Learn to Unlearn

“Learning math and spelling is far less important than learning the act of learning. That is what Sugata’s children are doing, and that is what this book is about.”

– Nicholas Negroponte
on Sugata Mitra’s Beyond the Hole in the Wall

Scenario #1

A few weeks ago, I had to give a short talk to high school students about study skills. Some of the questions I asked them were, “How are you as a learner?” and How do you know when you learned something?” It wasn’t surprising at all when majority of the students said that they haven’t really thought about those things. One student said that he learns when he studies. But when asked about how they feel about studying, many of them cheered in agreement when I flashed this image on screen:

Scenario #2

This week, I’ve been assigned to man our booth in the Manila International Book Fair. Since I work for an institution that caters to the education sector, many educators, parents and students pass by our booth – this means I get to interview (subtly) many of them. What I find very interesting are my conversations with parents who do home schooling. I’ve noticed that parents who choose to home school their children have been growing in numbers. The main reason for them in opting to do so is that they feel that the current educational system limits what their children could learn.

School and Learning

When we think about it, the goal or desired outcome of going through school is learning. We always hear educators parroting the term lifelong learners. But what does the term learning actually mean? How do we know when learning occurs?

“Learning is any relatively permanent change in behavior brought about by experience or practice.”

– Ciccarelli and White

Personally, this is one of the most functional definitions of learning for me. I agree with John Dewey that the process of learning and thinking only becomes complete when it’s tied to experience. This change in behavior can either be good or bad, but of course, schools by nature would hope that these changes in behavior would result to something upright or moral. I guess the question now is: What kind of learning experiences do schools provide?

The Scope and Sequence of Learning

Any teacher would be familiar with the terms scope and sequence, syllabus, learning competencies, etc. Basically, this is how we organize the curriculum and determine what students should learn at a particular period in their lives. I think organizing and classifying topics according to hierarchy and different disciplines has its merits. Everything is done systematically and each topic and concept has its own place and time in the curriculum. What is unsettling about it, however, is that the structure itself can be limiting. Content and theory are given primacy and importance over application and practice. Liz Dwyer, Education Editor of GOOD Education, pretty much sums it up in her article, Is Every Single Subject Taught in High School a Mistake?

“Indeed, many kids hate school because what they’re learning doesn’t seem relevant to real life.”

– Liz Dwyer

In a regular scope and sequence, content is divided into different subject-matter disciplines. This is why we have different subjects in schools with different teachers or experts assigned to teach them. This could be helpful because certain subject areas do demand specific skills to be learned. What we, as teachers, tend to overlook most of the time is that we treat the disciplines as separate entities. Knowledge and concepts learned in one subject area are isolated from another – seeing the connections and relationships among the concepts is often not part of instruction. In real life, we do not dissect our activities into different disciplines. Looking at the traditional curriculum, I think we provide students with an incomplete experience of learning. It is heavily driven by content with incidental teaching of practice and application. I say incidental because in general, the kind of integration that happens in schools is often shallow and insignificant. It’s no wonder that by the time students reach adulthood, they feel that school was an insignificant period in their lives.

Another issue that is being questioned is age – why do we group students according to age? These questions about the scope and sequence that traditional schools subscribe to would spark many debates and arguments. But maybe one of the things we should ask ourselves about following this kind of order in a curriculum is this: Do we follow this particular order because it’s easy for the teacher?

Classrooms Without Walls

We’ve heard many calls for a revolution in the educational system. One thing comforting about these debates is that many people are exploring different methods and alternative forms of education. These cries for a new educational system are challenging our basic beliefs and assumptions about human nature and our capacity to learn. In my previous post, I linked Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk on Child-Driven Education. In his TED Book: Beyond the Hole in the Wall, he presents an alternative to formal education. He asks, “Is formal education, as we know it, an outdated idea?”

His project, The Hole in the Wall, focuses on SOLE or Self-Organized Learning Environment. The project was named as such because it entailed setting up computers in, quite literally, holes in the walls of several playgrounds (or public places considered to be child-friendly) in impoverished areas where children receive no formal schooling. His aim was to observe how these children would learn with and from each other, given that they only have a computer.

The results, so far, have been groundbreaking. Given such a learning space without a teacher to intervene, children of varying ages learned how to use the computer on their own. What is even more exciting is that children eventually learned how to use the computer to gain more knowledge about other things! In time, they learned to ask questions on their own and devise ways in which they could find the answers themselves.

Another example in which formal education was redesigned was when Studio H, headed by Emily Pilloton piloted a community project in Bertie County. Similar to Sugata Mitra, Emily Pilloton and her team decided to work in a poor rural community. In her talk below, she narrates how important it is as a community to solve something together because it gives its people a shared ownership of what they were able to accomplish. For people to learn, “…we must provide or create a condition under which change is possible.”

Learn to Unlearn

One of the hardest yet wonderful things about the learning process is that it involves “unlearning” habits and letting go of certain assumptions. I think it is crucial for us to teach our students how learning occurs so that they become more aware of how they are as learners. It’s more important to teach them how to think about thinking and learning rather than bombarding them with heavy content. It is also important that they are given the chance to readily apply what it is they have learned. In this way, they become more aware of how to develop their own consciousness, be more responsible for their own learning and discover how this is relevant to their lives.


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