The Importance of Unlearning

Faiszah Abdul Hamid

Head of the Singapore Red Cross Academy

In our daily life and work, we function based on the mental models have learnt from past experiences and education. However, there may come a time where our mental models become outdated or even obsolete. In order to stay ahead, we need unlearn our old ways of thinking and functioning.

When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge into our current way thinking and doing. When we unlearn, we choose to step out of our old ways and adopt a different way of thinking, doing and behaving altogether.

The process of unlearning is challenging, yet it is especially important in the humanitarian field. Joining us is Faiszah Abdul Hamid is the head of the Singapore Red Cross Academy. Since 2010, she has expanded the academy from providing first aid courses for staff and volunteers, to the academy today that supports humanitarian education for the public and beyond. She strongly believes that unlearning is as equally important as learning.

Podcast Episode Highlights

What is the biggest difference between corporate learning and learning in the humanitarian space?

Based on my observation, corporate learning is focused on theory, whereas humanitarian programs are based on experiential learning. When staff and volunteers go out into the field, their field experience may differ from their training because humanitarian response is highly contextual. The other difference is that corporate learning is structured and have the  support and investment of technology such as IT, e-learning, etc.

In humanitarian education, access to technology is limited when we go to the field. Much of the training is unstructured to maintain flexibility and to make use of available resources on the ground. Our training is fluid and not dependent on technology. In corporate training, the focus is on preparedness. In humanitarian training the focus is balanced between preparedness and response.

What does unlearning mean in the humanitarian field?

Unlearning is especially important when you go out and try to help people. One of the greatest unlearning I had to do myself is the idea of help. Previously, we thought that as the donor or the expert, we can decide what kind of help we can render to a certain community. Being in the field, I realise that most of the time, what we perceive as what the community needs is not what they really need. Help should be given based on what the community needs and not what the donor or expert think they need. In that context, I think unlearning is very important, especially if you want to be a humanitarian aid worker. For example, there was an organisation went to Africa to render help. After completion of the project, there was a balance of funds. With this balance, the organisation perceived the community needed communal toilets and built it for them. Two years after, they returned to the community to review project. Much to their surprise, they found out that it was not used and was instead used as a storeroom. The organisation was perplexed and confused as to why the community choose not to use the provided facilities.

After a six-month study, they discovered that the community use their toilet break as a social and communal activity, where they took the time to catch up with each other. With closed toilet doors, the community felt isolated and were no longer able to socialise with others. The organisation decided to demolish the communal toilets and build open toilets so that the local community can continue with their socialising. This story shows that we believe we know what the community wants, and we forget that the community themselves know what they want and have to decide for themselves. This is a classic case of redefining help in the humanitarian field.

What is the main reason that people find it difficult to unlearn?

The education process we have acquired throughout our life forms our identity. Our identity is rooted to concepts and knowledge from our education. Once we have to unlearn, it is like taking away a part of us. It is like trying to plant a new tree within us. This takes a lot of effort. You need to shift mindsets, change attitudes and amend certain behaviours. Breaking habits requires toughness. You need to go through the toughness in order to unlearn.

What happens when people choose not to unlearn? What do people stand to lose when they hold on to their beliefs, values and event identity?

Within the corporate world, I do not believe this will be detrimental. Within the humanitarian field, it can cause harm. It can create prejudice and biasness. It can cause communities to be harmed because you refuse to change your ways of perceiving and communicating with the community. Because of old habits, perceptions and the refusal to change perception, it may actually be cause more harm than help. For example, we are prone to use certain words loosely, as influenced by mass media. Words such as trauma, stress, and depression. These are commonly used words by everyone, even when you’re not a doctor.

Within the humanitarian field, especially in psychological first-aid and psychosocial support, we are trained and taught that using these words can be equal to labelling. If you refuse to unlearn this concept and you go to community that had suffered a crisis, telling people that they are “traumatised” or “stressed”, you are pathologising the community. This can cause more harm, especially when you are only a volunteer or a staff and you’re not a psychologist or a counsellor. When you give such diagnostics to people, it will cause more harm in the long run. When we do training in the field, we always draw stories from the local community because we learn from them as well. If we only share our experiences, you will realise very little is achieved because you do not understand the culture of the community.

In the humanitarian field, training often take place in a two-way approach. The trainer learn from the trainees, the trainees learn from the experience of the trainer. When we take the two-way approach, we find that the community benefits and the trainer will will be enriched with the experience. I believe this doesn’t happen often in the corporate world.

How can we help others who find it difficult to unlearn?

I’m not sure if there’s anything that can be done for them. As educators we must demonstrate the approach that knowledge does not end, there are always new things to learn. In order to absorb new things, we must unlearn old things. Most of the time our brain works like a sponge. When the sponge is full and you refuse to unlearn, very little information or water can seep through. If you want to absorb and soak more water, you need to throw away the previous water.

You need to integrate all the things you have learnt before with things you learn today. With this, you can compare the knowledge that you’ve learnt and be flexible about it. You’re able to take whichever knowledge is applicable and applied to the situation you are in. The true purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open mind.  Is not to replace an empty mind with a full mind. An open mind means that you are always open to changes, ideas, new concepts, open to change your perception, attitude and be flexible.

What can we do to promote an unlearning attitude?

Firstly, I believe we need to change our training methodology. Training shouldn’t be a one-way lecture. You shouldn’t be the trainer standing up there doing all the talking. Training should be a participatory approach. It should include the trainee as part of the learning and the process. Once trainees are actively participating in the learning process, they will experience emotions and gain insight on what is meant by certain concepts being taught. It is only when the trainees are involved and participate, they will feel the change and see the difference in all the concepts being taught.

They can see the difference in learning, concepts and will start to unlearn themselves. When the trainers are involved in this two-way approach, the trainers themselves will unlearn in the process. One of the courses we conduct is called psychological first-aid. Because it is a course that involves a lot of emotions, one of the key methodology in this training is to conduct role-plays. Many trainees before, who had undergone this training, thought this program is more of a drama or acting class because of the role-plays. When trainees get involved and participate in the role-plays, they realise the importance of role-plays because they get to experience the emotion and gain insight themselves.

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