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  • Writer's pictureS.A.G.E. Vision

A Step Towards Unlearning

As today, June 7th, marks two years since our foray into the blogosphere, we thought it appropriate to revisit the importance of authentic leadership and the introspection that needs to occur for sustainable change to be attained. From this vantage point, we suggest that in order to break through entrenched paradigms and chart a new course of organizational growth a process of unlearning and design thinking needs to be employed. This is of particular importance in the realm of education where cynicism has created a culture of mediocrity. Engaging in a process of unlearning grounded in Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a step that will attempt to usher in a recalibrated set of definitions regarding success and failure. With workable definitions, a focus on design thinking will bring forth the creativity and innovation necessary for meeting the needs of our learners and the broader community in which they reside.

This change initiative demands introspection and authenticity. Moreover, it will rely on the understanding that organizational growth is predicated on shifting individual/group dynamics and the expectations within. It is our belief that through a collaborative effort, change agents within interpersonal networks can establish the parameters in which to explore these elements across the current hierarchical structure. In doing so, stakeholders can uncover methods to shift the educational paradigms that continue to stifle learning.

We need only look at the innovative minds within organizations like Education Reimagined to know that authentic leaders will inherently engage in the unlearning necessary to dismantle assumptions and generate new knowledge. It is with this practice that a true examination of that which is known can be used to create entry points toward a more sustainable future. In the end, such an approach will build the empathy that enhances the credibility and trustworthiness of change agents. In short, leaders must embody the shifts they desire in order to establish understanding amongst stakeholders. Failure to do so only continues the stagnate visionless applications we have come to expect within the educational system.

Transformative Unlearning to Design Inspiring Avenues of Learning

In a speech delivered to university professors in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt made a point to insist that learning is not an act but rather a process. Advocates for quality educational practices recognize that this basic understanding should be the basis for innovation within the system. However, within the hierarchical bureaucracy of education, entrenched paradigms regarding learning and the role of the system have stifled attempts toward progressive shifts. For change agents navigating the paralyzing layers of bureaucracy, the notion of unlearning through appreciative inquiry is viewed as the mechanism critical for transformational change. This process of fluid and evolutionary learning can allow for the pause necessary to examine the grey areas that bring forth innovative thought. An article recently published by the Washington Post only highlights this particular need when addressing the alarming rate of absenteeism and behavioral issues reported by school districts during the 2021-2022 academic year. When we examine this troubling data, we must avoid proffering excuses and the traditional bandaid method.

By fostering an environment of unlearning, leaders can bridge the gaps between theory, practice, and policies. In finding symmetry, an organization can meaningfully address the debilitating effects of cognitive dissonance. For it is a position of hope that lays the groundwork for an organizational culture in which Appreciative Inquiry is used to engage the tenets of unlearning. Through this process, it is the expectation that a collaborative will deepen their understanding of ethical principles that frame their charge while honing their ability to convey innovative ideas across layers of the bureaucracy. Striving to move beyond the constraints of the system affords leaders opportunities to challenge assumptions in a space that creates trust through an ethos of positivity. This is enhanced by a contextual authentic leadership that engenders meaningful introspection. In our humble opinion change requires the investment of time, where unlearning establishes a deliberate plan for the learning that sits at the heart of reimagining.

Driving Change

Whether entrepreneurs maintaining viability or facilitators digging for the depths of understanding, the self-awareness, and commitment necessary to engage in such ventures give us a glimpse of the Appreciative Inquiry that brings a vision to reality. To that end, collaborative stewarding must reflect a culture of thinkers that see the world through the lens of possibility. As such, we at S.A.G.E.® have found the following 5D Cycle of Appreciative Inquiry to bolster the unlearning necessary to reimagine. As illustrated in Figure 1, this approach has created positive opportunities to analyze our approach, test our vision, and refine our mission within the scope of the system. As such, we can attest to the authenticity that framed the process and facilitated the coherence that offered reliability and built trust. While we aspire for transformational change, we are cognizant that within the hierarchal structure there is, as Burke (2018) references, the inertia to stifle monumental shifts.

Figure 1

5D: A Cooperrider Model for Appreciative Inquiry

In defining success and failure a team is able to chart a course towards change. This critical step opens up the space for risk-taking and exploration. With creativity at the center of an innovative thought process, leaders are attempting to avoid misalignment between innovation and adoption. Moreover, by evaluating the internal apparatus in the context of sector needs, leaders continue to employ what Bryson (2018) defines as incrementalism. Committed to exploring all avenues, stakeholders have the benefit of employing a deliberative process across all phases of engagement. In attempting to treat the problem and not the symptoms, a long view allows leaders to stage each element of the process logically.

