they have been. Just for a while. The body needs to unlearn. With this notion in mind everything will feel better.

Finally, this blogpost helped me to start thinking about how I might commence my unlearning journey. I asked my family if we could un-celebrate Xmas. I asked my husband to prepare Jansson’s temptation without fish inside and asked my daughter to make other kinds of saffron bunnies with chocolate but they thought these ideas were too risky, too strange. I guess this will take time and some more blogging 🙂

Happy Xmas no matter if in a conventional or un-conventional way


1-Hedberg, B. (1981). How organizations Learn and Unlearn. In P. Nystrom & W.H. Starbuck (Eds,) Handbook of Organizational Design (Vol1.) London: Cambridge University Press.

2-Newstrom, J.W. (1983) The Management of Unlearning: Exploding the “Clean Slate” Fallacy. Training and Development Journal, 37(8), 36-39.

3-Nystrom, P.C. & Starbuck, W.H. (1984) To Avoid Organizational Crises, Unlearn.
Organizational Dynamics, 12(4) 53-65.

4-R Rushmer, H T O Davies. Unlearning in Health Care, Qual Saf Health Care 2004;13(Suppl II):ii10–ii15. doi: 10.1136/qshc.2003.009506



Pedagogiska utmaningar till följd av klimatramverket för universitet och högskolor?

Linköpings universitet är ett av 36 svenska universitet och högskolor som har skrivit under ett gemensamt klimatramverk. Genom att skriva under förbinder sig LiU att ta fram en klimatstrategi för sin verksamhet som ligger i linje med vad som krävs för att jordens uppvärmning ska hålla sig under 1,5 grader. Detta är ett mycket ambitiöst mål – ett mål som för de allra flesta individer, organisationer och samhällen som vill bidra till dess uppfyllande, innebär mycket stora förändringar av vardagen och verksamheten. ”Nästan ingen har en aning om vad det [ett mål om halverade utsläpp till 2030] innebär i vardagen” skrev fyra representanter för Klimatpsykologerna i Sydsvenskan i helgen.

För att lyckas behöver LiU och övriga 35 lärosäten, inte bara se till att informera sig om vad 1,5-graders-målet innebär utan också omsätta klimatramverket i tillräckligt ambitiösa och konkreta mål för verksamheten och dess klimatpåverkan. De mål vi sätter upp måste också följas upp och vi måste vidta åtgärder om verksamheten inte ligger i linje med vad de innebär. Det är exempelvis enkelt att säga att personalen ska minska sitt flygresande – en åtgärd som snabbt skulle kunna ge tydliga och mätbara resultat för de flesta svenska lärosäten. Men det handlar om att minska detta flygresande tillräckligt för att det ska ligga i linje med målet och att också kunna och våga vidta åtgärder om detta inte sker. Och det gäller förstås inte bara flygresande utan alla de åtgärder som behöver vidtas för att målet ska kunna nås. Och det gäller även när kraven uppfattas bli allt högre, för det är så att vi behöver halvera våra utsläpp av växthusgaser var tionde år för att ligga i linje med 1,5-graders-målet. Med detta sagt är vi positiva till att svenska lärosäten, inklusive LiU, tar konsekvenserna av sin egen miljö- och klimatforskning.

Som pedagogiska utvecklare på Didacticum vill vi gärna vara med och bidra. Ett sätt på vilket vi kan göra det är genom att förbättra möjligheterna för LiU:s undervisande personal att integrera lärande för hållbar utveckling i sina kurser och program på ett sätt som säkerställer en meningsfull progression. Detta är också något som efterfrågas när lärosätena nu ska ta ett helhetsgrepp om sitt klimatarbete. Vi har under ett par terminer erbjudit sådan utbildning, bland annat genom seminarier med fokus på lärande för hållbar utveckling och genom möjligheterna att ta hjälp av en pedagog. I höst kommer vi även att erbjuda en kurs (pedagogisk utveckling i högre utbildning) med särskilt fokus på lärande för hållbar utveckling. Denna lämpar sig särskilt väl för lärarlag med ambitionen att integrera lärande för hållbar utveckling på hela program. Så det finns ingen anledning att vänta utan ge LiU en rivstart i arbetet för att nå 1,5-graders-målet.


