Learning By Unlearning

Author: Patrick Baker  • 

   The 21st century promises one thing that is distinctly different from decades and centuries past – the world our children will inherit is increasingly unpredictable.  As such, our society must prepare students to actively adapt in order to thrive.

At its broadest, the concept of Adaptive Expertise juxtaposes routine experts against those that are more fluid (adaptive).  The advantage for adaptive experts is that they can change their core competencies, and therefore, continue to broaden and deepen their expertise.  This is particularly relevant as Hatano suggests that in stable environments, culture provides adequate resources for the routine expertise, but in our present day, instability rules.  Combine this with technology that makes what used to take decades to achieve, now takes no time at all, and the adaptive expert appears to emerge as the fittest survivor.

Stop for a moment.  Imagine our schools filled with these types of learners – and moreover, the kind of teachers that can empower that type of student.  Instead of set-curricula, set benchmarks of scores on antiquated assessments, and outcome-based focus that are directly tied to funding, imagine schools with engaged learners, collaborative groups, and a place where innovation is celebrated rather than stymied.

We must provide an environment where inquiry and innovation are achieved through intellectual struggles, where failure is safe and resolve through trying again is celebrated and encouraged – not graded with a letter grade or not meeting proficiency.  The struggle against old, fixed mindsets and constructs of what learning is should make us uncomfortable – and, at some level we must be okay with that discomfort, especially if it ignites and engages the learner.  This engagement is what authors like Csikszentmihalyi and Pink call “flow” – a state of mind where motivation and engagement meet – and where children seem inclined to go naturally.

It seems that above all, one goal for future generations is to equip them with habits of mind that will provide an expertise to confront new situations and overcome new challenges with a steadfast resolve.  This requires engagement and a new way of teaching.  It also, logically, calls for a new way to assess what successful teaching looks like.  Should innovation from students be that which is “graded”, or should it still be the primary skills that are graded – or should it be somewhere in between?

Intellectual authors fervently discuss various kinds of knowledge (content and students, content and teaching, and specialized content knowledge) that educators must possess to be ultimately successful.  In essence, the authors call for another balancing act, this time between teachers’ knowledge of their content area, knowing how it connects to other areas, and how to engage students.  Creating a new culture of interdisciplinary collaboration can only help to better understand best teaching practices.

If great teaching and learning is like a computer, the notion of Adaptive Expertise potentially serves as the operating system.  While unquestionably exciting, infusing Adaptive Expertise into our schools also has deep, and far-reaching implications for myriad issues, including that of school culture, class size (ensuring maximum efficiency), and the future of teacher preparation courses, to name a few.

With over eight centuries of experience, the fictional expert teacher Yoda, once suggested to his pupil to, “unlearn what you have learned.”  In all seriousness, however, this is not far from the truth about what needs to occur in our thinking about what students need and how teachers must teach.  Will this be easy to embed within our deep-rooted system of education in this country?  No, it will not.  Is it worth pursuing relentlessly?  Absolutely.

Matt Rush

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