On Learning and Unlearning

Keys to Lindsay’s Long-Term Success

Posted on: August 19th, 2020

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #19

Tropical rivers and streams are beautiful and very rich in species. Studying them for three decades was an exercise in learning and unlearning.

Twenty-two years ago, I published a scientific paper with my mentor and colleague, Bill Coffman, on the patterns of species richness of insects in a broad sample of streams and rivers across the American continent. At that time, based on many years of research, we thought we had figured out the pattern. We posited that we could find the highest number of aquatic insect species in small to medium-sized streams in low latitudes (in Central America, for example) and mid-elevation forested streams. For two decades, this thesis went unchallenged by other researchers or data.

A stream, a net, and a world of discovery at your (wet) feet.

Then, something happened. A few years ago, I started analyzing data I collected in Costa Rica and discovered that we were utterly wrong in a crucial part of our study. I found more species of insects in a large, lowland rainforest river (the type of habitat we thought would have the lowest number) than had been found anywhere else in the world. Much of what I had learned about species diversity in river and stream ecosystems in tropical and temperate rivers came into question. I had to unlearn quite a body of knowledge acquired over many years (decades, even) and test it against this new information and replace what was not valid anymore. And you know what? Unlearning and giving up long-established knowledge and beliefs about this vital part of my career as a researcher was not that difficult. Instead, it was quite exhilarating. I was proven wrong…by no other than myself!

Unlearning is the process of discarding something in your brain (memory) and replacing it with new knowledge. It can be a behavior, a belief, an attitude, an approach, a habit, or even a certainty about something that becomes challenged by new information and forces us to make a decision. Do I stick with my old knowledge and ways of doing something, or do I open my mind to unlearning and learning something new?

Success in changing environments is strongly tied to adapting.

In the 65 years of Lindsay’s history, much has changed in the world. Our organization’s culture and identity changed and grew, sometimes a bit haphazardly, other times by leaps and bounds. As conditions changed around us—and there have been a wealth of changes—we have had the option of shifting and adapting to the new requirements and selecting what we wanted to keep and what we needed to discard, and creating something new. We evolved from a garage operation in the times of Alexander Lindsay to a museum in a refurbished pumphouse, learning new ways to connect to people. We outgrew the pumphouse museum and developed a whole new approach to establishing these connections in a new, expanded facility where we are today. We built a wildlife hospital, a small zoo, added to our natural history collection, and incorporated new environmental messages to deal with emergent issues, such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, environmental pollution, and the spread of inequality in access to knowledge and resources.

And now, amid a new global threat, a pandemic that is affecting the entire world in ways not seen in generations, we are learning furiously every day about the virus, its effects, the possible cures, and the changes that the disease will continue to bring into our lives. The question is, are we also able to unlearn what doesn’t work anymore? Are we willing to redirect and change our habits, behaviors, and, more importantly, our priorities, and incorporate and give precedence to new practices consistent with the latest knowledge as we acquire it?

Our vision of vibrant and healthy habitats for wildlife throughout California still holds. Our mission of connecting people to wildlife to inspire responsibility and respect for the world we share continues to inspire us. So, what do we need to unlearn to continue meeting the goals and objectives of our work? There are different levels to this question.

Staff, volunteers, and the public are adapting and embracing new ways to continue to be involved and engaged with Lindsay.

As individuals, we learn that our economic station in life defines and frames our chances of coming out of the pandemic healthy and somewhat intact. For example, those who have access to more resources (money, open areas to recreate, access to food sources, and safe forms of entertainment) are doing better in isolation and can help others that are less fortunate. At work, we have had to unlearn work habits and adapt to working from home, work remotely, and collaborate via Google Meet, ZOOM, Google Docs, and other ways. Also, we had to unlearn how we greet others (no handshakes, no hugs, no in-person group meetings), practice new ways to stay in touch, wear masks, wash hands frequently, and use sanitizer consistently. We shop, work, interact, travel, and do everything in new ways or differently. We do all this while fighting stress, fatigue, forgetfulness, sometimes carelessness, and even resistance to the overwhelming changes. But we have persisted and succeeded because we need to, want to, and know this is the best researched and supported way to act, until research and science — which are also furiously unlearning and relearning — tell us that there is a better way.

Training of our ambassadors continues, more learning and a bit of unlearning as well.

As an organization, we need to look forward to what this means and prepare for the pitfalls and challenges that will come our way. Many of our past experiences at work won’t help us much, except to tell us what we need to unlearn. For example, the ways we teach children and adults, what we do with visitors, how we train volunteers and new staff, how we intake injured animals, how we display and sell merchandise, and so on, have all changed and will continue to evolve for some time. We’re replacing the old ways with safe in-person smaller programs, online programs and events, and more.

Here are the keys to making this unlearning and learning work for all of us.

  Enthusiasm. Embrace the change. See it as something that can be exciting and novel, a break in the routines, and an opportunity to try new things.

  Creativity. Put your imagination to work overtime, communicate with others about your ideas, open your mind to everyone’s thoughts, and be positive about all suggestions. The best ones will tend to float to the surface as more people understand them and adopt them.

  Failure. Yep, failure is just an opportunity to think deeper and develop a better solution to a problem. We should not fear failure, but if we do, we can learn much from it.

  Persistence. Unlearning, as much as learning, doesn’t happen overnight. It will take almost as much effort to unlearn a habit or a way of doing things as it will take to learn and establish a new pattern of methodology. Knowing this and accepting it will reduce the stress and pressure to do something too fast.

  Collaboration. This one is key to Lindsay. We’ve been doing it the last four-and-a-half months, across departments, across shifts, from homes and offices, and over the Internet.

Our animal ambassadors, like Poppy, are also learning new skills, such as calmness when dogs are around.

We’re growing and becoming stronger every day. We’re a team that works across departments and fields. We’re tapping our inner strengths and secret abilities, and we will succeed.

Dr. Carlos L. de la Rosa
Executive Director


REFERENCE: Darwin’s quote and illustration sourced from an essay at https://medium.com/@vasinis/learning-unlearning-and-relearning-b5933675c665

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