Unlearning LO24236

From: AM de Lange (amdelange@gold.up.ac.za)
Date: 03/22/00

Replying to LO24221 --

Dear Organlearners,

Morty Lefkoe <morty@decisionmaker.com> writes:

>I agree that this is not just semantics. I think what we've
>"learned" is the biggest single barrier to innovation, change
>and new learning. Unlearning, I submit, is the most important
>activity one can engage in to facilitate innovation, change, and
>new learning. Whether the change is eliminating dysfunctional
>personal behaviors and feelings, making needed changes in an
>organization, or fixing our broken social institutions -- unlearning
>is required.

Greetings Morty,

You, Rick and others are conducting a lovely LO-dialogue on this topic.
Allow my "painting rich picture" as usual.

It took myself more than a decade to become aware that the act "learning"
(which I prefer to call "auhentic learning") is not simple, but rather

"Rote learning" is one reductionistic view of the act "learning". It
makes use of a basic "mental reaction" which I can describe as
"addition". In chemistry any reaction of the form
        A + B = AB (going from left to right)
is an "addition reaction" where A, B and AB are three distinctive
compounds. I want to change the form a little bit to get closer to
the addition reaction in rote learning. Its form is:
        K(present) + I(new) = K(future)
Everey bit of new information, simbolised by I(new), increases
the knowledge K at the present, simbolised by K(present), by
one step to the value indicated by K(future).

We have often discussed LEM (Law of Excluded Middle) of logic
on different topics. A statement is either true or false but not both.
A statement can concern a noun or a verb. In the case of a verb,
when we apply LEM, then the verb can be prefixed by "un-". When
we apply LEM to "learning", we form its opposite "unlearning". So,
should we the symbolise the "unlearning" when its the opposite
of "rote learning", it will be
        K(present) = K(future) + I(barrier)
It is the very form of the latter which I think is so worrying
to Rick: a decreasing of the "capacity for effective action".
Should we discard the bit of information I(barrier) since it
is not part of the knowledge system any more, the actual
relationship is
        K(present) > K(future)
This order relationship show the decreasing of the "capacity
for effective action" much better than the preceding equivalence

When we apply LEM to "addition" in chemistry, we get
"elimination" which has the form
        AB = A + B (going from left to right)

We may believe that LEM is powerful to exhaust all the
possibilities. But should we not perhaps apply some
"unlearning" to LEM also? What do we have in the case
of chemistry? There is a third case also! It is called a
"substitution" reaction. It may be symbolised as
        AB + C = AC + B (C substitutes B)

Some "pure" mathematicians will argue that "substitution"
is nothing but first an "elimination" and then, after invoking
commutatitvity (not commutation), an "addition". In symbolic
        AB + C
        = A + B + C (elimination)
        = A + C + B (commutativity)
        = AC + B (addition)
Thus it seems as if we use LEM twice, first to get "elemination"
and secondly to get "addition".

But many kinds of chemical data point to the fact that
substitution is not a "two step" reaction, but a "one step"
reaction like "elimination" and "addition", yet completely
different to them. It is very much as if "substitution" is a
deliberate denial of LEM, i.e both "addition" and "elemination"
in one step simlutaneously.

At this stage many of you will already have jumped up
and say "Hey, this is mathematics and chemistry, not
learning". If I have to follow suite, I will jump and exclaim:
"Hey, what is learning".

In the biological world, a realm higher than the chemical
world, we again have this interesting feature. When we
apply LEM twice in two steps, we get "meiosis" which
can be explained as "sexual propagation". In the first step
two "haploid gametes" (sexual cells) are produced which
again fits "elimination" in all its meaning. In the second step
they are joined into one "diploid sigote" which itself fits
"elimination" in all its meaning. But when we deny LEM,
we get "mitosis" which can be explained as "asexual
propagation". Actually this is a very, very complex network
of substitutions which as a whole has the form
        CELL + FOOD = CELL + CELL
The two daughter cells are identcal to the mother cell.

