When Old Knowledge Gets in the Way of New Learning

My wife, Charlotte, and I love to dance. One of our big expenses for our wedding was to get the Lester Lanin Orchestra to play for us.

We moved to Cambridge a year later. We thought it would be a fun idea to take swing dance lessons to expand our moves. It nearly ended our marriage. Apparently, we weren’t doing anything the right way. What worked for us worked for us. And it looked just fine to our friends. None of it, however, was by the book.

We made a smart decision and dropped that class. Learning to do swing dance “the right way” wasn’t worth the stress and strain. That was forty years ago, so I think we made the right call.

Our younger boy was in the U.S Marine Corps for eleven years. When he started at age 18 straight out of high school, he had never handled a weapon of any sort. The Marines preferred this to someone who came in with a set of bad habits. Derek routinely qualified as an Expert Marksman, which is the Corps highest standard.

Last month, Charlotte and I attended our second session of Modern Bridge Bidding. I played back when I was in university and we’ve been playing with her sister and my brother-in-law over the last year. Bidding in bridge has evolved from what I half-learned fifty years ago and my old knowledge gets in the way of laying down new knowledge. The principles remain the same, but the details have shifted.

All of this has me thinking about learning and what I already know. More particularly, about how what I already know interferes with learning new things. There’s an oft-quoted observation from Alvin Toffler that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

It’s this notion of “unlearning” that’s on my mind. I think we’re in general agreement that we could all get better at learning. But, how do we handle the unlearning component? I took a brief look at half of this problem (no pun intended) when I wrote about the problem of learning, bodies of knowledge, and half-lives. There I was focused on the problem of old knowledge being displaced by new knowledge. The part of the problem I missed was that obsolete knowledge doesn’t conveniently flush itself out of memories and skills.

Obsolete or not, existing knowledge and skill insists on sticking around; often deeply wired into muscle memory. When I’ve designed courses, I spend time identifying prerequisites. What should students already know coming into class that we can build on. How did those Marine instructors handle that recruit who thought they already knew how to shoot a rifle?

As a teacher, how much do you need to understand about the wrong ways to do things in order to teach the right way? As a learner, how do you begin to see the things you know that are preventing you from learning something new?

The paradox here is that I now have a vein of new knowledge to mine about unlearning.

One thought on “When Old Knowledge Gets in the Way of New Learning”

  1. My father taught Math to HS and University Students for 50 years , part of his focus was to unlearn bad habits and knowledge from students that they acquired over mmk out of their school years. He always said it was equally challenging and took an equal portion as the new learning.

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