OPINION – Unlearning: a tough but worthy challenge

Opinion by Angela Chong, former high school teacher

In Macau, as in most of the other places hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, there have been changes to various aspects of life. During the few months of school closure, online classes were conducted as a social distancing measure. Besides, since class resumption in May, alternative assessment strategies have been adopted; instead of depending entirely on major exam scores, there will be consideration about the students’ overall performance in minor tests, assignments, projects, etc. While such strategies are acceptable to most of the teachers, some inevitably question their reliability and are hesitant about doing away with the habitual practices. 

As I see it, these teachers should appreciate the need to “unlearn”. Literally, to unlearn is to forget intentionally something learned, which is usually a fact or a belief. Just because it is almost always an established fact, to forget it is far from easy. In fact, unlearning can be a tough challenge. As Russell Ackoff says, “the only thing that’s harder than starting something new, is stopping something old.”

There are facts that we need to banish from our minds. In the case of a teacher, to unlearn old teaching methods is sometimes necessary to keep pace with social progress and to cater to the needs of an ever-changing generation. But this may entail a certain degree of difficulty. Some of the experienced teachers are reluctant to adopt new strategies at the cost of traditional methods as they have proved effective for years. Understandably, whether unlearning is essential to effective learning involves prudent judgment. The teachers will have to evaluate their methods of teaching and assessing with an open attitude and be receptive to criticism. They should be ready to do away with any teaching method that fails to achieve the desired effect. This is how unlearning can help.

Likewise, if the need arises, students should also learn to unlearn. Some students tend to place a lot of trust in their last-minute effort. They believe that they can always secure exam passes by working hard only in the final term and spend the rest of the scholastic year enjoying life and wasting time. In this way they acquire hardly more than one third of what is achieved by the other students, who are bound to benefit from their whole year’s effort. Without accumulated experience of past tests, the lazy students usually fail in the final attempt, probably the only attempt. In such cases, unlearning is of great significance. They ought to abandon the thought of pinning their hopes on one month’s serious work and wake up to the need for stringent efforts every day instead.

In brief, while there are facts that are worth treasuring for life, there are others that need unlearning however tough a challenge this can be.