I want to bore down into the very form of rote learning
        K(present) + I(new) = K(future)
that a similar "addition" reaction in biochemistry is usually
extremely dangerous and often mortal. I now have to bring
a little bit more qualification into
        A + B = AB
by writing it as
        A(large) + B(small) = AB(slightly-larger)
Here A(large) denotes a complex molecule consisting of
thosuands of atoms like in enzymes. The B(small) denotes
a small frament (consisting of a few atoms) of a molecule.
It is usually called a "(free) radical".

What this radical does, is to add anywhere in one of many
possible places on the large enzyme molecule. As soon as
it does this, it deactivates the enzyme molecule drastically
and often completely. The more complex anything becomes,
the less its numbers. Enzymes are relatively very rare in the
body. (For every trillion water molecules H2O there may be
one enzyme molecule). Thus a minute quantity (a few)
radical(s) can deactivate all of the enzyme molecules
completely. This is one of the standard strategies in designing
poisons like insecticides and fungicides.

Morty, perhaps this "deactivation of complex enzyme
molecules by simple free radicals" is a fiiting metaphor
what you have in mind with "unlearning". The only problem
which I see, is that a person has to develop his/her chemical
faculty to such a level that he/she has a vivid mental picture
of the interacting molecules, almost like an elephant becoming
incapacitated by a flea!

This metaphor tells us even more. Should we "unlearn"
        K(present) = K(future) + I(barrier)
by reversing "rote learning"
        K(present) + I(new) = K(future)
what becomes of the I(barrier). If it is allowed to meander
around, it will only attack the K at one of its many other
possible places because it is still in the mind! So what
can we do? There is two possibilities.

The one possibility is to remove the I(barrier) from the mind.
Our body does the same with radicals for which it does not
have any use. (The pollution with such radicals of our
environment by chemical industries is rampant. It takes me
about a week in the desert to become fully aware of the
incredible difference.) Some vitamins like E combines
with the radicals so that the result can be removed by the
liver and kidneys. That is why we need a minimum daily
uptake of vitamins. But the radical will not leave on its own
the body because it is far too reactive. Thus "unlearning"
according to this possibility will merely cause another
"barrier learning" which you find so devastating and inhibiting

The other possibility is to eliminate I(barrier) again, but now
move it to exactly the position on the complex molecule where
and whenever it is needed. But this cannot be done by simple
vitamins alone. What we need here, are complex hormones
and even complexer enzymes -- catalysts of increasing
complexity. This is exactly how the body evolves from one tiny
cell (the sigote) to a fully mature organism consisting of billions
of cells. Perhaps the most beautiful of them all is the midwifery
of the complex enzyme DNA-polymerase in duplicating the
double helix DNA molecule into two double helix DNA molecules
by adding RNA to a single strand and rearranging the sequence
of DNA bases in the RNA.

When I speak about "authentic learning", it is these kinds of
complex interactions which I have in mind and which I employ
in my capacity as a teacher. I can eidetify them (point out their
essential patterns) with the concepts of addition, elimination
and substitution, but I cannot simplify them or reduce them to
one simplistic action called "rote learning". I try to expose
you fellow learners to these complex interactions so that
your minds can become active. If you can say that you are
experiencing "diversity of becoming" in your "mind", then you
have made my day.

Rick says that "knowledge is the capacity for effective action".
Perhaps I have to report him better. But let us use this
description in quotation marks to thing about the "capacity
for effective action". What in living organisms determines the
"capacity for effective action"? On the realm of biochemistry
it is the complexity of biochemical molecules. Very complex
biomolecules such as enzymes usually have many thousands
of molecules. But so do cellulose (the plant's "natural plastic")
and chitin (the animal's "natural plastic"). Yet they have little
"capacity for effective action" when compared to complex
enzymes. So what makes the enzymes so different? The
very "forms within the forms within the forms within ...."!!!
Perhaps at the top of the list is the enzyme DNA-polymerase
which defies all imagination.

