What We Need to Unlearn and Relearn to Thrive in the Future

Oct 07, 2019

It’s common to opine about what new skills or competencies today’s students will need for the future. But Stavros Yiannouka believes there’s just as much value in “relearning” and “unlearning.”

Those two words form the core themes of this year’s conference for the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), where Yiannouka has been CEO since 2012. WISE is an initiative backed by the Qatar Foundation that convenes researchers, entrepreneurs and policymakers to share and spotlight the latest education innovations around the globe.

“In education, we naturally talk and focus a lot about what we should learn. We also think there’s an important role to play in unlearning,” he says in an interview with EdSurge.

Formerly the executive vice dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, Yiannouka believes that preparing students for tomorrow requires challenging past assumptions and conventions about how we live and learn. What follows are highlights from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity. (EdSurge is a media partner of the WISE Summit.)

What do you mean when you say we have to relearn or unlearn certain skills?

Yiannouka: There are a lot of potentially disruptive trends happening in society today. Climate change is front and center among our concerns, but so is automation and artificial intelligence. They could potentially dramatically reshape the workplace, both in terms of displacing people from jobs, as well as opening up new opportunities and new ways of doing things.

WISE CEO Stavros Yiannouka

If we’re going to thrive in this new environment, if we’re going to be able to confront some of the challenges and seize the opportunities, then education plays a central role. There are many things we need to learn. But we should also challenge some of our assumptions about the way we live, the way we work, the way we interact with each other. And that could potentially involve us unlearning certain bad habits or states of mind.

Let’s get more specific. What are some of the things we may have to unlearn?

I think we take for granted that we have kind of cheap energy that comes from hydrocarbons, and we don’t really think too much about how we use that energy. Or we all want bigger houses. Bigger cars. This is not to have a dig at consumerism, but we have what I call a throwaway economy, where we constantly want to upgrade and get new stuff. That, we know, is causing a great deal of pollution. It’s contributing to the climate crisis and that could potentially disrupt our civilization significantly.

So unlearning some of these habits will require education and rewiring our expectations, and we need to challenge some of those assumptions and learn to live smaller, leaner.

What about re-learning?

I’m a big advocate of rediscovering the joy of reading for pleasure. And unfortunately, it’s something that’s in decline in many parts around the world. People read less and less for pleasure and spend way too much time looking at screens.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of e-books, so this is not an attack on technology. But I think rediscovering the joy of reading for pleasure is important, and research supports that. Deep reading is an important element for wiring our brains in a way that allows us to grasp deeper concepts, thoughts and ideas.

However, we’re losing that if we’re constantly focused on what the next tweet is, or what the next YouTube hit is going to be. And while consuming information in bite-sized tweets or clips may be thoroughly enjoyable, it’s actually not a good way to wire the brain for deep thinking and reasoning.

On that note, what have you recently read?

Nicholas Christakis’ latest book, “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.” He makes a strong case that evolution predisposes us towards forming good societies, and a key characteristic of a good society is it incorporates teaching and learning into its toolkit. And that’s a unique feature that humans possess as we spend a lot of time teaching and learning from each other.

What are some education models from around the world that are particularly inspiring to you?

There are well-known cases like Finland, which is taking a thematic approach to their curriculum, as opposed to the traditional academic discipline-based approach. For example, we talked about climate change earlier. That may be one of the themes through which you learn about science, economics and geography. You might explore equity issues, like whether it’s fair that wealthy countries that created the problem by putting carbon in the atmosphere in the past are now asking less developed countries, which haven’t contributed as much, to stop what they’re doing.

So rather than studying geography, science, history, and economics separately, you integrate these around a theme.

Singapore is another popular example, primarily because they are also able to attract and retain very good people in the teaching profession. They also take a unique approach in teaching mathematics, which is problem-based. You don’t see as much of an emphasis on formulas in Singapore math textbooks. Instead, you see exercises expressed as everyday problems. Obviously you need to know the formulas to work them out. But math is articulated in the form of solving real-world problems, not abstract symbols.

As you said, those countries are the popular exemplars of education. What’s a country that we should be paying more attention to?

We like what’s happening in Colombia, where there’s a program called Escuela Nueva. The country was able to raise the quality level of rural schools to the level of urban schools, even though the rural schools lacked resources as they were in remote areas, with small populations and separated by great distances.

It was hard to attract enough teachers to these areas. So they made use of technology and re-conceptualized the role of the teacher to be more of a facilitator. Teachers were provided access to good materials through technology, and they facilitated peer learning among students. So students who were good at a particular subject would help and end up teaching the ones who were maybe a little weaker. And that actually helped both groups because there’s no better way of learning something then having to teach it.


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