Blog Post

Learning Radical Transformation

?Learning Radical Transformation? is a reblog, in a slightly different form, of an article "Radical Transformation" in the May-June 2009 issue of Duke Magazine. This is the Silver Anniversary issue featuring twenty-five Duke leaders on various topics important not only to their field but to the world we live in. I was invited to write on the deep structure of learning. Robert Bliwise edits the magazine and the marvelous photographs are by Duke photographer Chris Hildreth. The issue is a great example of Citizen Scholarship, where our most specialized research can be communicated and made accessible to the public.

Learning Radical Transformation
Cathy N. Davidson

Alvin Toffler has said that, in the twenty-first century, literacy isn?t just reading and writing but the ability to ?learn, unlearn, and relearn.? Given the ever-increasing rapidity and magnitude of change on a global scale, we all need to master the precious and formidable skill of being able to stop in our tracks, discard the roadmap that has failed us, and try out a different route on the unpredictable journey ahead. That takes imagination, creativity, an ability to work with others, and fearlessness in the face of un-certain success.

I don?t imagine the challenges of 2034 will be any less daunting than those of 2009. I would hope that a quarter of a century from now we will be doing an even better job of training our students for unlearning the future.

Not much in our current educational system prepares us to the task of failing and recovering from failure. Our current models of education are founded on a principle of linear success. In fact, one could argue that data mastery (in any field), the ability to absorb and evaluate information, and the skill at applying existing paradigms to analogous problems predict good grades and maybe even a good entry-level job but do not necessarily prepare students to attend to unexpected twists and turns that, inevitably, lie ahead.

At most universities and colleges across America, the curriculum, the divisions by disciplines and departments, with relatively rigid requirements for graduation within and across divisions. In that sense, higher education looks pretty much the same in 2009 as they looked twenty-five years ago, in 1984--and not that much different, to be frank, than it did in 1884 when the modern, professionalized, discipline-based model of higher education was coming into being. There is nothing wrong with that?but neither is it a revolutionary new way of dealing with the world-shaping, always-on interactivity of the Information Age that has charged like a Colossus into our lives. We basically are continuing with a nineteenth-century model of machine-age education, based on an antiquated nineteenth-century model of a hardwired, localized, compartmentalized, and hierarchical brain, even though we are in the midst of an epistemic digital revolution that, in Douglas Engelbart?s terms, should be requiring us to ?shift our paradigms about paradigms.?

So what would education look like if it took seriously the injunction to learn, unlearn, and relearn? Methodologically, unlearning typically happens when one is confronted with the irrefutable uselessness of one?s present repertoire of skills to comprehend or cope with an important situation. Traumas such as a serious illness, the death of a loved one, or the loss of our life savings require us to find resources we didn?t know we had. Spending significant time having to negotiate a different culture with a language we don?t know calls up the same reflection about the inadequacy of one?s own skills and the urgent need to develop new ones, which is one reason we encourage students to study abroad. How would we replicate that form of radical disorientation in the safer confines of the classroom?

Here?s one of my fantasies for education in 2034. Once a semester, students will be required to take one course outside their major or minor that is literally picked from the equivalent of a digital hat. Since this is a fantasy, I?m not worrying about the practicalities so I?ll say every course, no matter how specialized, goes into the digital hat. It might be Algebraic Geometry, Advanced Arabic, Econometrics, Computational Cell Biology, Old Norse Poetry, or a seminar on Octavia Butler. By hook or crook, students must learn something they didn?t plan, that seemingly has no relevance to their chosen career path, and, in many cases, it would be a subject for which they are utterly, abysmally, delightfully unprepared. Grades would be collaborative as would learning, with the lowest grade anyone earns being what everyone receives. All students must show they have contributed substantively to a final project that demonstrates mastery of the material. So it is everyone?s job to help everyone else learn the subject and also to figure out how everyone can contribute to their maximum ability.

