21st Century Learning, Unlearning, Re-learning

In the 21st Century, it is necessary to Learn, Unlearn, and Re-Learn

The 21st Century teacher leader is the one who can learn, unlearn, and relearn. These words offer a truth that is as relevant today as it was when Toeffler wrote it in Future Shock, 1970. In honor of his passing this past June, I had revisited this prophetic book that had made such an impression on me and I realized that these words are indeed, alive and well in 2017.

This is a noble charge for teacher leaders today: learn, unlearn, relearn. Those ready to reflect on these sentiments, willing to embrace known and unknown challenges ahead, and able to apply themselves with an eagerness and energy that is contagious, are already ahead of the game. And, just as implied, the game is being played at the breakneck speed of “future shock” as it bursts into our personal and professional worlds.


Learn! Unlearn! Relearn! Personal Lives

In our personal arenas, we have heaps to learn…and unlearn. We have to learn to read the computerized dash in our cars, and unlearn the use of the ignition key as we wonder where we should keep that mysteriously magical item. We’ve had to learn on-the-job, as technology dominates from computer-driven training programs to automated, paperless offices, as we unlearn printing every single electronic document generated.

But what about the re-learning? Perhaps you’ve noticed we relearned how to communicate – text, tweet, Instagram, Snapchat, blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Linkedin. We unlearned and then re-learned how to do our banking—there are no lines with online, but no teller either. We relearned the stock market transactions, with instant decision-making as the norm. We’ve unlearned how to shop ‘til you stop as we relearned how to fill our virtual shopping cart and hit send. We’ve even unlearned how to check out of the grocery store with our friendly neighborhood cashier, and learned how to actually use that foreboding DIY customer cash register.


Learn! Unlearn! Relearn! Professional Lives

In our professional lives as teacher leaders, the shock has been no less impactful. In fact, an immediate opportunity to unlearn a basic truth about education that we have held for centuries is called teaching. Be aware that the 2017 version for academia and practitioners is no longer called teaching. Rather, it is now and, thanks to brain science, forevermore, called, teaching and learning. The teacher teaches! The learner learns! We are learners too. Learning, unlearning, relearning. We can do this.

In classrooms, we must unlearn the role of sage-on-the-stage, and the one-way broadcast of the teacher-centered classroom, and re-learn our role as the guide-on-the-side as we learn student-led inquiry lessons. Previously, students would learn something and then do it. Today, 21st Century students do something to learn it.  We as educational leaders must unlearn the norms of traditional classrooms and re-learn the meaning of homework. In the FLIP classrooms, students learn at home the evening before and come to school to be coached on their “work they are doing in class.” Yes, it seems backward and upside down, but it is how it works in this new era of teaching and learning and a world on digital steroids.

We must learn what schooling looks like in this “anytime, anywhere” teaching-learning environment, and re-learn teaching techniques to serve the learners in a digital-rich curriculum. We must re-learn the roles of teacher and learner, because in many cases, the students are far ahead of us teachers in their knowledge, know-how, and confidence in maneuvering the minute-by-minute advancements and splash debuts of digital apps and improved search tools.

In turn, we must unlearn the curricular priorities that still consume so much of the instructional time, needed for the abundance of new and novel requirements. It’s hard not give up some of these, but, spelling is no longer the priority it once was, nor is handwriting or even keyboarding. There is much less time for “stand and deliver,” even though it seems so efficient. We must re-learn that efficient is not always effective. We must let go and unlearn textbook teaching, desks in rows, and standard-size classrooms, and re-learn learning spaces that lend themselves to small group work, digital tools, and larger presentation spaces for performances, product demonstrations, and rotating exhibits.

We must unlearn grades as we know them and love them, and re-learn grading policies and practices that support, rather than punish, learners.  No grades, no zeros, no killer assignments, and even color-coded grading practices are on the horizon for us to consider.


Must we unlearn these foundational pillars of schooling?  Must we re-learn the purpose and mission of schools? Must we learn how to embrace change that sweeps through? Perhaps! At the end of the day, it is the agony or the ecstasy of our journey through the turbulence and triumphs of the 21st Century.

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