Is unlearning a problem with learning?

As it’s a relatively warm, sunny autumn day, I went for a post-lunch stroll and stopped to sit on a bench in my local park. There is some renovation work in progress there and half the park is a building site.

There are always lots of pigeons around and I noticed some of them flying up to a drinking fountain where there is often a pool of water. However, as I walked past it, I saw that it was dry and was obviously out of service. The pigeons were looking for a drink but their source was dry.

They had learned to come to this spot, but were now possibly confused by what they saw. There didn’t seem to be any other options in the vicinity. So some of them seemed to keep returning to look again, as if the water would come back.

They needed to learn that their regular source of water had gone and that they would have to learn where a new source of water exists.

Unlearn and (re)learn.

It occurred to me while observing my feathered acquaintences that when we think of learning we commonly associate this with adding more knowledge on top of that which we already possess, rather than dismantling preconceived ideas and replacing them with something new. From this, I considered the extent to which this perception may affect our ability to develop professionally and personally.

On a wider level, whole companies, or societies, somehow need to unlearn held beliefs in order to replace them with new ones and make changes. What’s more important when looking for change: unlearning existing knowledge and beliefs, or learning new ones? Which is the biggest obstruction to change?

We all have mental models of the world; lenses through which we view our activity. At work, I suspect that behaviours and habits are so thoroughly ingrained, not only within individuals but, by extension, throughout teams and organisations.

There are many common day-to-day practices that are part of work which are frequently problematic: meetings without agendas or minutes; meetings that are one hour long, by default; replying to ‘all’ in emails without thinking; checking emails as the first activity of a morning; not taking a lunch break; unquestioningly accepting a hierarchical structure and being competitive instead of cooperative. I’m sure we could add more.

It feels like these things are pervasive because they are learned behaviours that need ‘unlearning’ before a better option can replace them.

I recently came across a concept, described with a German word: Einstellung, which can be described as: “the negative effect of previous experience when solving new problems”. I think this seems to be relevant here, in that people’s minds are ‘blocked’, to some extent, by what they already know.

There may also, within individuals, be an understanding both that the existing way of doing something is not ideal and also the knowledge of a more effective option, but that knowledge is ‘hidden’ and so blocked by some kind of peer pressure. People tend to favour methods that are common practice above trying something new and standing out from the crowd. I suspect this is a kind of cognitive bias, but I’m no expert.

I suppose a conclusion I’ve reached is that we need to make a deliberate decision to ignore previously held knowledge and beliefs. This requires an effort to recognise when we slip back into our ‘bad habits’. We can then learn an alternative and make sure we understand that. Then we can employ that method or use that knowledge as part of our professional ‘toolkit’.

It’s probably also a good idea to be sensitive to noticing these learned behaviours in ourselves so that we can make changes in our practice.

I could have searched for articles on unlearning before I wrote this, but I deliberately didn’t. This is me learning out loud. So now I going to do some research and see what gaps I can fill and dots I can connect.

In the meantime, on a related note…




  1. […] discerning the information’s importance.  Is the information important, or is it noise? Do I need to unlearn something from previous experience to incorporate this new information? Does the framework I currently hold still work or do I need to find or create a new one?  What […]


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