Knowledge : Learning Un-Learning and Re-Learning

Charles founded Adaptive Leadership in 1993 after retiring from a full civilian career with the US Army.

During his government service he served as Director of the Army's Northeast US Regional Training Center responsible for developing Federal executives in an eleven state region. He was Chairman of the Management Development Department at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, responsible for the design and conduct of in-house supervisor and manager development courses. Afterwards he served as Chief of the Organizational Consulting Office of the US Army Communications - Electronics Command.

During his career with the US Army developing managers and conducting internal organization development (OD) consulting, he introduced innovative programs in quality circles, productivity management, corporate values, participate management, leadership development, and creativity enhancement.

He has been teaching part-time in MBA programs for various universities for over fifteen years.

Charles Albano has recently published a book of business poetry, Skyline Drive: A Poetic Journey Through Business Life, 2001. The book is available electronically or in print through E-mail Dr Charles Albano at


Much of what we think we know is wrong. Knowledge rusts and corrodes in the course of change. Like a wrench left in the rain, when it is needed, it no longer fits. Sometimes it may be salvaged, but often we must retool, run out and buy a new one.

The Domino Theory

Theories and paradigms once bright, attractive and fitting, fall like dominos to be replaced by new and better ones. A diagram drawn over five-hundred years ago appears in the Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci to illustrate just this point. This is the way knowledge advances; paradigms that are more inclusive and better fitted to reality come into position, then, in turn, they too, fall.

People with a pioneering bent, such as scientists, researchers, inventors, discoverers, futurists, entrepreneurs, and investors embrace new ideas early on, adding them to their "tool" collection. They sense the potential in new ideas and are moved to invest in them. Unlike others, they are not inhibited in their commitment to act because they lack assurance of success.

Others grope for the nearest wire brush in a futile attempt to renew the shine on their favored old tool. They have a tremendous capacity to kid themselves into thinking they have restored it to its original luster.


New concepts are "bought" with logical and emotional currencies. Giving up a comfortable old tool is as hard as abandoning one's easy chair. People have to "buy into" things intellectually and emotionally. If a concept proves itself to be more helpful to them in understanding problems and mastering challenges, it may earn a place and be added to their collection. Or, if it is broad in nature, like a major paradigm, it could replace all the predecessor ideas in the collector's thinking. A person's very outlook could be transformed,. Entire organizations have undergone transformations in recent years. As a teacher and lifelong learner, I have experienced considerable change in my thinking by embracing and applying new paradigms to my self-awareness, interpersonal, organizational, societal, spiritual, and scientific, "tool kits." We all do this, and it requires perpetual learning, un-learning and re-learning.  

The Buy-in

Early adaptors may pioneer new applications of knowledge. In leading firms today there is close collaboration between R&D staffs and their firms' customers and users. "Outsiders" contribute ideas to enhance the value and utility of their prototype products beyond what the originators themselves anticipated. Incidentally, in the process of contributing, these outsiders are making a psychological and emotional investment that can lead to greater commitment to the product, increasing the likelihood that they will purchase it. In fact, by virtue of their participation in developing it, they have "bought it" in every sense.

Learning & Un-Learning

George Prince, co-founder of the Synectics approach to creative thinking noted that learning involves "making connections." He contrasted the learning process with the creative process which he saw as largely a matter of "breaking connections." Since then, he and others have developed an array of techniques aimed at helping people break old connections among their ideas and form new ones. I agree that the ability to do this is essential to being creative. In fact, some define creativity as looking at the same things others see, but seeing them differently. Our ability to make and break connections is essential in learning, un-learning and re-learning.

Easier said than done

Breaking the old connections requires some finesse. Do you recall playing with a "Chinese finger puzzle" in your youth ? The fingers entered each end easily but were difficult to withdraw. Learning new material is one thing, but un-learning may be far more difficult. The harder the players struggled to pull their fingers out, the harder the material gripped. The trick was to push them towards the center bunching-up the material, then slowly withdrawing one finger first from one side, then the other. As in un-learning, some frustration is inevitable, but the reward of solving the problem and escaping a "stuck" situation is very satisfying.

Is breaking old connections and forming new ones what it means to un-learn ? That would seem to follow in creative thinking since we learn new things from our new creative "outputs" themselves. But, even if we are learning new material in the traditional ways, and not though invention, we still need to establish new mental connections to store new learning's.

Once new inputs are assimilated, can we be confident that we have actually "un-learned" the old ? What does un-learning require ? Must the new way of seeing things fully replace the old way in our minds, our hearts and our actions ? If not, have we really un-learned ? Is it a point against us if we regress at times, taking up the old behaviors again ?


I don't think we literally un-learn old learning in the sense of erasing it. We can not erase it. (Though experiences can be repressed or forgotten at the level of conscious thought.) Think back on something you used to believe was true but now regard as incorrect. That you can do this attests to the fact that it is not lost to your memory. It has not been "erased," not literally "un-learned." Not like a knot untied. New learning (re-learning) is more prominent now, especially if there have been occasions to apply it. That reinforces new learning considerably. It reflects your most current understanding and comes into range whenever your focus is on retrieving information about the particular topic.

Nature of Un-Learning 

I suspect un-learning is more than the mere retention or overlay of new material over the old, When I use the term "un-learning," especially in an organizational context, I am usually referring to some inadequacy that has been discovered in the present way of doing things where a new pattern must replace it. Before that can happen the situation and the "fix" must be comprehended. Maybe someone stumbled upon an insight that caused a need to re-think the matter, or they may have set out with the intention of finding a replacement idea free of the faults and shortcomings of the prevailing idea. I think something is truly "un-learned" when there is a conscious commitment to the merits of an alternative new idea and the adoption of that idea in place of the former.

Spurs to Un-Learning 

Given the points made about learning, un-learning and re-learning, here are some questions to spur you to think about how you learn and how you might be able to pursue learning, "un-learning" and re-learning more effectively.

  • What did I think I knew that turned out to be untrue ?
  • What did I think I understood until later discovering that my understanding was incomplete ?
  • What learning process do I seem to follow ? Are any essential steps missing or poorly performed ?
  • What cues can tell me when I need to un-learn and re-learn ?
  • Do I explore special techniques to help me code and retain new material ?
  • Do I make a practice of looking over my experiences reflecting on lessons learned that I can apply towards improving my performance next go-round ?
  • Do I make a practice of staying alert to the emergence of new ideas in my field and in related areas ?
  • Am I open to new ideas, willing to look for the strengths in them and able to defer judgment of them ?
  • When I learn a new concept, do I make an effort to look for applications beyond those that were made known to me ?
  • Do I practice of applying new ideas in my work ?
  • Am I willing to part with a model, paradigm, or theory that I have long used successfully and come to rely on ?
  • Am I aware of the limitations and weaknesses of the models, paradigms and theories whose "truth" I have come to take for granted ?
  • When I sense myself feeling emotional resistance to a new idea, do I afterwards explore the idea through logic in an effort to be objective in my evaluation ?
  • Do I revert to old, outmoded learning's at times when through a little effort I could access the new ?

Learning Organizations 

Today's business realities are teaching us that individuals and organizations must be competent at learning, un-learning and re-learning faster, deeper, and more often. For a growing number of leaders learning and innovation are considered "the only true sustainable competitive advantages." Organizations that learn faster than their competitors have a powerful advantage. The challenge is made greater by the need to do it collectively.

In a future article I hope to discuss what Edgar Schein referred to as "organizational learning disabilities." They plague collective efforts to learn from experience and present some thorny underbrush to establishing the learning organizations of the future.

© Charles Albano, Adaptive Leadership, 1999.

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