Thoughts on Learning and Unlearning

Submitted by root on Fri, 01/10/2014 - 18:47

Thoughts on Learning and Unlearning 

One way in which we have promoted engagement and involvement at The Black-E (and still do) is by making possible and practical what we have described as 'endless opportunities to learn and unlearn'.


Put simply, learning is generally about acquiring skills and knowledge, and basically about acquiring the tools for living which are required by body, mind, and spirit.

Learning begins with play and imitation  -  that's the way babies learn.  Learning continues through play for children and teenagers.   'Children learn their facts in the classroom and their morality in the playground' was one of the early sayings at The Black-E.   Facts can usually be learnt relatively quickly.  Morality  -  learning how to behave towards each other  -  takes time.   

In the early playschemes what became known as 'the outside room' (now the Studio) was the space for recreation and play where children and teenagers also sharpened  their sporting and gymnastic skills and their dance moves.  The 'inside room' (now the Chamber Theatre) was the space for supervised learning and fun, with youngsters behind typewriters, video cameras, and sewing machines.  It's a formula which continues to this day, apprenticeship style, with youngsters 'learning by doing' through workshops, classes, performances, and exhibitions.  

The principal areas for learning at The Black-E have always been the arts.  However, youngsters have also learnt through opportunities to engage as apprentices, assistants or participants in everything it takes to run The Black-E  -  including meetings, accounting and finance, building maintenance, fund raising, reception duties, and administration.  Participants in playschemes have been introduced to and then supported to train and study with other organisations.  Graduates of playschemes have been supported to qualify for higher education, and mentored and supported through college and university for vocational qualifications and degrees. 

External accreditation hardly featured at all for much of our history, although there were (and still are) social celebrations of cultural achievements with associated prize giving by way of in-house certificates.  However, today (in 2014)  -  reflecting the priorities of funding bodies  -  external accreditation is increasingly  a part of our learning programme.

A very important element which we have sought to integrate into the learning programme is for participants to learn about the process of learning itself, to learn about learning.  Once the principles are understood  -  how to commit to the self discipline and concentration required, how to go about research and information gathering, how to organise and check and make use of the results, etc  -  then the student or learner is in the starting blocks and ready to undertake any course of training or study, anywhere.    


Within the professional arts, unlearning can sometimes become a familiar and time consuming challenge.  Musicians, having been trained and grown accustomed over time to performing from scores may have to unlearn a great deal when called upon to improvise without a score.  Classical dancers, who will have invested years of training and practice in order to move in a classical way, must unlearn deep rooted muscle memories and habits in order to move in un-classical ways.  Performers and makers have devised systems through which to unlearn habits of their training and their professional practice, for example through chance procedures.   

However, unlearning in general  -  unlike the unlearning of professional artists and unlike learning itself  -  can be un-chosen and unexpected, and sometimes painful.  Put simply, unlearning is basically about changing, reversing, or abandoning accumulated habits and attitudes.  These habits and attitudes  -  of body, mind, and spirit  -  may be have been, consciously or unconsciously, limiting, damaging, or discriminatory.

Virtually all young children (some severe disabilities aside) jump at the opportunity to paint, play, sing, and dance.  Yet something in our culture (as in the cultures of many so-called 'developed countries') secretly steals away this precious gift of creativity.  Older teenagers and adults only too often learn to say apologetically about themselves that 'I can't sing', 'I can't dance', 'I'm no good at painting', 'I am not creative'.

Perhaps the greatest unlearning which teenagers and adults have, at best, experienced at The Black-E is the regaining of that precious sense that they are creative, and that this creativity may express itself in many ways  -  not only in 'the arts' but also in conversation, in walking, in problem solving at home or at work, and in looking around at the world about us.

At its most pleasurable and liberating, unlearning is to do with confidence raising.  Young people, whose confidence in their future prospects may have been cramped by their schooling, may regain their confidence and set out to determine their own futures, as theatre technicians, youth workers, lawyers, circus artists.  Youngsters and adults, who may have learnt the lesson that their Black and their working class cultures come second to a dominant culture, may (as described by Maya Angelou  in her poem 'Still I Rise') rise up to celebrate their own cultural forms.  Girls and women, who may have learnt that men usually take the lead, may gain a new found confidence and direction when they work alongside women who take the lead, not only in such cultural projects as 'Not Just Sitting Pretty' and 'Sisterhood is Powerful' but also in building and electrical work.

However, at its most disconcerting, unlearning may come at first as a very unwelcome, if also essentially liberating, discovery.  Former teachers, coming to work with youngsters in informal and relaxed ways, may have to unlearn inappropriate habits of authoritarianism.  Boys and men may have to unlearn the twin habits of expecting to take the lead over girls and women, and not expecting to take direction from girls and women.  White folks may find themselves in situations where they have to unlearn the stereotypes and assumptions they may have acquired of Black folks, and Black cultures.  Given The Black-E's history  -  as a remarkably culturally diverse project  -  much of this uncomfortable if liberating unlearning is associated with the unlearning of often unconscious attitudes to race, gender, and class.

Alice Walker wrote that 'the real revolution is always concerned with the least glamorous stuff'. The real revolution would be a world without race, gender, or class discrimination and prejudice.  The least glamorous stuff is personal change within small groups, organisations, and communities.  At the end of a staff games session one player said quietly, 'I'm getting to learn more about myself  -  and some of it I don't like'.  Such a painful and truthful observation may mark one small and early step in the revolution envisaged by Alice Walker.