The barrier to progress is often the habits and routines that served us well in the past, but are not compatible with new directions, initiatives, and ideas.


As we learn new ways of better meeting the learning needs of our students, we often find that the changes required necessitate us to stop using some of the strategies that have helped us be successful in the past. This may seem obvious, you need to stop doing some things, but it is a concept that can be difficult to do. We often become invested in the way we choose to operate in our class. A change of routine can be very disruptive on a personal level. I believe we need to identify the things that that we are going to need to leave, or “unlearn”, in order to make progress. This should be a question we ask ourselves as we are setting up changes.

I have lived this disruptive change many times in my life. I can remember when our school was doing work around assessment and I came to see that the methods I was using could be improved. I believed that by giving more feedback and less actual marks I would improve student writing. I had a strong feeling that this would have a big positive impact on my students, which it actually did, but I struggled with letting go of the methods I had used before. I needed to unlearn. I knew these old strategies, my students knew these strategies and what to expect when they were getting their writing assignments back. I had even photocopied a years worth of marking sheets in advance to be prepared. I pushed forward and both learned the new assessment strategies and unlearned the old ones.

The cycle of learning and unlearning should be constant in an environment where learning is important, where improvement is desired, where theories are put to the test. The possible consequences of not unlearning is doing things the same way, not keeping up with new research, not changing our instruction for the needs of the individuals in our class or school, and not improving. Please be careful, I did not say we need to adopt every idea that comes across our desks. I am saying that we should be thoughtfully adopting new ways of teaching and learning based on the areas we have identified as needs in our students.

It takes confidence to take the leap and try new ways that may lead to higher levels of success. When we see new ways of teaching and learning that we believe are promising, we are often leery to try them out as it means leaving processes that have made us successful in the past. This underlines that importance of psychological safety in our workplaces and the need to create environments where testing theories that have the possibility of failure is tolerated and permissible. We need to be able to share our successes and failures in order to move forward.

When creating a Learning Sprint, a question that might need to be posed is: What are we leaving in order to try this new way? or What are we not going to do now and what are the consequences? By consciously naming the strategies we are leaving, I believe it will help some to adopt the new ways. So the question is… what are you unlearning today?

A big thanks for the podcast Masters of Scale for the inspiration on this topic. You should check them out.


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