Again the most beautiful example is DNA. Please study a
modern book on genetics in which DNA is fully incorporated.
Concepts like "sugar-phospate", "back-bone", "double strand",
"base pairs", "base sequencing", "loci", "allele", "genes",
"chromosomes" and "nucleus" refer to ever deepening forms --
wholes within greater wholes as Jan Smuts would have said
should he have lived another twenty years to learn about the
fitting of the chemical part of the jig-saw puzzle of heredity.
It is the "form of form of.... of form of cluster of atoms" making
up the DNA of an organism which determines on a physical
level its "capacity for effective action". That is why an elephant
acts effectively like an elephant and a flea effectively like a flea.

This gives us the key idea to see what increases the
"capacity for effective action" which Rick defines as
knowledge. It is the "form of form of.... of form of content".
It is the "painting rich picture" of which I try to set so many
examples. Knowledge is a rich picture, not merely in being
like a snapshot, but also in becoming like a movie. The
richer the picture is in dynamical patterns, the greater is
its "capacity for effective action" as Rick would say.

Sadly, many people think of their knowledge as a room
with one or a few pictures hanging against the wall. A few
think of their knowledge as a gallery in which many pictures
are exhibited and of which are selling copies. No, this is not
how the wholeness of learning and knowledge works. You
have to think of one picture ever becoming richer. Use the
openness to step out of whatever room the picture(s) is(are)
hanging right into nature and see one picture of which you
are a part. Begin exploring that picture so that it will become
richer and richer.

When Rick writes:

>So, in my use of the terms, we build on old learning, and
>don't unlearn. We might forget or fall out of practice (a
>reduction of capacity), but we would not willingly "unlearn."

I think he might say that we would not unwillingly "decomplexify".
We will not take an eraser and wipe out parts of the rich picture.
Unfortunately, "building house", "painting rich pictures" and
"creating DNA" are but metaphors of something far more
complex happening in our "mind". We are not only learning,
but we are also creating, believing and most important of all,
caring with love. It is not our learning which gives us our
personality, but all these major becomings and many more
minor becomings.

When Jan Smuts seemed to have claimed in 1926 (Holism
and Evolution) that the final stage of evolution, which begins
at subatomic level, is the PERSONALITY of a human ready
to be a friend of the Creator, he had a vivid vision which very
few humans could grasp. Among these few was Einstein who
immediately recognised Smuts work to be on the same level
as his work on relativity.

So, should we take Smut's vision with ourselves while still
trying to toil with merely "learning", let us bear in mind that
whatever change we facilitate in "learning", calling it
"unlearning", "orto-didactics", "programming", "data-mining"
and a host of other things, if it has no significant effect on the
personality of the learner, then we are wasting the learner's time
and "free energy".

It is especially the learner's capacity for caring love which has
to increase. This is what our world is desperately in need of.
My struggle with the traditional system of formal education is
that this capacity is declining because of the way it organises
learning. We have to catalyse a grand paradigm shift in
education so that all the destructive immergences which we
have to cope with on all walks of human life, can change into
constructive emergences.

One thing I am very sure of, this catalyst will have to be
incredibly rich in its complexity. Something like "unlearning"
will definitely play a part in it, but not the claim
"Unlearning, I submit, is the most important activity one can
engage in to facilitate innovation, change, and new learning."

I personally belief (and this is not a mere assumption) that
CREATING is the most important activity. But then we will
have to enrich our concept of creativity. My own effort I call
"deep creativity". I am fully aware that it has many
imperfections, but I do all what I can to set an example.

My greatest anguish is that what I do I do it as a learning
individual. It is the result of my "dassein" creativity in which
I have incorporated "mitsein" creativity as far as possible.
The effective manner to change for the better the future of
humankind and not merely a few humans is by Learning
Organisations (LO). It is not effective as Learning Individuals
(LI) and organisations of LIs, but which have not yet emerged
into LOs. Last, but not the least, it is not effective as my
"painting rich picture" on "deep creativity".

Rick, to change slightly your wording, I would say that
"Learning Organisations is the capacity for effective action
which will benefit humankind".

With care and best wishes


At de Lange <amdelange@gold.up.ac.za> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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