​Learn by unlearning; see by unseeing

I am just back from a couple of days at a conference at Stirling University  Scotland.

Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I presented a paper and ran a theory clinic (see  here for details)

As with all conferences for me – it’s difficult to come away and clearly articulate the conference’s value, or what I have learned, or been provoked into thinking about and exploring further (at least in the short term). And as with all conferences, I went to some sessions that ‘left me cold’, but to others which left me knowing that there is lots I need to think about further. The Stirling conference (overall) fulfilled the latter more than the former. I was introduced to lots of new ideas.

Recently I wrote a post about being a glass half empty person . After this conference I realize that is not quite correct – but that my interest in learning is stimulated by ‘unlearning’ and by ‘unseeing’ – an idea further stimulated by a paper presented by Jason Thomas Wozniak, Teachers College, Colombia University, USA.

I was lucky that this was the last session I attended, as for me it pulled together ideas from some of the other presentations that had been simmering in my depths somewhere and also related to our own papers in unexpected ways and particularly to the idea that what is not present is as important as what is present – which I first began to think about after reading a paper about 6 months ago by Terrence W. Deacon (2011).

This idea of ‘The Other’, learning not from what is, but from what is not, also seems critical to avoiding echo chambers and ‘group think’, a topic which has been discussed many times by MOOC followers. Jason Wozniac reminds us that

‘There is a long history of ancient and modern philosophers like Seneca and Foucault who sought to defamiliarise themselves with habitual manners of perceiving and thinking in order to acquire new approaches to reality.”

Wozniac’s work with learners in Brazil has sought to encourage learning through ‘making the world strange’. Paul Standish, another speaker at the conference, seemed to be aligned to this idea, albeit through different expression, when he urged us to ‘reclaim the concept of the amateur in a positive way’. I take this to mean that we have much to learn from the amateur and unexpected ways of thinking. Standish pointed out that teachers often close down dialogue and said that teachers need to learn how to be an authority without being in authority.

Wozniac also writes “Habitual perception conceals or makes us numb to many aspects of the world. We become in essence de-sensitized, and our participation in the world is impoverished’ … and he quotes Ginzburg, 2001, p.13) ‘To understand less, to be ingenuous, to remain stupefied: these are reactions that may lead us to see more’.”

Wozniac’s team attempted this with Brazilian learners, i.e. to encourage learning through unlearning and seeing through unseeing, through a series of exercises involving art, poetry and dialogue. This reminded me of when (years ago) I attended life drawing classes and for weeks we were not allowed to draw the figure as we saw her, but instead each week had to draw her from different perspectives, e.g. the figure as a mathematical representation, the figure as a landscape and so on. We, along with Wozniac’s adult teachers and students, were developing ‘negative capability’ (Keats 1935, p.72, quoted by Wozniac) .

‘That is to say that these teachers were ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Wozniac, 2012).

This idea of promoting uncertainty and mystery in learning is very closely related to the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau on emergent and embodied learning ….. And it seems to me that a focus on uncertainty necessitates consideration of what is not there, or ‘The Other’.

For Julie Allan (keynote speaker) this ‘Other’ was expressed as ‘Aporias’. She encouraged us to think in terms of expressions of doubt, e.g. How can we raise achievement and promote inclusiveness , or how can we promote autonomy and support collaboration (which seems very relevant to the FSLT12 MOOC ).

And our second keynote speaker Tom Popkewitz  talked of ‘double gesture’ i.e. by considering what is – you also necessarily identify what is not. For example he writes:

Today’s the “urban” family and child has new classifications of “troubled youth” and “the dropout”. Without too much effort, it is easy to realize that there is no “troubled” or “dropout” without theories about the child who is not troubled and who is different from the child “drop-in”.

According to Popkewitz you can’t understand the self without understanding ‘The Other” and trying to control the future has never worked.

