Think about…unlearning

This week we’re revisiting the importance of adult learning. It is at the foundation of successful schools and successful school transformation. Institutions and individuals must continuously learn and grow if they are to meet the demands of education in the 21st century.

But today, think about the importance of unlearning. Growing your expertise is not always cumulative, where each bit of knowledge and each skill is simply layered on top of the old ones. Sometimes, learning starts with unlearning a habit or idea that is in the way of moving forward.

Consider this brain-based explanation of habits and how they form taken from an NPR review of the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg:

The Power of Habit

How Habits Form

It turns out that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop,” which is a three-part process. First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.

Then there’s the routine, which is the behavior itself,” Duhigg tellsFresh Air’s Terry Gross. “That’s what we think about when we think about habits.”

Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.

“In fact, the brain starts working less and less,” says Duhigg. “The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”

That’s why it’s easy — while driving or parallel parking, let’s say — to completely focus on something else: like the radio, or a conversation you’re having.

“You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all,” he says. “And that’s because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine.”

In teaching, we develop habits that allow us to monitor for side conversations, gum, note-writing, and all other forms of off-task behavior while devoting our mental energy to the lesson at hand. Managing the class becomes automatic.

But we develop lots of other automatic behaviors, too, that are less helpful to us. They might actually be getting in the way of our effectiveness. Most of us wait less than one second after asking a question before we call on someone to answer, and even less time after a student finishes answering before we speak again (literally, the average is ZERO seconds).

Duhigg offers some help for those of us who want to unlearn habits. His suggestion? Take a vacation. No, seriously, taking a vacation removes you from all the regular “triggers” that cause your brain to go into routine mode, which helps you set up new habits more easily. This is why smokers are more likely to quit if they start their new lifestyle away from the rhythms of everyday life.

So, think about what you want to unlearn and what environmental factors might be cueing your unwanted habit. Then find a way to remove those cues. Teach your class outside or hold a walking meeting. Decide to work from a coffee shop or library. A little disruption could go a long way.

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Categories: Stage 1: Adult Learning and Leadership

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