Learning, unlearning and relearning

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Claire Blackman writes about the importance of transparency, empathy and providing guidance and feedback in the online space, which offers many possibilities for learning, unlearning and relearning for both educators and students.

When it comes to online learning, the first objective is, of course, to make sure that the students have access to the course content. There are plenty of resources available (and more appearing every day) to help us with this. But there is so much more to education than the content, and I think it’s important to contemplate how we can bring our teaching philosophies into our online teaching.

For a while now, my “hidden” goal in teaching mathematics has been to help my students develop the mental and psychological strength and agility that they will require to learn things that have not yet been thought of, and to flourish in jobs that have not yet been invented. This is encapsulated by the words of Alvin Toffler, who wrote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.’’  What is meant by, and required for, learning, unlearning and relearning are questions that I ask about every teaching decision I take – especially now, when figuring out how to teach effectively online.

Before we can begin to learn, we have to be in a mental space that allows for learning. Panicking, anxious or distracted students cannot learn effectively, and I’m pretty sure many of our students are panicking, anxious and distracted at the moment. It’s important to let them know that we realise this and give them tools to help them calm down and focus. There are many ways to do this, starting with simply taking a few minutes at the start of a recorded lecture to encourage students to remove distractions, take a few breaths, and consciously commit to studying for a set amount of time. For a few years I’ve been talking my students through a short (2 minute) mindful breathing exercise at the start of each class, but there are also many online resources that you could use. During a class, it can be helpful to remind students that if they are feeling flustered, anxious or tired, they can pause and take a breath before continuing. Apart from the immediate benefits, it would be wonderful to develop students who have the self-knowledge and control to stop and think before reacting to problems – not least because we desperately need a world where more people do this!

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Even when calm and collected, to learn, we first have to admit that there is something we don’t know. This simple observation is uncomfortable for many students (and lecturers!), but it is key to becoming engaged in the learning process. Our students need to learn to feel more comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of ‘not knowing’ which alerts us to something that needs to be learned. Only after recognising that there is something that needs figuring out can one begin to work on ways to figure out the answer. So how can we model this for our students?

I think it’s important to be honest with students when there’s something we as educators don’t know (even if it’s just how exactly the online learning process is going to work), and to discuss how not knowing makes us feel, and then what we are going to do to figure out an answer. Given the number of unknowns abounding at the moment, finding some to discuss with students shouldn’t be a problem!

Following on from that, unlearning requires the realization and acceptance that there is something incorrect in our understanding. Many students come to university with mathematical (and other) misconceptions, to which they cling very firmly. By using the mathematical and pedagogical mistakes we make as starting points for discussion and change, we can help our students learn to identify, accept and rectify their own mistakes. When it comes to online learning, I think that it’s vitally important not to focus on perfect online lectures, but instead to let students see mistakes being made and corrected. A game I sometimes play with my class is “the most useful mistake”. We talk about how mistakes are a useful part of life that tell us where we need to work next. Let’s develop graduates who own their mistakes and misunderstandings and learn from them.

Illustration by Maria Esteves

For me, relearning is the continuous process we engage in when working towards mastery of a subject; we visit the topic repeatedly, gradually gaining a deeper understanding. Key to gaining this deeper understanding, rather than simply covering old ground, is eliciting and using feedback. Feedback is information which leads to a change in behaviour aimed at achieving a specific goal, and eliciting, giving and using feedback are important tools we should be training our graduates to use. By setting up feedback cycles on, for example, how our online lectures are working, in which we elicit and discuss feedback and our proposed modifications (or why we’re not going to change something), and then actually making changes to how we do things, we can model relearning for students in a very practical, meaningful way. I want our students to see that change is a natural part of life, and that adapting to change is a skill that they can learn.

One of the things I learned during the student protests over 2015-2017 is that many students do not see academics as fellow human beings, but rather as an opposing “other”. It is hard for students to see themselves in us, and relate to us as human beings, if we do not show our humanity. I thought perhaps that students would lose respect for me when I started talking to them about the mistakes I make, and the way I feel. The opposite happened: students are far less critical of my teaching and are far more willing to discuss their mistakes and mental processes, making my job much easier. By making explicit our own learning, unlearning and relearning journey in this weird and disconcerting time, we can not only contribute to our students’ development, but also perhaps build a more supportive, inclusive academic environment for our students and ourselves.

Dr. Claire Blackman

Senior Lecturer
Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics

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