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<full paper on researchgate but you will have to register and might possibly need an academic address>

On stopping doing those things that are not getting us to where we want to be: Unlearning, wicked problems and critical action learning

Cheryl Brook University of Portsmouth, UK Mike Pedler Centre for Action Learning Facilitation, UK Christine Abbott Centre for Action Learning Facilitation, UK John Burgoyne Lancaster University, UK Corresponding author: Cheryl Brook, Department of OS&HRM, Portsmouth Business School, University of Portsmouth, Richmond Building, Portland Street, Portsmouth P01 3DE, UK. Email: cheryl.brook@port.ac.uk 586243HUM0010.1177/0018726715586243Human RelationsBrook et al. research-article2015


This article explores the idea of unlearning on the basis of empirical data drawn from 73 social workers’ accounts of addressing their problems and challenges in critical action learning sets. To address intractable or wicked problems, characterized by having multiple stakeholders with competing perspectives and by an absence of obvious solution, it may be necessary first to unlearn existing responses and to ask fresh questions to illuminate what is as yet unknown. Action learning privileges questions over solutions in seeking learning from action on organizational challenges, whilst critical action learning is a variety that employs insights from critical social theory to promote critical reflection and unlearning in this process. The article breaks new ground in claiming: first, that unlearning in the context of the wicked problems of social work is characterized less by the discarding of outmoded knowledge and routines and more by a critical unlearning that opens up new possibilities of not knowing and non-action; and second, that critical unlearning is much more likely to take place when supported by a deliberated and social process such as that provided by critical action learning.

Keywords critical action learning, non-action, unlearning, wicked problems

Introduction The dominant view of unlearning has it as the discarding or forgetting of obsolete or redundant knowledge. We challenge this by arguing that this perspective is only part of the picture; that unlearning can also open up new possibilities for ‘not knowing’ and ‘non-action’. We propose a significant role for unlearning in the addressing of the wicked problems of organizational and social life and further argue that action learning, specifically that variety known as critical action learning (CAL), can be an enabler of this unlearning. CAL draws attention to the positioning of individual actors within institutional and social contexts, and to how power dynamics and relationships both enable and constrain action and learning (Mingers, 2000; Trehan and Pedler, 2010; Vince, 2001, 2004, 2008). Where these dynamics extend into the workings of action learning sets themselves, this can produce a ‘learning inaction’ (Vince, 2008) that is the antithesis of what is intended. This undesirable outcome is contrasted here with a more constructive idea of ‘non-action’ resulting from the unlearning of previous ways of seeing, thinking or doing. Where learning inaction implies avoidance and the acceptance of existing power relations, non-action, as in the Taoist concept of wu-wei (Hsu, 2013: 303), is a capacity enabling self-restraint and the deliberate limiting of actions. In the context of intractable or wicked problems, where any given action might lead to unexpected outcomes, unlearning leading to conscious non-action might create the space for new questions and possibilities. The empirical data to support this claim come from the reflective accounts of social workers who participated in action learning sets informed by CAL ideas. Social work is an especially relevant setting for the study of unlearning, because social workers struggle to deal with many intractable or wicked problems from child protection to homelessness to drug addiction. Their professional body requires them all, from students to senior practitioners, to exercise critical thinking, to challenge the decisions of others and to manage potentially conflicting or competing values and ethical dilemmas to arrive at principled decisions (College of Social Work, 2012a, 2012b). The article proceeds with a review of some relevant literature on learning, CAL, wicked problems and unlearning. A note on the research approach prefaces findings based on data taken from social workers’ accounts of practice, which are used to delineate the processes of unlearning. An analysis develops four themes emerging from the data and provides insights into the possibilities for unlearning by those working to address wicked problems in social worlds. A discussion develops these insights and argues that the processes of unlearning as revealed in our empirical data are more varied and complex than the literature suggests. In shedding light on the processes by which unlearning can take place, we argue that CAL has the potential to encourage perspectives that heighten awareness of not-knowing and of the possibilities for non-action in complex and contested contexts such as social work.



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    “ Keynes (1936) remarked: ‘The difficulty lies not in the new ideas but in escaping from the old, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of the mind’.

    The influence of existing preconceptions and ‘mental models’ contribute to the elements of self-causation in problem situations(Lazarus, 2009; Levin et al., 2012) and undermines the apparent rationality of human decisions.

    In difficult times the decision not to act, or at least not to act in previous and now predictable ways, can be an important action in itself."