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Unlearning for Deeper Learning

Unlearning for Deeper Learning

By Syna Morgan, Syna360 LLC

“I have not failed 700 times.  I have not failed once.  I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.”  Attributed to Thomas Edison, this quote illustrates his understanding of the essential interdependence of learning and unlearning to accomplish deeper learning.  In classrooms that prioritize 21st Century teaching and learning, innovative strategies for deep learning have elevated in importance.  And yet, unlearning still seems left to chance.

When planning for deeper learning experiences, it would be unimaginable to leave out such critical components as clearly articulated student competencies, active engagement in real world settings or real-time actionable feedback.  And yet, despite the interdependence of learning and unlearning, we often leave this critical component of deeper learning to chance.  Unlearning as defined – intentional effort to undo the effect of a false or outdated knowledge or practice – becomes crucial to our pedagogy for deeper learning.  We cannot imagine leaving it to chance.

Fortunately, we already have several strategies and practices in our classroom routines that, with an adjustment or two, can be useful for student “unlearning.”

Strategy #1: Quick Think, Quick Write

Designed originally as a strategy for literacy development, Quick Write has become an optimal tool in active engagement experiences.  As a tool for identifying that which may need to be unlearned, this adaptation is useful as part of the introduction to a new concept/topic.

Adapted Process:

  1. Students prepare by having a pencil/pen and paper at the ready.

  2. Give short explanation of new concept/topic.  Explain that they will be doing a quick think and write about what they know of the concept/topic.

  3. Quick Think

  4. Have students think (pencils/pens down) about what they know of the concept/topic.

  5. After 15-30 seconds (gauge by students’ fidgetiness), softly say “you may begin writing.”

  6. Quick Write

  7. Have students write (no talking or sharing) about what they know of the concept/topic.

  8. After 30-45 seconds (depending on “think” time), softly say “30 seconds left to finish your thought.”

  9. At the end of 90 seconds (combined time), have students put their pencils/pens down.

  10. Share Out: Each student shares to whole class without elaboration and without interruption from classmates.


This process enables students to access their most immediate knowledge and beliefs about the concept/topic by systematizing a reflection process.  The teacher, as well as the students themselves, are able to reference existing background knowledge to determine what false or outdated knowledge needs to be unlearned in order to enhance deeper learning.

An added value – the low-stakes nature of the strategy provides students with the opportunity to experience a positive stress (being quick) without the distress of having to know the right answer in a timed setting.

Strategy #2: One More Thing

Adapted from the common formative assessment technique, Exit Tickets, this strategy provides students with the opportunity to share just as they are leaving the classroom or learning experience.  As a tool for identifying that which may need to be unlearned, this adaptation is useful in the midst of learning the new concept/topic.

Adapted Process:

  1. As students are packing up to leave, stop them by saying “one more thing.”

  2. Quickly hand out note cards, while explaining to students that you would like them to jot down one thing about the new learning that they disagree with or are unsure about.

  3. Ask them not to put their names on the note cards.

  4. Have them put the note cards in a box or basket as they leave.

  5. Keep the momentum of students’ exiting to discourage students from overanalyzing their responses.


This process enables students to voice a disagreement or confusion in a brief discrete manner as they leave, allowing for dissenting views or complete confusion to be shared with anonymity.

This technique can prompt students to express the specific false or outdated knowledge or practices that they have.  For the teacher, the information on the note cards can reveal patterns of disagreement and potential misconceptions that will need to be addressed in order for deeper learning to occur.

Just the Beginning

The two strategies shared above focus on the identification aspect of unlearning … ways to bring forward potential false or outdated knowledge/skills that students may have.  The next step is to engage students in the actual unlearning of the knowledge and skills that are barriers to deeper learning.  In advocating for the interdependence of learning and unlearning as essential for deep learning, I have partnered with educators and leaders in designing a set of protocols that engage students in intentional efforts to undo the effects of false or outdated knowledge/skills, as is crucial to transformative practice.


Syna Morgan, Ph.D.

Location: Montevideo, Uruguay



Bozarth, J. (2012). Nuts & Bolts: Unlearning. Learning Solutions Magazine. Retrieved from

Danxi, S. (2017). Quick Write. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from

Davidson, C. (2012). Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. Penguin Books

Deeper Learning. (2016). Hewlett Foundation. Retrieved from

Jain, R. (2015). Can Stress Help Students? Edutopia. Retrieved from

Randall, A., Romero, A. & Schell, A. (2017). Exit Tickets. The Teacher Toolkit. Retrieved from


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