The Unlearning Organisation LO9743

Brock Vodden (
Wed, 4 Sep 1996 15:10:31 -0400 (EDT)

Replying to LO9707 --

At 08:49 AM 9/3/96 EST, you wrote:

> Martin Wood and Keith Cowan talk about unfreezing. I've had
> difficulty with the use of the word 'unlearning' in that we are really
> talking about adapting new ways of behaviour, and recognizing the
> importance and value of the new behaviour over the old.

A few thoughts on the topic:

There may be a qualitative distinction in the kinds of things that are
unlearned and those that are frozen or unfrozen.

Both terms seem to apply (only?) to situations in which a behaviour,
procedure, or condition has become stabilized by habit or by custom. The
behaviour or condition may have been learned or adopted on the basis of
intellectual processes and well considered decisions, but have been
continued on a routine basis without deep thought and without further
learning or decision as an automatic response to triggering events.
Examples range from a person performing a repetitive task such as feeding
sheets of corrugated paper into a box making machine, to a set of
procedures for handling insurance claims as they are received in the mail,
to a politician delivering hackneyed comments about an opponent's

When the circumstances change, such as a new machine-feeding procedure or
a new claim procedure is adopted, or a new political situation develops,
those who have the old behaviour imprinted in their minds may go through a
period of unlearning or unfreezing to eliminate the habitual responses so
that they will be more comfortable and efficient in the new procedures. We
are not talking about removing from their minds any serious intellectual
collateral. They would retain the experience of designing and implementing
the old procedure; they are seeking only to free themselves from the
habits that are no longer useful.

I believe that we need a word like 'unlearning' to describe that kind of
situation. I am sure that whoever originated the term 'unlearning' did not
subject his or her choice to the kind of scrutiny this list has inspired.
Does anyone know where it originated. I can recall using the term around
1978-79, but I do not know where I first encountered it. (Good Heavens!
Did I start all this???)

We seem to be expressing several kinds of objection to 'unlearning':
1. It is a false concept since we always retain our past learning. (We
cannot unlearn.
2. It is a harmful concept, because we should not attempt to destroy
previous learnings since they form the foundation for our present state.
3. The concept may be OK, but we should not use the term unlearn to
describe it because of the effect on the root term 'learning'.

As I have followed the discussion on this topic, it seems to me that both
unlearning and unfreezing are useful concepts when applied to very
superficial behavioural activities, but not as applicable to our
intellectual foundations which, though challenged by new ideas and
knowledge, have brought us to our current state of wisdom, knowledge,
understanding, and ability, and remain as part of the self.

Brock Vodden

H. Brock Vodden
Vodden Consulting
"Where People and Systems Meet"

Ontario, Canada


Brock Vodden <>

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