“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who can learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Toffler

Nick Polyak and I wrote the Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today (2017 Rowman & Littlefield) and we have had the good fortune to speak about the messages in the book all over our home state of Illinois, around the USA, and overseas as well. We did not “invent” the concept of unlearning, of course, and we’re not the first authors to publish on unlearning, either. We are called to UNLEARN in our service to Students, Communities, Boards of Education, Educational Support Staff, Teachers, Parents, & Society in general!

In this post, I’m sharing an excerpt of the book for reference, as well as an audio file from a recent keynote address Nick and I presented in Chicago. If you would like to read an article about our book, use this link from an article published in the Spring 2019 Update from the Illinois Association of School Business Officials.

We would love your input and insights on the concept of unlearning in your own leadership and in support of your own journey. Please comment and if you have read the book and you like it, feel free to share an Amazon comment/review.

Click the audio player to hear the Keynote address Nick and I presented at Cognia Connect Midwest, in Chicago:

From the Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today – Preface:

The Time is Now
In some school systems, executive leadership still does not understand or value current methods of communication, especially technological methods. Their relative lack of knowledge about social connectivity can become quite detrimental to a school system in search of change, innovation, and leadership. We want to help school leaders unlearn their current approaches to leadership in how they “connect”, lead, support student learning, transform schools, and impact organizational culture.

We wrote this book to celebrate the connected leader, show case study examples of change and modern change processes, and to help leaders unlearn to relearn! The premise of this book is that we all need to unlearn. Our landscape is applied to leadership, classrooms, pedagogy, and education in general. In order to change and prepare for tomorrow, we submit that much of what we have learned must be unlearned as we aim to create a new tomorrow for our nation’s children.

Our current public school system was essentially created by ten university leaders in the 1890’s. A lot has changed since then, yet our structures in public schools seem unable to unlearn the structures and conventions from the 19th Century. Our purposes include supporting leaders to lead and enabling leaders to lead for tomorrow’s schools. There is an urgency for change.

Futurist Jack Uldrich has made presentations across the country about the concept of unlearning. While at a Future Ready Summit in Illinois, we participated in an activity that has been practiced across the country from Jack and others. We were asked one simple question, “What color are yield signs?” Sounds simple. Uldrich asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought yield signs are yellow and black.

The majority of those in the audience raised their hands in a sign of agreement that yield signs are yellow and black. That was the correct answer, many years ago when members in the audience first learned about yield signs. Years after the audience members learned the yellow and black color scheme the yield signs across the country changed to red and white.

Folks knew intellectually that the signs were no longer yellow and black, but they “learned” this earlier in their lives and knowledge proves difficult to unlearn. This provides a powerful lesson about our need to unlearn old knowledge in order to modernize our thinking as to what is true today. And it shows the challenge. That which leaders learned early on in their careers, or in leadership schools, often stifles their growth with their inability to unlearn.

The world is changing at an exponential pace, but oftentimes our educational leaders and our educational systems are not. This experience (with the yield sign) was an epiphany of sorts for both us that has led us to look at educational leadership through the lens of unlearning.

Horace Mann is credited with saying
“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

Now, more than ever, with the nation becoming an ethnic “minority-majority” leaders need to unlearn and to unleash powerful innovation in the new reality. Today is far different from yesterday. Leaders must get out from behind their desks and integrate doing and empowering others with managing and leading from a 30,000 ft. view.

Since 1983 our nation’s schools have been at risk. Since 2002 we have been leaving no child behind. Now with ESEA reauthorization, we are getting ready for every student to succeed. In order for every student to succeed, school leaders must unlearn the old ways and learn and practice leadership through innovative methods and courageous actions.

Representing careers in leadership and public education spanning many decades and impacting thousands of K-12 students and teachers, we are sharing a passion for excellence in education with the leadership lessons and insights throughout this book. We serve as educational leaders as part of a larger calling to serve. We wrote this book as part of this calling.

Students in each grade level have but one chance to experience that grade level. Students don’t have time to wait. We mentioned a sense of urgency – the urgency is that the 19th-century structures no longer serve as relevant to the needs of modern society. Why has it been so hard to change structures in schools? We submit that it is part of the challenge of unlearning. “Everyone” has attended school – they have a construct as to what it should be.

We are learned leaders in the education space. We too were schooled in traditional, 19th-century structures though we have enjoyed success and fulfillment. And we are from another era than our students. It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to demonstrate organizational agility and flexibility so that the current needs of children are reflected in the nation’s schools. We have a moral imperative, an economic imperative, a pedagogical imperative and leadership imperative to unlearn.

Just because our teachers, leaders, members of elected boards of education, parents, grandparents, and the community at large learned what school is – in another era – that does not mean we current leaders need to lead for nostalgia. Nostalgia has a place – in museums and other venues, but not in schools. Unlearning an individual’s experiences proves quite difficult. Learning is wired and challenging to unlearn.

Policymakers don’t know what is current in education – they know what made them successful and happy – they don’t know what is needed now since often they are many levels removed from schooling. Yet it is policymakers who are credited with legislating mandates, standards, expectations, training, rules, etc. yet they base their views on their own construct of education and schooling – that of nostalgia.

We wrote this book because nostalgic policies might be destroying public education. Nostalgic experiences are actually incongruous with the information generation. Voices in telephone devices can restate the 50 state capitals – that doesn’t mean it’s not important to learn the 50 state capitals, it means that memorization is not the only form of “learning” anymore. Just because you, your mother, your aunt, your grandfather, and his great grandfather also memorized capitals in 4th grade does not mean that it’s relevant for today’s youth.

We wrote this book because leaders who unlearn and innovate make possible opportunities for children. We wrote this book because leaders can unlearn ways of the past to create new and relevant futures. We wrote this book because so many great coaches and mentors and friends guide and support our unlearning and we feel called to share and illustrate how unlearning is impacting systems in our care. The time is now to change, unlearn, create a new system and a new construct of structures for schooling – we have the knowledge and we have the will, let’s unlearn together!

The Unlearning Leader – Sharing a Mindset
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