Learning to unlearn: Rethinking student success in the 21stC #notNAPLANforYear9

Have you thought about this idea? Those times when you are learning to do something new and your instinct, your embedded knowledge and intuition keeps getting in the way? HBR article: “Why the problem with learning is unlearning?” arrived in my inbox this morning. The author, Mark Bonchek (Chief Epiphany Officer at Shift Thinking), describes his experiences as an American, driving in the UK. I could resonate on the other side as an Australian driving in Europe, “tight right, long left” was my mantra. The more I drove the more my confidence grew as I had almost audible conversations with myself. The purpose was to unlearn and learn simultaneously.

This HBR article is about the new sales environment in a globalised interconnected world. Unlearning is when we choose an alternative paradigm, “Many of the paradigms we learned in school and built our careers on are either incomplete or ineffective”

When Bonchek says ‘school’ in this context he’s probably referring to ‘business school’, however I think there much to learn for K-12 schooling as well. Some points he makes in the unlearning argument, that have relevance for schools:

  • Our thinking is permeated by the mental model of mass communication
  • The world has become many-to-many, but we still operate one-to-many
  • We treat customers as consumers when they want to be co-creators
  • We push messages through channels, even though real engagement increasingly happens through shared experiences

And this one: We move people through a pipeline even though the customer journey is non-linear. Ouch!

In my experiences talking with educators around the world there seems to be a shift toward this pipeline mentality for students. Mass-measurements instruments and common core curriculums represent these singular pipelines. This article comes at a time when many educators in my state (NSW), are aghast at the Minister for Education’s decision to connect Year 9 *NAPLAN Results, under the banner ‘HSC modernisation’. As reported in The Guardian Australia Online (22 Nov 2016): The pressure on kids is absurd, and a new Naplan rule is about to make it worse, by Anne Susskind:

“those who don’t achieve Band 8 in their year nine Naplan (a high level only achieved by about a third of the year’s cohort) will no longer be automatically eligible to sit the **HSC.”

In 2016, this is an example of ‘moving students through a pipeline even though the journey of learning is non-linear’. In my view, this is an unintended purpose of NAPLAN and places undue pressure on early teens. Of course, they aren’t discounted from the HSC entirely at age 14, the test can be retaken. The point is NAPLAN was established as a diagnostic tool, to take a snapshot of our nation’s literacy and numeracy and for schools to identify strengths and areas of growth. I believe this is a retrograde step, for a number of reasons, one being, it reinforces the hierarchy of subjects.

If we return to Bonchek’s article, he states that the process of unlearning has three parts:

First, you have to recognise that the old mental model is no longer relevant and effective

Second, you need to create a new model that can better achieve your goals

Third, you need to ingrain the new mental habits

Our instinct, our embedded knowledge tells us that that the only way to ensure quality students enter university is to test them to ensure a high standard in literacy and numeracy. These mindsets need to be unlearning and new ones learned.

The world has changed significantly from the ‘egg crate’ and one-to-many paradigm. New models of learning and measures of success will better serve our young people in the years to come. Perhaps we can embed alternative mechanisms for recognising student achievement and finding new pathways to their learning futures.


*NAPLAN: National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy

Assessing student literacy and numeracy for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in Australian Schools

**HSC – Higher School Certificate – NSW final school year (Year 12) credential


Bonchek, M (2016) “Why the Problem with Learning is Unlearning” Accessed 23 November, 2016

Anne Susskind, “The pressure on kids is absurd, and a new Naplan rule is about to make it worse” The Guardian Australia Online. Accessed 23 November, 2016

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