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Should students be learning or unlearning?

Beaver Country Day School
Peter Hutton, the Head of Beaver Country Day School.

When you send your children off to school, you hope they’ll learn something new every day. At Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, students are doing the opposite. This year, the school has started to adopt a new curriculum focused on “unlearning.” While it may sound counterintuitive, unlearning is a method of problem solving used to find new solutions to problems. The new curriculum should be fully implemented by the 2017-2018 school year. Peter Hutton, Head of School at Beaver, explained why unlearning prepares students for the real world.

What is “unlearning”?

Unlearning is the shedding of previously learned knowledge, ways of thinking, and decision-making processes that we typically rely on when trying to solve a problem. Students and teachers try to forget all they know so they can creatively think of new approaches and solutions.

“If content is the end game,” said Hutton, “then kids aren’t getting a full education.”

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Unlearning enables them to “take on educational challenges that may have been impossible based on their old way of thinking” and sets students up for success in the real world.

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The new curriculum will have the biggest effect on Beaver’s teachers, who now have to think more creatively about how they plan lessons. They will also need to let go of preconceived ideas about the school’s organizational structure and their roles within it.

“There are a number of issues we are looking at and some deal with identity,” said Hutton. “Teachers have to think, ‘does my identity as a math teacher get in the way of setting up real world problems to learn about math, and how can I adjust that?’”

How does this prepare students for their school years and future careers?

“The kids are going to develop a flexibility in mindset that’s critical in today’s world,” Hutton said.

Many industries are constantly trying to adapting to today’s changing world, he said, and this kind of creative thinking is critical for finding the best and most efficient solutions.

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Hutton says standardized tests teach that there’s only one right answer, but in the real world there is not only more than one right answer, but there are different ways of getting to it as well. The students will be encouraged to make mistakes because that’s part of the process of problem solving.

“If you got it right on the first try,” said Hutton, “then you probably didn’t get it right.”

What does a day in a classroom that uses unlearning skills look like?

It’s hard to describe an unlearning classroom because there is no one way of doing it. Teachers will have a flexible and open-ended approach to their lessons. In their classes, kids will learn concepts by being asked to solve real world problems.

For example, how do you design and distribute a coat that will improve the quality of life of a homeless person? This kind of problem doesn’t fall into one category or subject. It touches on design, politics, history, and math.

“Biology, math, and other subjects are not an end in themselves,” said Hutton. “It’s about certain skills being exercised in each class to help students be successful beyond college.”

How can adults benefit from unlearning?

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Unlearning is a tactic not only used in schools but in workplaces as well.

One of the primary resources Hutton and Beaver Country Day School uses is the Learning Innovations Laboratory at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — particularly research by senior project manager Marga Biller., She has studied the use of unlearning in schools and in the private sector.

Unlearning is about being a creative-thinker and finding new, innovative solutions to existing problems. According to Hutton, those are skills that any business could use right now at a time when many industries are rapidly changing.

Debora Almeida can be reached at debora.almeida@globe.com.