This is the educational equivalent of Survivor, but with the goal of making sure everyone thrives on the island. Maybe the digital hat student doesn?t know the first thing about actually doing abstract algebra but can leave the course understanding, conceptually and even methodologically, what abstract algebra is and why a mathematician might devote her life to it. Perhaps the same student contributes to the course?s excellence because she happens to be a genius at managing teams or is a brilliant science writer who can write up the class project in a compelling way for others who are not themselves mathematicians.

It would certainly shake up our concept of learning if one quarter of our educational lives were spent in the intellectual deep end, with our fellow students there helping us to learn to swim. On the professorial level, think about what the digital hat requirement would do to our pedagogy. Anyone who has ever taught in a radically different context (for me, it was teaching at a Japanese university early in my career) quickly learns that many of the ideas we cherish most have never had to be explained. When we talk to people who share our expertise and our values, a lot goes unsaid?and unthought. Explain your most complex idea to a smart person who doesn?t have a clue what you mean and you will quickly discover that you might not fully understand your own idea either. Contained in the ?unsaid? are many assumptions that are ripe for radical rethinking.

The digital hat experiment would also redistribute learning to different areas of the university. Given the current economic implosion, should universities really be sending such a high percentage of their graduates straight to Wall Street? That?s increasingly been the trend over the last twenty-five years. Yet the world has other problems that also need to be solved. The digital hat experiment could well introduce students to new fields they hadn?t even thought to explore before. It would also force us to rethink what the major (any major) might look like with one-quarter less courses required of each student and to reimagine the role of the university itself due to the redistribution of courses and faculty required by this random assignment of courses. And it would demand a different form of pedagogical engagement since one quarter of one?s students could be presumed to have little preparation or even interest for the subject matter.

What would learning look like without the safety net of prerequisites? U. s. Department of Labor statistics indicate the average person changes careers three to seven times. So, this educational shake-up more closely resembles the challenges ahead than does the present system of overly prescriptive majors and minors. Would our experiment in strategic failure be interesting? Indubitably. The method evokes the concept of katsu in Zen Buddhism, the thunderous blast that turns the acolyte?s life around. The important part, as in all education, isn?t the blast itself but the reverberations that continue after, inspiring imagination, confidence, and daring for a future of unlearning.

Davidson cofounded HASTAC (?haystack?) in 2002 and blogs regularly on the HASTAC site as Cat in the Stack. Along with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg, she is the author of the forthcoming The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (forthcoming, Fall 2009, MIT Press) and The Rewired Brain: The Deep Structure of Thinking for the Information Age (forthcoming from Viking Press)



Cathy, I love this idea -- in combination with advanced work "inside" a major.


Of course it is just a fantasy but the whole point is the juxtaposition (that's the "katsu") of the extreme uncertainty with one's sense of "mastering" a discipline, it wouldn't work unless there was each and, right now, we don't have enough of the former. In Buddhist practice, the truly gifted master smacks the truly gifted student at exacly the moment when the student is in deep meditation, about to achieve (s/he thinks) nirvana. WHACK! The bamboo stick comes down on the shoulder, disrupts the whole thing, including the sanctimony of thinking you're on the way to nirvana. It's the thunderclap that makes you rethink everything that comes after. Both the intense practice and the intense disruption are necessary.


This comes from a tweet about a commencement address a few days ago on unlearning that touches on some of the same points I make in my piece:


Thanks for writing a longer piece of this topic.


Thanks for writing. Actually, Toffler's idea of learning, unlearning, and relearning is not about going back and relearning a topic but breaking with one's own paradigms in order to see the topic anew. It isn't about going backwards but about how to get out of a rut, how to make a lightning leap ahead, to break and then change paradigms. There are methods for doing this, especially in situations where one is finding that going from A straight to B is yielding something that isn't working. Think GM.



When I'm feeling beaten down and wondering whether I'm totally out of step with reality in education, it always helps to come and read your blog. Thanks for all you do to push the envelope and move the conversation forward.


Thanks, Liz.  Sorry it has taken me a full month to find this.  We lost the url's for our archive in the site migration and we're right now testing to see if we have everything.