Monday, December 22, 2008

21st Century Skill: Unlearning

When you work with someone else's product too long, you start to think how you could do it better. That is true of the Iowa Core as well.

The core has built its 21st century skill curriculum around the work of the Partnership for the 21st Century, and no one would argue with the skills it identifies. And while the skills aren't quite math or reading, they still are quite quantifiable.

But, that gets me thinking... much of what we want students to be able to do is not quantifiable, and doesn't fit neatly into curriculum guides. These skills could cause quite a bit of healthy debate in educational circles. Are the essential? How does a school teach these effectively?

The first that comes to mind is the ability to unlearn, which of course was not coined by great educational thinkers like Dewey or Renzulli, but rather from Yoda. (Well, since I was a toddler when Star Wars came out, I might be falsely attributing that term to him, but he was the first master teacher I came across growing up...)

Fictional green guys aside, there is power in this skill. It means the ability to unlearn false misconceptions or bad teaching that one has acquired in the past so that one is ready to take on new learning.

It is powerful precisely because we have so many bad teachers in our world. If our concept of justice comes from Hollywood endings, we have this skewed perception that good will always win in the end. Conversely, if our concept of social status and race relations come from our past relatives, it makes it difficult to progress as a society.

Bad learning can be more than value-based, though. Students who have gone through poor pre-literacy programs or have a learning disability like dyslexia could be stuck in teaching that isn't geared for their mental schema. It can be skill-based as well, as those who lived too long in the hunt-and-peck keyboarding phase can attest. A self-disclosure: I was taught the wrong way to throw a curve ball and play a guitar, and I'm still suffering.

There are quite a bit of things inherent in this umbrella called "unlearning". There is the ability to question, the ability to doubt, the ability to believe that you don't have all the answers, and the willingness to embrace uncertainty when you once had certainty.

Want bold? I posit that true autonomous learning cannot be developed without this essential 21st century skill. In order to progress and achieve your fullest, you have to unlearn all the bad teachings, be them from peers, family, teachers, media, complete strangers, or yourself, all in order to then learn the correct and fulfilling learnings. Therefore, a curriculum without this skill is incomplete.

Which, begs a lot of questions. How do we do this in the 21st century classroom, especially when it doesn't fit nicely into the curriculum (I can't imagine Riverside trying to prepare items on their criterion-referenced assessments for the core on "unlearning")? How can teachers set it up so that the textbook, the internet, even the teacher themselves, are not the "ultimate authority"? How can we model this? How can we assess this?

This is where teaching is an art, where classrooms have dynamics that make students into adults unlike the cookie-cutter approaches to ensure specific skills. The art that is impossible to assess on a standardized test, yet vital to a child's development.

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