What unlearning really is

To understand what unlearning is, first we need to explore the definition of learning:

  • The act or experience of one that learns.
  • Knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study.
  • Modification of a behavioral tendency by experience (such as exposure to conditioning)

From the very definition, the act of learning requires not only obtaining new knowledge, either by studying or by experiencing, but also modifying our future behaviour according to the belief that an specific set of actions will allow us to solve an specific problem or successfully deal with a situation. 

We, humans, do not really learn, instead what we do is to look for a pattern, through trial and error, that can be deemed a good enough solution for a given scenario under our appreciation, which is also called experience. Then, in subsequent situations, we just basically apply the same pattern over and over until we stumble upon a, slightly or completely, different scenario that force us to start looking again for a new pattern to deal with this situation. Here is where the problem comes with what we have previously learned: the approach we take is commonly making the most of our own experience dealing with similar problems we solved in the past. From that knowledge on is where we start looking for a solution, since it would be less efficient to start over from a completely fresh and new approach to a problem that might be solved with a little tweak to our previous experience, because come on, we need optimal times and results, and doing it all over again is not a realistic possibility.

For example, if we are given a challenge to come up with a solution to find a cure to a disease, we might start considering several distinct components for an existing drug or maybe a completely new drug, but maybe the correct approach is not a drug to fight the disease but in preventing that an specific gene in humans reacts to a certain body condition which really causes the disease is manifested. That would represent a totally different schema for fighting diseases that would require to focus not in looking for a cure but rather in data to predict a possible scenario and, consequently, not using physicians to cure diseases but data scientists to predict possible situations and probabilities where the disease is manifested.  

If the example sounds totally out of logic is because our prior learning (physician cure existing disease in human using drug) prevent us from adopting a new frame of mind (data scientist find pattern in data to prevent future disease in human) to deal with a known situation. Today, usage of human data to find patterns to alert us of possible future diseases is more common everyday but without a mindset to leave behind the old -even the current and working- and to make way for the new then there is no possibility yo unlearn.

Unlearning is not about forgetting what we know -because sooner or later we unconsciuosly go back to our old ways- but having the capacity to freely choose a totally different mental model to replace our current one, is being able to look at the things we have known all our life from a totally different perspective to find them different or less logical purposes or reasons, that might even surprise us later.

Finally, both individuals and organizations need to be learning entities but innovation demand unlearning first so that -as stated previously- we can make way for the new.

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