Steve Wheeler gathers a few sources on unlearning in his short but effective blog post, “Learning, Unlearning and Relearning.” He cites a futurologist, a philosopher, and, as far as I can make out, a gamer interested in brain science. Anyway, Wheeler’s post immediately rang true for me as an instructor of composition–yes I’m on a break from that, but am thinking of adding it back in the fall. So much of what I do in that first college semester is focused on teaching students how to unlearn the writing formulas learned in their K-12 years, primarily that formula of all formulas, the five paragraph essay.
The unlearning of that formula first requires being aware of having learned it to begin with, and for many students, they hadn’t learned a neat formula, they had simply become adept at writing essays–essays for children, unfortunately. My pointing out the essence of that formula as a formula and how well it worked to outline good elements of an essay generally comes as something of a surprise to students, and they are more than a little worried when I describe it as a good formula for children, but I do get their attention.
I invite students to begin unlearning that formula by forcing themselves to write the first essay with any number of needed paragraphs–except five. Four, six, eight, whatever works for their purposes, and that silly suggestion turns out to begin to liberate them from the old formula and to think more about what they need to say. On reflection, in a cover letter to the essay, sometimes they are not happy with their first attempt to abandon the well-learned formula, but that self-analysis requires them to look more objectively at their writing and think about what makes it good. I love those letters, and they are never written in a five-paragraph style.
So, Wheeler’s post spoke to something essential in my teaching. Go read his article, follow his source links, and think about how unlearning fits into your teaching and learning.