Cecilia Enberg & Ola Leifler,

Universitetslektorer IBL resp. IDA, pedagogiska utvecklare på Didacticum


Poddtips: Målmedvetenskap

Snubblade på den intressanta podden Målmedvetenskap när jag skulle undersöka hur olika universitet använder bild, ljud och video för att kommunicera ut högskolepedagogik, IKT och det vi också arbetar med vid Didacticum: Lärande för hållbar utveckling. Podden är en slags samtalsstafett där forskare från Göteborgs universitet och Chalmers väljer att diskutera de olika globala målen ur ett vetenskapligt perspektiv. Ur ett IKT-perspektiv är det också intressant att se att det är alltfler universitet som rör sig alltmer mot podden som format för förmedling av innehåll, inte den filmade föreläsningen.

Podden Målmedvetenskap, klicka på bilden

Den här podden länkar vi även till på den resurssida som finns med samlat material inom området Lärande för hållbar utveckling.

Dialogues on learning for sustainable development: We cannot teach values to our students

This is part two in a series of entries on some attitudes towards transforming higher education in the face of societal challenges.


“We cannot teach values to our students”

Some claim that any learning goals related to values and norms would be akin to brain-washing students, something that in itself would be at odds with fundamental academic … values. It seems that we hold to some values, but are very afraid to make them explicit in our education.

In learning for a sustainable development, the oft-forgotten affective domain in the taxonomy of learning goals by Krathwohl, Bloom et al. (1956) becomes important again. The affective domain describes abilities that concern our own norms and values, as well as those of others. However, it does not in itself require learners to hold to particular values to attain specific learning goals. They may have competing values, be aware of them and attain high goals related to the affective domain. Rather, the affective domain concerns your awareness of values, and the degree to which you are able to act in accordance with the values that you hold to. A normative competence means understanding values and the relationship between values and actions. Although some say that we as academics are, or should be, agnostic as to the values we and our students exhibit, we nevertheless expect that all of us respect equal values of all people, irrespective of gender, ethnicity or religion. We expect all academics to value scientific methods higher than other ways of making sense of the world such as religious epiphanies. We expect academic results to be avaluated on the merits of arguments, not the gender or ethnicity of the author.

We also expect physicians and nurses who are educated in how the human body and the interventions of modern medicine work, to use their abilities in the best interests of patients, and to care for their general well-being. We expect them to abstain from interventions that would cause more harm than good, and and we expect them to learn about and prescribe new health-promoting schemes such as dietary restrictions or cardiac exercise as different disciplines obtain results about their effectiveness. You may have been trained as a physician to administer drugs or suggest surgery as the primary means of intervention, and thus prefer to use the tools you have been trained in. Still, you are expected to assess the outcome of all possible interventions, including not intervening at all, in the best interest of the system you are manipulating (the patient or population of patients).

Engineers are expected to be trained in devising new (socio-)technical systems, reconfiguring how people work, socialize and understand the world. They design transport systems, energy systems, food production systems and everything in between, for the purpose of improving the quality of life for all members of society. Economists are expected to understand the concept of value, and optimize how we distribute means in society to provide value. The purpose of this activity is, again, to improve the overall quality of life in society. However, for engineers and economists alike these expectations are rarely if ever made explicit, but we rather hope that their cognitive capabilities will allow them to devise solutions that automatically promote a prosperous society. We know of course that engineers may be quite willing to employ their skills in the service of fossil energy companies that extract ever more oil and coal, or to create weapons of mass destruction. They may work to create social media platforms with targeted content that cause citizens to obtain a skewed perception of reality. Despite this, engineers and economists are trained to think about all change caused by new systems as ”development”, and all development is considered net-positive by default. Also, development is mainly thought of in technical terms. Note that there does not have to be an explicitly stated goal to improve the quality of life in society as long as we think of development as inherently positive regardless of the effects on people or surrounding ecosystems.

Just as engineers may ignore the ultimate purposes of technology they are part of creating, so too may economists ignore the value of everything that is not currently monetized, and believe that value is or should always be monetized. Economic development is only thought of in terms of the sum total of monetized goods and services and not the values of everything people value and do free of charge in families and communities alike. A nuclear disaster is likely to increase economic activity in a region that has to relocate thousands of people, sanitize soils and dismount and isolate reactors. Maybe we would like to capture the value of a living planet, and a thriving human community on that planet, in better terms than we currently have.

Maybe we should hold our economists, engineers and other specialists that we train through higher education to the same ethical standards as medical professionals, in that it is imperative

* to only implement that which is likely to improve the overall system, whether a patient or a community,

* to understand the whole system that you are trying to implement some changes to, and

* to assess the whole-system outcome of the interventions that you create.

When educators abdicate the responsibility to train people to this end, they cannot say that the expected result of higher education and specialized training will be that society will be better through higher education. It may just as well become worse, if our students are not expected and trained to care about the difference.


Ola Leifler