As Paul Standish said, the aim of education is to lead to freedom. What I learned from the conference, is that this is the freedom to see things as we have never seen them before, to think things we have never dreamed possible, to embrace uncertainty and ‘strangeness’ and to welcome defamiliarisation. This freedom will no doubt feel like strange and unfamiliar territory, but to quote Michel Foucault

‘There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.’


Deacon, T.W. (2011) Consciousness is a matter of constraint- My New Scientist
Magazine issue 2840.

Ginzburg, C. (2001) Making it strange: The prehistory of a literary device. In Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (pp. 1-23). (Martin Ryle & Kate Soper, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press)

Keats, J. (1935) The Letters of John Keats (p.72) New York: Oxford University Press

Popkewitz, T.S. (2012) Is there an Option: Theory as an Empirical Fact. http://www.stir.ac.uk/education/future-of-theory-in-education/

Wozniak, J.T. (2012) Exercises in Making the World Strange: Cultivating new ways of perceiving the world in teacher education programs and adult literacy and philosophy classes. http://www.stir.ac.uk/education/future-of-theory-in-education/

10 thoughts on “​Learn by unlearning; see by unseeing

  1. fred6368 June 10, 2012 / 5:58 pm

    Thoughtful stuff Jenny, as usual, thanks. But I would say that what you talk about unlearning you are talking about heutagogy. The unlearning we have to earn is that of removing ourselves from the constraints of the education system. Its curious reading about the learned theorists you quote critiquing education using the classically limited modes of theorising and expression that education demands. Roy has this problem too.
    The point surely, especially if you want an equitable society and inclusive learning, is to transform the education system. Overly complex analysis about learning is about maintaining the hierarchies of education not about breaking them down.
    If you want a readable analysis about making the world strange in the education system read the first 200 pages of Remake Remodel by Michael Bracewell

  2. elenizazani June 10, 2012 / 6:09 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    Reading your post I remembered a quote By Alvin Toffler saying that “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

    I am very much interested in the use of aporias. This is the starting point of reflecting, for me. Sometimes I feel that a big question mark follows my steps above my head and it can be visible to others… 🙂

  3. fred6368 June 10, 2012 / 6:17 pm

    You can teach unlearning even in formal education. You show your learners how to deconstruct the education they are being offered and how they can create their own paths through it.

  4. elenizazani June 10, 2012 / 8:27 pm

    Hi Fred,

    …”You show your learners how to deconstruct the education they are being offered”

    Do you do that by challenging them to critically think about what is being said or read?

  5. Scott Johnson June 12, 2012 / 5:14 am

    Propose something preposterous and ask for explanations. We ask student to know new things every day. As these are known things backed up with evidence all we can achieve is an outcome that is the correct answer. Asking about the impossible or the unstudied reveals the path to an unresolved “solution.” An itch with no relief.

  6. jennymackness June 12, 2012 / 1:10 pm

    Hi Fred, Eleni and Scott – many thanks for your comments.

    Fred – I am still digesting what I heard/learned at the conference and I probably have not interpreted the ideas I picked up as the presenters of those ideas intended, so please don’t take what I have written too literally.

    The main thing that I took away with me – which I was trying to get at in this post (but don’t think I succeeded) – was that we need to look at, consider, think about, reflect on what is NOT there as much as what is there. That was my understanding of unlearning and unseeing.

    I’m not sure how easy this is to ‘teach’. That’s why I was intrigued by Wozniac’s paper and felt that Popkewitz’s keynote was a very powerful presentation. I will definitely be reading more of his work.

    I suppose this also links to why I am interested in emergent learning.

    I’m still mulling all this over.

  7. fred6368 June 12, 2012 / 1:11 pm

    Dont worry we love your reports from the front! Personally I dont think researchers can research transformation and transformative practice…

  8. lucysjcreativeducator June 12, 2012 / 6:46 pm

    Yes, this is all very good, and as ever you have a very challenging take on this that I admire immensely, Fred. 🙂

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