One-Size Does Not Fit All: Unlearning Traditional Education Systems

Kirstin Toth \
January 05, 2018

A recent commentary in EdWeek by Christopher Dede, a professor in learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education argues that “the biggest barrier we face in this process of reinventing our (what will soon be) obsolete educational models is not learning, but unlearning. We have to let go of deeply held, emotionally valued identities in service of transformational change to a different, more effective set of behaviors.”

I am squarely in the camp espoused by Dede. It is beautifully articulated and directly relates to our need as supporters of education to understand more deeply what our teaching colleagues are advancing for their students and thus for the families of our future. Our communities are changing fast, and in order to not leave so many behind, we must recognize that our students are learners who are not acquiring critical thinking skills in a vacuum; they need flexible learning environments and teachers who are moving into a different way of thinking about their own teaching. Their “unlearning” has to come before any students’ unlearning. In fact, students do not have to do much unlearning as much as be given the platforms that support their advanced, fast and innovative learning. We know how capable they are to be attracted to relevant and engaging instruction and learning.

So much of our public policy holds us back in terms of the beliefs that undergird support for education, as Dede notes- the focus on outdated modes of assessment that measure the wrong things and are punitive by design. And so many in our State Houses seek but lack  understanding about the best ways to support schools in a rapidly changed society. We are not the same society of 30 years ago, when many of our today’s senior legislators (the ones with the gravitas and legislative leadership positions) were in school themselves, which they use as the key input for their understanding of how students should be educated. This is a common trap for all of us, but I suggest that the unlearning has to happen in the public policy sphere for the benefit of teacher education programs at institutions of higher education, for policymakers and for schools themselves

The broad question GAR Foundation is attempting to answer is how we support this shift of “unlearning” with our philanthropic dollars and judicious use of our bully pulpit?

How do we together as citizens, educators, funders and community members, help unlearn the outdated content of the past yet focus on the timeless skills noted by the Pearson report as  “interpersonal skills, higher-order cognitive skills, and systems skills?” GAR Foundation is attempting to do just this, but focusing on supporting changes to “the system”, that ubiquitous term that defines what is today more complex than ever; the combination of kids, parents, teachers, legislators, funders, regulators, policy-makers.

Strategies that will guide our work include advancing high-quality adult-child interactions for our very youngest/early learners, quality out-of-school-time experiences, high-quality teacher professional development, advocacy that supports the future sectors and jobs, and supporting the ecosystem of network collaboration across education and economic development. There is no quick route on these roads, but a disciplined approach to unlearning the what gets in our way of the new learning we need is the best path to progress. We look forward to sharing this journey with our key partners at Akron Public Schools, our nonprofit leaders and our community in 2018 and beyond.