Blog: Rebooting Learning: Start with Unlearning

Learning & Development

Rebooting Learning: Start with Unlearning

Chris Dede, Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University on eLearning, remote work, essential skills and the dynamic power of learning to unlearn.
Rebooting Learning: Start with Unlearning

There is little doubt we’re living in disruptive times. The news is dominated by a global pandemic which, according to the ILO, has impacted 94% of the world’s workforce. In turbulent times, our instinctive reaction may be to hold tight to our views, dig in our heels and stick with what we have always known. However, different times call for different ways of thinking. That’s where the method of ‘unlearning,’ can be so important. Unlearning can act as a counterweight to rigidities of thought, allowing us to reset and develop the skills of agility, flexibility and resilience that will make all the difference as we move into the New Reality. 

Professor Chris Dede is Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. He spoke with People Matters on matters of eLearning, remote work, essential skills and the dynamic power of learning to unlearn. This is the second of a series focused on e-learning trends, to read the first one click here

Live remote, learn local 

The benefits and drawbacks of remote work have been much-discussed over the past few months. Opinions range from positive to negative and the data on productivity skews generally in favour of remote work arrangements. However, one of the major concerns is that in the absence of international travel, the world may begin to seem smaller, even insular. In our global world, we have become fixated on seeing the bigger picture, looking beyond our horizons and operating in a cross-cultural mindset. While this international worldview is immensely useful at a time of global unrest, Professor Dede said he is also using this moment of remote learning to shift attention to what is happening right in our own hometowns.

In his work at Harvard, Professor Dede says “I orient a lot of my teaching around ‘Ok, let’s look at technology usage and how it can improve education, but I want each of you to look at it in terms of what’s happening five miles from your house.” 

So, looking to what we can learn locally is just one of the many ways we cast an alternative net and turn the circumstances of the crisis into an opportunity to think in a different way. Of his own students, Dedes says “when they’re remote, they’re typically in their home setting and will typically have a richer set of resources for what’s going on in the real world than they would sitting in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” 

As HR professionals, we could apply this mode of thinking to our own research and learning, asking ourselves: what is happening in the world of work in our own countries, cities or towns? That knowledge can then be used to impact and drive a rich dialogue in a broader sense further down the line. 

Five to seven careers 

Even before the crisis, the world of work was shifting. Where before, we might have thought of our career paths as linear and limited to a single sector, we are now free to get creative and forge a lifelong process of learning, evolving and reprioritising what is most important to us across the course of many different jobs and roles. 

“We’re entering a very turbulent half-century, people are going to have 5-7 careers rather than one career,” says Professor Dede. “The real question isn’t ‘which career?’,  the real question is ‘which first?’” 

In a recent post, Dede directs us to a LinkedIn post by Ed Dieterle, Executive Director of the Center for Strategic R&D Alliances at Educational Testing Service, in which he discusses the concept of ‘Finding Your Compass’ when it comes to negotiating these multiple career paths. In this post, Dieterle highlights the importance of “being grounded in what I value and what I want to learn more about” which has helped him to “determine where I can have the greatest impact (and the most personal and professional fulfillment).” Staying true to values and interests is an effective way to determine and decide where to go next. In terms of unlearning, this is a guiding principle that we nevertheless have had to work to understand in a system that, for a long time, prioritised lifelong career progression in a single direction or industry over choice and change. 

COVID-19 has spurred many of us to take a step back and reexamine what we want from our jobs. According to a Robert Half survey released last week, 60% of professionals now want to work for an organisation that values its staff during unpredictable times and over a third want a more meaningful or fulfilling job. Paul McDonald, senior executive director of Robert Half, said “purpose is at the forefront of everyone's mind right now, and professionals are assessing whether their company's values align with their own.” 

If we hadn’t before, the pandemic crisis will give pause of thought, an ideal opportunity to unlearn the pervasive notion we must pick one career and stick with it for life. 

Suites of Skills 

Now more than ever, with the widespread adoption of AI and automation now picking up pace under COVID, uniquely human skills will be even more desirable. Particularly in times of uncertainty, intrapersonal skills - things like resilience, empathy, communication, dynamism, agility and creativity - will be absolutely critical. 

“Another kind of unlearning is that people think about training and education as knowledge and skills and we don’t think about dispositions,” says Professor Dede. “Intrapersonal is not typically in the list of instructional objectives.” 

Professor Dede expands on this idea in a post entitled ‘Advising Your Children about Learning in the Era of “New Abnormal,’ in which he says that, “given that you will have five to seven careers, think of yourself as an evolving suite of skills rather than as a role.” 

For example, Professor Dede doesn’t pigeonhole himself as a “faculty member,” but rather casts himself “aspirationally as someone who is adept at explaining complex things to a wide variety of people, a mentor with decades of experience to share, someone with social capital to connect and convene, and a researcher who, in collaboration with colleagues, is able to inspire through creative designs and scholarly findings.” 

When it comes to job-seeking, what are our overarching talents? What unique dispositions and characteristics do we bring to the table? Informally, what do we spend time doing? Who do we know, where have we lived and what have we overcome? All of these parts of our story will have an impact. It’s critical we understand how to market ourselves according to our skillsets. This may not seem instinctive at first - being wedded to how our roles define our identities - rather than our dispositions or characteristics. In the end, though, our skills will be what define us and what we fall back on in times of disruption. 

Professor Dede uses a story from his own career to demonstrate the importance of separating skills from roles:

“One of my doctoral students came to us from Accenture. Her specialty was workforce training and development. She was interviewing people in the military because a lot of people enter the military and they get some skills and then they go into civilian life. She was interviewing a young man and asked him what he was planning to do. He said ‘well I hear that Starbucks is hiring veterans, so I guess I’ll learn to become a barista. She said ‘well what did you do in the military?’ It turns out, he was a logistics expert. She said ‘forget about being a barista, you’re going to have people fighting over you for operations management.” 

This is just one example of the myriad ways professionals sell themselves short through their inability or reluctance to track their own skills. 

“People often don’t know what their skills are,” Dede adds, making a key distinction, “because the educational system tells them what they’ve been taught, but it doesn’t tell them what they’ve learned.” 

Undoubtedly, unlearning is a useful tool for the future of work. Forging ahead, we must:

  • Look beyond our resumes and think of ourselves as suites of skills 
  • Align our values and interests with our careers 
  • Examine what’s happening in our immediate surroundings, not just globally
  • Unlearn our biases about job progression
  • Find the bright spots in these turbulent times 

Through this, we stand to emerge more resilient to disruption, both in the immediate aftermath of the crisis and beyond.


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Topics: Learning & Development, Learning Technology, #COVID-19

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