MassURC 2023: Dr. Christina Royal and the Importance of Unlearning
By Caelyn Nordman
Dr. Christina Royal, President of Holyoke Community College, delivered the keynote address during this year's Massachusetts Undergraduate Research Conference (MassURC). Her lecture, entitled “Hacking Ourselves: Learning, Unlearning and Relearning”, encouraged students and faculty to question preexisting assumptions and biases that may affect the process of learning new information
Royal acknowledged that the terms learning and relearning are fairly familiar, but she spent time discussing what defines unlearning and how it is relevant to academic and social progression.
Using the example of businesses trying to reorganize their work practices, Royal expressed the principle behind unlearning:
"I started to realize that it wasn’t that they couldn’t learn, we all can learn, but it was that the current information that they had was interfering with their ability to process some new things."
The importance of unlearning enables the individual to allow new information into their minds while suppressing or erasing the information that prevents this process. Doing so allows for new perspectives and uncharted thought patterns to emerge from a place that may have been locked away due to preexisting assumptions.
Royal also discussed the necessity of unlearning from a developmental perspective and how societal influence can demand critical thinking about unlearning:
“When you think about all the conditioning that occurs from us from birth on, then you have the opportunity to think about how do we liberate ourselves from that by thinking about how we can unlearn what we have been taught and conditioned to do.”
The Importance of Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning
After delivering the insightful background on the process of unlearning, Dr. Royal then related this back to the initial purpose of her talk: how learning, unlearning, and relearning work together to make each individual the most effective critical thinker they can be.
Using the example of “pumping your brakes,” Dr. Royal brought up how before 1980, adults were taught to pump their brakes if they started to skid on ice. But after this, car manufacturers were required to install anti-lock breaking systems, which required the individual to hold down on their brake petal instead of pumping it. This soon became a requirement for all cars after 2004, so drivers who had been taught to pump their breaks had to unlearn that habit in light of new information and new safety protocols to keep them safe on the road. This is a perfect example of the learning, unlearning, and relearning process.
Students were also asked to submit responses to the question, “What is the relevancy of unlearning to your educational journey, and life in general?” before this keynote address. Dr. Royal received responses ranging from “unlearning a perfectionist mindset” to “relearning a social media usage schedule” — all of which were pertinent to the discussion of critical thinking and the holistic understanding of learning.
Royal left students and staff with these parting words, and everyone at CHC thanks her for her compelling lecture on learning, unlearning, and relearning!
"Instead of coming in with the perspective that you’re less than or you’re less capable...believe that you have a growth mindset and that you have so much to offer in an educational experience."