Anyone who has ever had a rescue dog will understand the concepts of unlearn and relearn. We need to teach our new pet to live in our lives with our rules, which are not necessarily the things that dog has been used to before. The dog needs to unlearn what it knows and relearn the new. Don’t jump on the sofa at my house, no matter how cute you are, my furry friend.

I am not sure I really believe we can unlearn stuff. Surely everything we experience shapes us, even at an unconscious level. Why would we want to unlearn our experiences? Isn’t it who we are? (Clearly, I am not talking about trauma here – for sure, work that stuff out of you, I get that entirely – and I know it takes time for a rescue dog to work that stuff through too). What we know does not define us. People are more complex than that. If there is something we need to unlearn I suppose it must be possible. Addiction therapies base their success on this, though it is not as simple as to unlearn being addicted. I guess therein lies my confusion – unlearning isn’t simple and people are complex. You cannot just forget stuff, can you?

The idea that we can forget what we know and replace with something new is, from a neuroscience perspective, entirely possible. Brains are elastic and new neural pathways can be built. Professor Robert Winston makes this easy to understand when he describes building a neural pathway like building a rope bridge. The first time we encounter new stuff the rope is thrown across the valley; one rope is easily broken and forgotten. The more times we make the encounter, the more ropes; the stronger the rope bridge becomes, the less easily broken. So perhaps it isn’t conscious unlearning we are doing, rather it is replacing an old neural network with new information? Rewiring our brain. I am no neuroscientist but makes sense to me. We are breaking down old pathways with lack of use and replacing them with new ones. Probably too much of a simplistic view on my part, but I suppose this is why I cannot remember how to play the piano, despite years of practice as a kid.

Like I say, I am no neuroscientist, and I don’t really need to know how it all works, but I do like to ponder these things. Stuff makes more sense if there is a wider understanding of why. It helps me sort the facts from the fads. As we head into Festival of Work* in a little over a week what strikes me is how are we supposed to keep up with everything as things fall out of favour and others are now hot? How are we to know what to unlearn and relearn? At one time L&Ders thought learning styles were the latest thing and clearly they are absolutely not, please scrap that thinking. I have seen a lot on personality profiling popping up on my timelines lately. Personally, I cannot bear the idea of being put in a box based on a questionnaire I did on a particular day, when I was in a particular place, in a particular mood. Then to have my subsequent interactions being understood only in the framework of an imposed colour, type or acronym: #DontBoxMeIn How do we know what we should be following instead? How do we decide what are fads and what are facts?

To go back to my thinking around having a rescue dog, we got a new dog a year ago. He had been abandoned in a garden and was starving. We felt sorry for him. Those puppy dog eyes. We named him Bertie. Did we need another dog? No, we had two! We especially didn’t need a dog that the vet thinks is a Great Dane crossed with a Lurcher! We didn’t need Bertie in our lives, but we love that he is here. We can do that with pets – be irrational, think with our hearts, make crazy decisions and love living with the consequences. In learning, it is not really the same. We sort the facts and fads by using our heads, not our hearts. But what of our hearts? Don’t we learn best when we are passionate and motivated? When we ‘feel’ learning we learn well. It is hard to unlearn stuff we feel. I invite you to notice what you feel when it comes to learning. It felt right to get Bertie. It feels right to be excited for Festival of Work. What something makes you feel can be a good indicator of how right it is. Jonny Gifford told me this is ‘recognition primed decision’ making (RPD) – gut instinct to you and me. What primes our RPD? All our experiences do, all our history, all our prior learning, all that stuff we know already – including stuff we perhaps should unlearn.

Mmmm, and I am back to thinking we should not unlearn and relearn….

As any dog lover does when pondering, I am off to walk my Bertie**, but I leave you with my final mulling (a word I learnt from Julie Drybrough and perfect for this whole blog as I don’t know the answers on unlearn and relearn); what have we learned from Bertie? The challenges of learning and development are to do with the possibilities that behaviour will change as an outcome. There are certain things in Bertie that I want his behaviour to change. He clearly has had a bad start in life. He isn’t brilliant at lead walking yet, so we are working on it. His recall is pretty ropey, but again we are working on it. He responds alertly (and concernedly) when a man whistles. Well, I am a woman and I can’t whistle very well, so I need him to learn that he must respond to a different call (and not be concerned about it) but how do I make him unlearn being alert to a man’s whistle? If we pass a building site, he gets really anxious. There’s clearly been something in his past around that that he needs to unlearn. It seems therefore that we, and dogs, are constantly unlearning and relearning at a perhaps subconscious level.


*I find inspiration on what is hot and what is not at events like CIPD’s Festival of Work. I look forward to what spills out. Come join in the conversation at Festival of Work on day 1 12th June at 16:10 discussing communities of practice, which I am chairing and on day 2 13th June at 10:50 discussing accessible learning, where I am a panellist. Sadly, I am not bringing my dog.

**Like many a dog walker I also walk my phone when I walk my dog, and it is usually tuned to a podcast. If you enjoy a podcast, don’t miss the chance to hear The Good Practice Podcast recorded live after day 1 of Festival of Work. Hear more of my musings and not knowing all the answers as I am a panellist when we discuss the past, the present and the future of learning.


Further stuff to investigate

Recognition Primed Decisions

Professor Robert Winston on ‘string theory’

Follow our rescue dog Bertie on Instagram @BertieTheInstaDog