“Unlearning” to Teach and Learn

"I’m unlearning what it means to support different instructors carrying different paradigms about what it means to teach and learn." - Bill Heinrich

By Bill Heinrich, Director of Assessment

In 1995 Robert Barr and John Tagg argued for a shift in paradigms. They asked us all to move from a more instructor focused classroom to a more learner focused one. Their work zeroed in on what faculty (and by extension, administrators and leaders) in higher education should do to create stronger learning environments (rather than teaching environments). Each time I (re)read the article, I think about my own teaching. I remind myself to un-learn what I had been taught about teaching and then re-design the environment for learners (and only lecture a bit). In an extension of Barr and Tagg’s shift, the Minerva Schools designers Stephen Kosslyn and Ben Nelson now curate a conversation about the nature of un-learning. Contributors to their book about the Minerva Schools each describe practices needed to implement evidence driven teaching and learning practices in higher education.

The designs behind Minerva schools, as Barr and Tagg intended, intentionally connect goals, curriculum, lesson planning, team teaching efforts, assessment, validation, feedback, and iteration. In my role as a curriculum and assessment designer, I see how it’s relatively easy for faculty or departments to write learning outcomes, but much more complicated to realign courses and instructor behaviors to the same. The Minerva designs, at least on paper, are a beautiful collection. When discussing the learning space, the Minerva book highlights how both the Minerva faculty and students experience bouts of unlearning old habits of lecturing or listening passively. At times, the authors report, the unlearning is an awkward or sometimes painful process. It’s helpful insight for my practice.


Now that I’m instructing less (i.e. 0%) and supporting faculty and students on their own un-learning journeys, I find myself asking people to unlearn (i.e. change) all the time. The methods to signal change are many, but my goal as a helper (consultant?) is to guide unlearning in the most pragmatic way possible for the given audience. Granted, my audiences are some of the most engaged, participatory, willing, and experimental minded people I know, but unlearning and the following individual professional learning (i.e. behavior changes) have still been real challenges.

In a current iteration of an unlearning activity (new course design and implementation), I’ve been working with four individuals unlearning (changing) their planning, teaching/co-teaching, facilitation, assessment, and grading to deliver a course at MSU focused on a dynamic conservation effort. The class engages students in experiential, project-based activities to deepen the global impact of the conservation effort. The mid-term evaluation of student experiences and learning gains were both beautiful and a little bit unsightly. These results are useful if we let them inform our work.

Students overall are highly engaged, reporting that the class meeting time ‘flies by’ and the class ‘feels like an internship.’ Some students also say they’d like more structure and more direction. I’m glad to hear this because it tells me that students are engaged and are noticing that this course is quite different than their norm. By design,  we bring together four different academic perspectives to provide perspective to the project of learning in an interdisciplinary way. The perspectives—conservation science, project management, packaging technology, and human dimensions of international work—have different assumptions held by differently trained faculty. With limited time to coordinate, these four individuals have given strong efforts just to keep in communication with each other and are glimpsing integrated facilitation approaches. The students are benefitting, while learning to be integrated learners.

I’ve been observing and watching, collecting data and thinking about improving. From a step back, the feedback from students is helpful for me too. I’m unlearning what it means to support different instructors carrying different paradigms about what it means to teach and learn. I’ve yet to find an effective umbrella metaphor or cohering idea, but the idea of unlearning is a lead contender. We have several weeks left and more powerful experiences to come. And because our faculty care deeply and invest generously in learners, this experimental course was more successful than not, so there is always next semester.