Unlearning: The new leadership skill

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In order to thrive in the future we are going to need to learn how to unlearn. Amidst unparalleled change, leaders can no longer rely on ‘what they know’. Instead, effective leaders will be defined by the capacity to unlearn outdated and ineffective ways of doing things. More importantly, they will also have the capacity to help their organizations do the same.

A recent article in The Futurist defined this as unlearning and uplearning. The authors note, “one of the most important skills in a time of immense change is to develop the capacity to unlearn old ideas that are increasingly obsolete and learn how to reason, adapt, and act at a higher level of complexity”. Here is what this looks like:

Unlearning: This skill requires us to be able to identify and unlearn ideas and activities that have worked in the past but do not work in today or will not in the future. For example, teachers are no longer sole content providers/experts as a result of the internet. This week, I have observed my children being taught in classrooms (bricks-and-morter as well as on-line) as well as through gamification, Kahn Academy, Wikipedia and Google Translate. Their learning comes from many content providers and experts! However, the teacher as the expert is a longstanding tradition that drives our educational system. We need to unlearn how we teach in order to improve education.

Uplearning: The ability to be comfortable working with complex problems, not because you know the answers, but because you are equipped with critical thinking skills . These skills – such as synthesis, adaptability, systems-thinking and a multidisciplinary approach- enables individuals to ‘pull’ themselves into the unknown. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, demonstrates uplearning in his proposed ‘Hyperloop’, a solar-powered transportation system designed to move people between LA and San Francisco in about 30 minutes. There is currently no way to accomplish this dream. However, he believes that a group of people committed to uplearning can learn how to do so.

This change will be challenging if we rely on historic models of education. Richard Ogle highlighted this in his book Smart World when he noted, “Western education is based on two fundamental principles…rational thinking and content of knowledge that already exists … and, by definition, traditional learning looks backward. In a world of radical change, imagination, intuition, insight and innovation are required …and, by definition, learning looks forward”. Education itself must transform by applying unlearning and uplearning principles.

Alvin Toffler once said, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. While the terms unlearning and uplearning may not be common, you can expect them to become cornerstones of effective education and leadership in the decades ahead.

What are the common barriers you encounter that inhibit uplearning and unlearning?

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Ogle, R. (2007). Smart world: Breakthrough creativity and the new science of ideas. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 113.

Budd, B., de la Tega, M., Grove, B., & Smyre, R. (July-August 2014). Creating a future forward college: What if…Collaborations in transformational learning. The Futurist (Vol. 48, No. 4). Retrieved Octtober 21 from http://www.wfs.org/futurist/2014-issues-futurist/july-august-2014-vol-48-no-4/creating-future-forward-college-what-if-c

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