Learn is to Teach, as Unlearn is to ?

One of the big issues in college education is helping students unlearn things from before that either block additional learning or are just plain wrong; how can we unteach them?

An example from soccer: It is often difficult to get a young player to be able to take a successful shot on the goal. Some figure it out on their own, but most have the problem of always kicking the ball to the goalie. One of the basic causes is that early players learn to kick a soccer ball by getting with a partner and kicking it back and forth directly to each other.  Getting the ball directly to the other player is the goal of the exercise, and so the young player learns to always try to kick the ball to the other player.  You can try to help the player by developing new skills, by telling them to not look at the goalie when they take the kick.  This might work, but it doesn’t address the basic skill they learned, and that skill also makes other aspects of the game less successful (e.g. they pass directly to a player, instead of out into the space in front of the player, and they want to accept a pass by facing the other player rather than in a position to keep running forward with the ball). So some coaches have developed some different drills to help players develop better skills that lead to more productive plays (like passing while running around in a circle).

Using this example as a model, we see that once we’ve identified something that needs to be unlearned, we should avoid adding a new set of behaviors to fix it, but instead try to identify the source idea and how it was learned and try to develop some new learning exercises to replace the one bad source with a good source. What the example doesn’t resolve is how to convince the students to change and how to figure out what sort of approach will lead to change.

  • Identify the thing to be unlearned. Students will always make mistakes, and so we have to look for repeated mistakes, and then dig deeper to see what’s causing the mistakes. We have to eliminate the usual problems that happen when learning something new, and focus on cases where they repeat the mistake because, in some sense, they think they are doing the right thing. These may only show up in high stress situations like tests, but we have to separate anxiety issues from ideas that need to be unlearned.  These ideas might also show up in areas where there’s initially success, but then problems show up in extensions of the ideas. We probably can’t rely on students to self-identify these ideas, because either they will think they are correct, so won’t think that they are the problem or they will associate the mistakes they make with more common learning issues.
  • Find the source of the idea to be unlearned. This challenging especially if the student thinks that the idea is correct or has been successful with it at some level. It helps if you have multiple wrong ideas that you can trace back to the same source, but if you just have one, you’ll have to be a good detective to find the source. If it is a common error, there might be literature on it. It may be that you can’t find a source and just have to proceed on and hope that as you try to address the idea, the source will turn up.
  • Devise lessons to address the source or at least a broader version of the idea. This should be done joint with helping the student identify that the idea is wrong enough to do something about it. So the first part should be in examples that show that the idea is wrong.  This can be either ones that show it directly or ones that show that as a consequence of the idea that something bad happens. Then they should do come correct examples, and have some ideas as to how to check their own knowledge. The important part is to follow up with an assessment to check deeper and persistent understanding, and ideally never let them get away with using the old idea.



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