Central to driving sustainable change and ensuring the feasibility of innovative thought is a process that reinforces commitment, tests strategical quality, and captures the resolve of the organizational culture (Olson & Simerson, 2015). Fostering a continuous cycle of individual and organizational introspection embraces Hargreaves' (2007) emphasis on using the past to gain insight into the present and unlock possibilities for the future. This is reflective of the sentiments expressed in many of our posts in which we have emphasized the past as a mechanism for transforming learning spaces and fostering the self-efficacy that will bring forth adaptable learning communities. It is from this position of thought that AI has become the vehicle by which unlearning can remove irrelevant and obsolete knowledge (Srithika & Sanghamitra, 2009).

Unlearning to Define

The authenticity of a team is premised on the notion of intentionality on the part of the individuals that comprise the collaborative. For our craft, truly immersing ourselves in the principles of unlearning has been a meaningful way to ensure we can effectively convey the importance of shifting entrenched paradigms. To ameliorate any potential uncertainty we used our engagement as a way to define our sagacious model. Figure 2 reflects the definitions that were derived from our process and serves as the evidence we believe necessary to persuade and generate support for unlearning across the broader culture.

Figure 2

S.A.G.E.® - A Cycle of Thought

Dismantling outdated assumptions requires the unlearning that can be generated by AI. However, when incrementally ushering this idea throughout an organizational culture, it will be essential to employ a patient disposition. In particular, a deliberate and strategic accounting must be engaged to adapt messaging for instances where paradigms are entrenched and exude a culture of cynicism. Developing an understanding of the landscape is essential to meeting a vision and uncovering entry points within each layer of the bureaucracy. Preparing for resistance demands such a process as it will create clarity to the contributions that can be offered to advance innovation or address individual needs. Creating a comprehensive understanding allows boundaries to recede and innovative ideas to emerge. A focused approach to engaging challenges allows change agents to effectively frame the communication of a mission.

Evolutionary Learning for Transformational Change

An ability to merge the tenets of AI with unlearning creates the space for the design thinking that Sriharan et al. (2021) have determined to be critical for sustainable innovation. As illustrated in our approach, self-awareness serves as the mechanism for the open-minded dialogue that allows for exploration. With a willingness to understand self, we have found a depth in our ability to clearly read the culture, which in turn has magnified the understanding of our role within it. Such an individual mindset has naturally established the collaborative practices from which we attempt to lay the foundation for this change initiative.

We suggest that there are four components that bring conceptualization to application when facilitators of learning view their charge from the vantage point of stewardship. In short, all stakeholders can benefit from securing growth through a position of balance. Accordingly, learners can engage in relationship building that supports reasoning as the persuasion that influences progressive ideas. As supported by Figure 3, these attributes establish a framework for adaptability and continual introspection; a meaningful foundation in which to effectuate change.

While merely ideas, it is our belief that continually reassessing practices will assist in deconstructing the assembly-line mentality that has been ingrained within the institutional culture. Over time, a thriving group of learners will understand the importance of slowing down to deliberate through personal and collective reflections. Recognizing that they are essential components to drive the learning necessary for their strategic thinking, planning, and innovation.

Figure 3

A Framework for Adaptability

A Model of Practice

The confidence to adapt is derived from individuals who trust in the moment. This ability is cultivated through the proactive steps that create the integrative thinking necessary to face challenges. With history as a backdrop, the evolutionary learning that promotes innovation can flourish. As we prepare to embark upon our third year of this journey, we remain committed to the diffusion of systematic thinking. We subscribe to the notion that by creating disequilibrium a balanced future of willing and open-minded thinkers can be fostered.

Addressing the issues facing education demands a creative spirit that communicates the importance of the past, present, and future as vehicles to bridge gaps and promote diffusion that is sustainable. In addition, we must keep in mind that failure is not an ending to the diffusion process as long as there is a dedicated approach to reflection and recalibration. With these guideposts, a promising platform in which to engage and continually formulate effective mechanisms for transformational shifts in our educational system can be achieved. Ensuring that the process of learning is not reduced to an act.


Bryson, J. M. (2018). Strategic planning for public and nonprofit organizations (5th ed.).Wiley

Burke, W. (2018).Organization change: Theory and practice. (5th ed.). Sage.

Grisold, T. & Kaiser, A. (2017). Leaving behind what we are not: Applying a systems thinking perspective to present unlearning as an enabler for finding the best

version of the self. Journal of Organisational Transformation & Social Change, 14(1),


Hargreaves, A. (2007). Sustainable leadership and development in education: Creating the future, conserving the past. European Journal of Education, 42(2), 223-233.

Olson, A.K., & Simerson, B.K. (2015). Leading with strategic thinking: Four ways effective

leaders gain insight, drive change, and get results. Wiley.

Sriharan, A., Smith, T., Shea, C., & Berta, W. (2021). Using Design Thinking and Appreciative

Inquiry to Modernize Curriculum and Transform Student Learning. The Journal of

Health Administration Education, 38(1), 285-296.

Srithika, T., & Bhattacharyya, S. (2009). Facilitating organizational unlearning using

appreciative inquiry as an intervention. Vikalpa, 34(4), 67-78.


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