Things Teachers Need to Unlearn

Featured Illustration: Anna and Elena Balbusso

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What makes a great teacher? One will find several responses to this question. There is, however, one thing that no one tells you: if you don’t decide to do things differently, you’re going nowhere as a teacher. So, what exactly does it mean to unlearn something?

‘Unlearning’ is the process of discarding something from your memory — simply put, choosing to forget what you have assimilated. When you unlearn something, you forget it, put it aside, and lose knowledge of it. People unlearn things to get rid of a bad habit, preconceptions, or something false. And that’s exactly what Alvin Toffler, futurist and philosopher, reminds us with the quote below:

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

These are several things that teachers need to unlearn:

Establishing authority in the classroom.

Most teachers carry the view that teaching is all about displaying authority. This suggests that students are dependent on teachers. However, when teachers show authority, students stop asking questions and just wait for the teacher’s instructions. This leaves a long-term effect on students’ learning. It’s about time that teachers unlearn this and give autonomy to students. They can do it by redefining the role of a teacher and a student in the classroom. Research shows that the students who are given autonomy by their teachers are more likely to learn and understand better — and who does not want their students to learn effectively?

Teachers know everything.

Teaching indeed requires teachers to research and have knowledge about their area so they can teach students effectively. It is often perceived that they know everything. Therefore, some teachers get confused when students ask questions that they do not know the answer to. In such cases, teachers can simply acknowledge that they do not know the answer — it is not that difficult. Rather than getting angry at students for asking questions, simply acknowledge and accept. There is always room for learning.

Learning can be measured by a letter or a number.

One of the most important things is to assess students — there have been a lot of discussions on how can we effectively measure students’ learning. But let me tell you, we can only assess students’ superficial knowledge. There is absolutely no perfect method to assess students’ in-depth understanding. Every student is different and they have their unique learning styles. It is not to say that teachers should stop assessing students — in fact, they should take exams, but they must improve students’ conceptual understanding instead of treating the students with poor results as lost causes.

Students need to sit quietly and listen.

Once during an interview, I asked a teacher how she would define a ‘good student’. She promptly stated, “A good student is a disciplined student.” I asked her, “How would you define a disciplined student?” She responded, “Someone who is silent and does not make noise in the classroom, listens to the teacher, and sits quietly.” She equated disciplined students with being silent, which is not true at all. I have seen a lot of teachers endorsing this idea. I believe that first, teachers need to differentiate between a ‘silent’ classroom and a ‘disciplined’ classroom. A disciplined classroom is where students are supported, teachers are responsive, and teachers and students both show respectful behavior towards each other. Second, teachers need to unlearn that if students are silent, they are learning — it does not work like that. A teacher should interact with students and encourage them to participate. The more they participate, the more they learn. This reminds me of the quote:

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” -Benjamin Franklin

Homework is an essential part of learning.

In countries like Pakistan, most of the students studying in government schools or private schools also work at a young age, alongside getting an education. The girls take care of their siblings at home when their parents go to work, while boys go to work in fields with their fathers. For most of the students, school is an escape. They pay attention and want to know everything. They are motivated to study but some of the kids can not do loads and loads of homework. Likewise, research suggests that homework is not necessary for students — what’s necessary is that they are learning in the classroom.

Teachers should be neutral.

It is believed that teachers should be neutral whenever discussing controversial things in the classroom. Moreover, it is believed that schools have an underlying responsibility to serve their varied public equally. Hence, advocates of this thought like to have a neutral status. However, if we look at the true purpose of education, it is to expand students’ knowledge of the world for the youth to make rational and logical decisions for the welfare and good of citizens in a culturally diverse, democratic society.

“The educator has the duty of not being neutral.” -Paulo Freire

That’s why teachers should state their points of view on controversial questions and discussions in the classroom rather than hiding them.

I believe by unlearning these things, teachers can empower students and provide conducive learning and skills that are necessary for young minds in the 21st century.