Unlearning is Critical

Anderson Williams
November 20, 2012

Unlearning is the key to high school reform.

This may seem odd as so many of our high schools struggle with students who read many grade levels behind, whose math skills are elementary, and whose writing is more understandable in a texting format than in a research paper. Logically and for years, we have invested in academic supports and remediation strategies early in high school to get students “up to speed”. But for many students, these interventions, while perhaps “catching them up” academically, do not generate the ongoing academic discipline that continues them on a trajectory of sustained academic growth and improvement. In other words, students may catch up, but too many just stay even or fall slowly (or quickly) behind again.

We are intervening with solutions that don’t address the root cause of the problem. As students fall behind and yet still get promoted along from grade to grade, yes, their academic pathway gets broken and confused. But, the more significant reality is that their developmental process gets corrupted. As students fall behind, many are developing a set of skills and a view of education and of their own development that is far more catastrophic than whether or not they can do Algebra at a given time.

The fact is that youth development is happening, even if it is youth development that does not support academic or other positive outcomes. It is happening in every minute of every day in every school. And, this youth development process is the medium upon which academics emerge and are carried along (or not).

While academic failure is what we assess and where we have intervened, when a student has fallen behind, it is often this developmental medium that has become fundamentally tainted. Make no mistake, students are developing a sense of work ethic when they figure out they can pass without actually doing the work. They are developing important social skills when they learn crafty avoidance rather than how to ask questions when they struggle. They are developing their sense of identity when we demonstrate we don’t value them enough to ask and persist in helping them develop a positive vision of the future and a pathway to get there. They are establishing their understanding of trust when they fall behind and the people and institutions that have failed them blame them.

And so, they bring this identity, these skills, this perverted sense of vision and trust into school with them as part of who they are.

If we want to invest in a meaningful way in catching these students up (academically and developmentally) and putting them on a sustainable path of improvement, we have to intervene by helping them unlearn much of what they know. We cannot wait for investments in early education to hopefully “trickle up” and manifest in high school improvement. We also cannot continue to try to patch complex adolescent developmental challenges with only academic interventions.

If our most struggling high school students are going to learn how to learn, they may first need to unlearn.

This article was reprinted with permission from the Cascade Matters blog.