If You Want to Learn, Start By Unlearning

Adults do not approach learning as a blank slate. We have preconceptions and prior experiences that can hinder as much as help. What we already know can get in the way of what we need to learn. To learn, we often have to unlearn first, then we can relearn.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler


Each year I get a new Moleskine journal to record my ideas, reflections, prayers, and experiences. The pages are blank, with lines, ready to be written on by me. I write this book.

Adults are like a Moleskine journal – but not a blank one, rather, one that already has writing in it. Everyone comes with knowledge and experience. We have ways of doing things. We have mental models for how to live, relate, and work. We have knowledge about a countless number of topics.

As you coach other, acknowledge prior learning and draw on what they already know. Listen and ask questions to tap into previous learning. But don’t let that learning get in the way of new learning.


“Jakarta. Jakarta. Jakarta.” No matter how many times I said it, no matter how many times my language instructor corrected me, I still pronounced that city’s name incorrectly. I had no trouble with other Indonesia place names that I didn’t previously know. I learned to pronounce these names correctly the first time. My problem was that I already had a way of (mis)pronouncing “Jakarta.” After living in Indonesia for five years I never did unlearn my pronunciation!

Unlearning is tough. Much tougher than learning. It is certainly my biggest challenge as a leader.

The first step to unlearn is to acknowledge that what I now know may have once served me well, but is in the way of my further progress. In other words, things have got to change. I’m willing to let go of what I know, being right, of the past.


Our brains have pathways on which electrical pulses travel every time we have a thought. Like tire ruts on dirt road, the more you do something the deeper the ruts in your brain and the harder it is to change to a new pathway.

Relearning is challenging because you have to not only master the new thing, you must avoid falling into the ruts of your previous ways.

When I present The COACH Model® to our workshop participants, after the first time of using it some comment that they felt awkward, slow, or unsure. They say it didn’t feel “natural.” It wasn’t natural. Natural is the old way of doing things.

When we relearn things our productivity actually decreases for a time. After a bit of practice the new thing develops new ruts, feels natural, and we see our productivity increase. Unlearning and relearning is the only path forward to new learning.

How about you?

  • How would you rate your learning literacy? How willing are you to unlearn and relearn?
  • What are a couple of things that have served you well up to this point, but need to change if you are to move ahead?
  • Who is helping you unlearn and relearn – pushing you out of old ruts and onto new pathways?

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    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    5 thoughts on “If You Want to Learn, Start By Unlearning

    1. Interesting blog post, Keith. As I think about my own journey, I’ve had to unlearn some parenting patterns from my child-hood in order to grow into the type of parent that I aspire to be. As for the future, I intend to be more aware of the need to intentionally “unlearn” certain ways of thinking as I discover that they have outlived their usefulness in my life. Thanks for sharing this concept!

    2. Hey Keith, LEARN, UNLEARN, RELEARN. That is great. However, considering the learning process, how that happens? Who come first? The toughest point for an adult is in between of WHAT I KNOW and the UNLEARN.

      • You are right, the toughest part for adults is UNLEARNING. We already know and do, and those are habits. To RELEARN we have to UNLEARN first. Usually, we need help to do this. We designed out coaching training with UNLEARN in mind.