Turning Students Off with “Unlearning”

August 5, 2009 at 4:37 pm Leave a comment

I’m in the last of my three workshops in a row. While tiring, I’m getting a lot out of my students.  While they’re working or at breaks, I often just hang out at the back of the room, waiting for questions and just listening.

Earlier this week, I heard a couple of my teacher-students  (teachers who are students in my workshop) talking about their past workshop experiences.  They talked about both attending a workshop where the workshop leader spoke of “getting the students to ‘unlearn‘ everything” they’d learned previously.  My teacher-students found this really insulting and arrogant.  One teacher-student pointed out that she had a doctorate — she really had to unlearn everything?

The lingo of “unlearning everything” is common in computing education.  Some objects-first proponents claim that you can’t really learn objects after learning something else, because you can’t “unlearn everything.”  Most software engineering faculty I know claim that you have to “unlearn” all your bad practices to learn new ones.

Until I overheard my teacher-students, I hadn’t realized how wrong-headed that phrase is.  The most important lesson for education from cognitive science is that students do not come in as blank slates, they they are actively interpreting the world in terms of what they already know, and that they know a lot.  To talk about unlearning is not only impossible, it’s insulting the students’ prior learning.  All that prior learning had been effective in the past.  You can only get students to get past misconceptions if the new conceptions are more powerful, explaining everything in the past plus new things.

What we ought to mean when we talk about “unlearning” is, “What I’m going to show you is much more powerful than what you have used previously.  I’m going to show you some problems that are hard to solve  with your old practice, but is easier with this new practice.  Let me try to convince you of the power of this new way of doing things.”  You can’t get someone to “unlearn.”  If you’re a good teacher, you can prove that your new way is better and that students should give you a chance.  To talk about “unlearning” is insulting and lazy on the part of the teacher — new practices don’t have to be shoved down students’ throats, if you can just make the case that your new ways are better and worth adopting.  If you can’t make the case, then maybe the students are better off sticking with what they already know.

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Google pushing programming cell phones in courses Cramming the first semester until the students burst

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