Luc Claustres

Digital Craftsman, Co-Founder of Kalisio, Ph.D. in Computer Science

Experience is dead welcome unlearning

the developer philosopher
As automation and artificial intelligence disrupt the job market workers will be expected to learn continuously, in light of this what will exactly mean “experienced” in the future ?

The continuous learning paradigm

In this article we will focus on lifelong or continuous learning, i.e. learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within an employment-related perspective. This type of learning occurs into adulthood after the formal education years of childhood. It is usually individually-driven — andragogical rather than instructor-driven — pedagogical. The concept of lifelong learning has become of vital importance with the emergence of new information technologies (IT) for two main reasons:
Just a few statistics to highlight this point:
  • Adult education experts estimate that up to 40% of what students are learning will be obsolete a decade from now.
  • The top 10 most in-demand jobs today didn’t even exist 10 years ago.
Of course experts say a wider array of education and skills-building programs will be created to meet new demands in the future. The mantra of the second industrial revolution was:
Study hard at school, then work hard with your learned skills and play by the rules: you’ll have a good life and pave the way for your kids.
Unfortunately, it’s no longer true. To succeed today you must be in a constant state of adaptation — continually unlearning old rules and relearning new ones.

How we learn, unlearn, relearn

Learning is essentially memory formation, which itself is essentially an emotional process. You probably have multiple examples emphasizing that you are more likely to be fond of information you learned when a positive emotion like joy or surprise triggered the memory formation process. You need to have an emotional reaction (among fear, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise/interest, and joy) to a piece of new information to create new “strong” connections between neurons. Then, you need to use this information regularly as well to consolidate it into permanent memory (and notably when you sleep).
To unlearn you first need to make room for new information
However, our brain doesn’t have enough room to store all of the stimuli encountered every day. As a consequence it cleans up excess of information (i.e. all the unused neuron connections) on a regular basis when it is overloaded (and notably when you sleep). The brain uses different properties to determine what information to retain, among which:
  • repetition,
  • emotional impact,
  • eventual outcome.
This process is of primary importance when considering continuous learning and part of the explanation that unlearning is actually harder than learning. For instance if you believe unlearning smoking is hard, imagine unlearning that the Earth was flat. Among these properties all are not under your control. For instance, it will be hard to stop performing a given behavior, especially when it supports your daily work tasks with efficiency. Of course, you can force yourself to do so if possible. Similarly, the outcome of a new behavior is not obvious at a first glance compared to a well-known one. The property you can actually have more control over is the emotional impact after all.
As a consequence, unlearning should not be an unconscious process but a conscious practice leading to action: recognize and willing to dismantle what worked up to a point and is now obsolete. Admitting somehow we were wrong in a deliberate way, and it’s not that easy. The key aspects of this attitude are:
  • the suspension of judgement about new things,
  • to be humble and aware of the limits of perceptions and knowledge,
  • not to be scared of losing attachment to our current beliefs,
  • to be conscious of our cognitive biases.
This attitude aims at “optimizing” emotional impact in order to facilitate memorization, staying away from triggering negative emotions like fear, anger or disgust. If you look at all these aspects you will now clearly see why children are pretty good at learning. Unfortunately there are several psychological reasons why you will not be comfortable with it as an adult:
  • to not look like an idiot,
  • to justify your previous learning investment,
  • to be consistent with the previous behaviors you’ve performed (i.e. your identity),
  • because your environment opposes your commitment.

Practical guideline

In order to maximize your chances of unlearning it is possible to follow a set of practical techniques:
1. Challenge yourself
Just like scientists try to prove yourself wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can they find progress
2. Welcome feedback
Gather information from a wide variety of trusted sources to force inaccurate mental models off your brain.
3. Be truly commited
Move to the point where it becomes easier to use new habits than to avoid them by making your commitment public, setting a timeline, setup rewards, etc.

Conclusion

If you want to hire the next hero of your team maybe it’s time to reconsider your last question, it should not be “What did you learn in the past 6 months ?“ but rather “What did you unlearn in the past 6 months ?“. Indeed, to refuse to unlearn and adapt is to get swept away by the sea of change. As a consequence the most “experienced” people might be the best “unlearners” in the future.
If you liked this article, hit the applause button below, share with your audience, follow me on Medium or read more for insights about: the raise and next step of Artificial Intelligence, the evolution of Computer Science and why software development should help you in life ?

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