Why You Need to Include Unlearning When Designing Corporate Training Programs

You have written the learning objectives, created the content, designed the training materials, and scheduled the training. You’re all set. Nothing is left but to deliver the training.

But wait. Have you accounted for the unlearning? If you haven’t, you have overlooked one of the most important elements necessary for adults to learn something new. Failure to account for the unlearning process is one reason company training programs fail.  

As Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, says, “Learning is easy, it’s the unlearning that’s hard.”

The Competitive Nature of the Adult Brain

Have you ever watched a child learn to play a musical instrument and marvelled at how easy it seems to come to them? I took my first music lesson at age 40, when I decided to learn how to play the piano. At the same time, my six-year-old daughter took her first violin lesson. I had visions of accompanying her on the piano as she played her violin. That vision was dashed when, within three months and with half the practice, she raced past me. She had accomplished in three months what would take me me three years.

The reason for the gap in our learning is due to what neuroscientists call competitive plasticity.[1] Simply put, the neurons I needed to learn the piano were competing to find space within a brain that was already heavily developed. Whereas my daughter, like all children, had wide expanses of space waiting to be developed.

If we stop using a skill or we haven’t developed a certain area, we don’t just lose it — our brain uses that space for another activity or something else we do practice. The skills, activities, and even the beliefs we consistently use our brain for become more embedded, and this makes it more difficult to use the space for something else. That’s why, for me, a key part of learning to play the piano was unlearning. Once I understood this, I was able to use the unlearning process to speed up my learning. 

By the same token, if you want your new adult training program to stick, it’s key that you first understand what’s needed to enable unlearning.

Unlearning isn’t easy

Research has shown that unlearning is at least as difficult — and maybe more difficult — than learning something new.[2] Unlearning also takes more energy. Therefore it’s essential that you pay as much attention to the unlearning as to new the learning when designing your training program. This is especially important if the new activities require people to do similar work but in a different way, which is often the case when introducing new work processes and technology.

Although we call it unlearning, it’s not really. Once our brain has learned something, we never truly unlearn it. That’s why you can jump on a bicycle after decades of not riding and you can still ride. It’s also why we tend to go back to our old habits and ways of doing something when we are under stress or tired.

Unlearning includes a process of overwriting, while also creating the needed connections and new pathways for the new activity to become embedded in our long-term memory. But it’s not as simple as just learning in reverse.[3] Instead, it’s similar to building new roads to deal with traffic congestion in an already developed area of the city. The new construction includes overlaying and re-routing some of the existing roads, while at the same time building new extensions or roads to shift the flow of traffic. 

The unlearning and learning process also comes with its own set of anxieties. Edgar Schein identified two type of anxiety when it comes to learning and unlearning: survival anxiety and learning anxiety[4]. Survival anxiety is the realization that, unless we learn something, we will be left behind. Learning anxiety comes when we feel a sense of incompetence or that something is more difficult than originally thought.

Three things are needed to encourage unlearning and make space for new learning:

  1. Recognize and plan for the unlearning before you begin the learning process. In one project I was involved with, we set up a pre-training period. This pre-training period including setting context by allowing the employees to see, feel, and touch the new environment before they would need to begin their training. We also made smaller process changes to start the larger process of disconnecting their existing patterns.
  1. Create a safe space for learning. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, says that when training is forced, it becomes a threat.[5] Learning that occurs when we feel threatened is not embedded in long-term memory; once the threat has passed, we go back to our old behaviours or way of living. The key to embedding the new learning is decreasing anxiety. To do that, the learning needs to be worth the effort. We need to believe in our own ability to learn the new activity, and we need the time to focus on learning the new activity.
  1. Reinforce the new until it becomes the normal. People need time to embed the new learning so there is little risk of going back to old ways. Michael Beer notes most training doesn’t fail because the individual isn’t capable or willing to learn. It fails because the systems, policies, and practices of the leaders who initiated the training didn’t reinforce, encourage, and support the new behaviours.[6] One way to avoid this failure is to shift from thinking of training as an outcome to viewing training as a process. The process begins with preparation, as we outlined earlier, then training (skill development), followed by a post-training support period.

Training is an important part of any organizational change effort. Ensuring that you have accounted for the unlearning when designing your program will ensure the new skills and activities stick.

Helping you move change from a liability to an asset for your organization!

This post appeared first on Dr. Turner’s blog entitled The Learning Process. it is reprinted with permission.



[1] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, p. 48. Penguin Books.

[2] Fabritius, F., & Hagemann, H. (2017). The Leading Brain Powerful science-based strategies for achieving peak performance. Tarcher Perigree.

[3] Fabritius, F., & Hagemann, H. (2017). The Leading Brain Powerful science-based strategies for achieving peak performance.Tarcher Perigree.

[4] Schein, E. (2013). Humble Inquiry. San Francisco: Berrett Koehler. P. 100

[5] Rock, D. (2009). Your Brain at Work. Harper Business.

[6] Beer, M., Finnstrom, M, & Schrader, D. (2016). Why Leadership Training Fails — And What to Do About It. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/10/why-leadership-training-fails-and-what-to-do-about-it?utm_campaign=harvardbiz&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social