Learning to Unlearn

Learning to Unlearn

Posted on April 26, 2017 by John McCarthy
Editor's Note: John McCarthy is Director of Advancement at Historic Spanish Point.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” - Alvin Toffler

The recent Margin & Mission Ignition Business Plan Knowledge Sharing Session, hosted by The Patterson Foundation, reminded me of the above quote from Alvin Toffler. I heard the quote years ago, and in the midst of the report-outs from the various implementation groups, the words and the message came from the back of my mind to the forefront. In reviewing my notes after the session, it became clear that each and every group had experienced the cycle of learning defined in Toffler’s philosophy.

In describing the exceptionally popular Japanese Fish Painting classes now offered at the Florida Maritime Museum, Kristin Sweeting explained how people initially challenged the notion of a Japanese folk tradition being taught in a Florida folk school. Further research revealed a historic community of Japanese descent on the east coast of Florida. So, while some people may have a preconceived notion of what is Florida folk tradition — the museum had to set aside that rigid mindset and be open to new discoveries. Indeed, we learned that when using the Japanese technique on “round-bodied” fish like the locally famous mullet, even the folk instructor needed to re-adjust their thinking and try a new approach.

The Sarasota Literacy Council team described how for many years they had offered literacy classes and individual tutors. They were doing all the right things to achieve their mission. But when they paused to reflect and “unlearn,” they realized that there are barricades to communicating their services to people with poor literacy skills. So, having un-learned the status quo, they tried a new approach of reaching out to local businesses to bring the training to the people. In a twist of learning “squared,” as they plotted a new course, a whole new group of people were exposed to learning literacy. And what about those clients who are seeking to learn English as a new language? They will have to do a bit of unlearning as well, since leaving their native grammar behind will be essential to absorbing a new grammar for a new language.

The Manatee Performing Arts Center presentation could have been delivered by Toffler himself, as they described how they had to completely rethink the optimal way to sustain their performing arts venue. Meetings and parties in a performing arts theatre? Juggling uses not just stage sets? They even described how they had to back-up and start from scratch with their theatre management software, and that in doing so, their efficiency soared. Reported results included breaking down the silos, more coordination, and better communication. By unlearning the old ways, a new stage was set for the future. Not only did the software change — but so did the organizational culture.

The Charlotte Players told a similar story of unlearn – relearn, extending out to the community. Since they had such a reputation for being the “Charlotte Cultural Center People,” when they established their own performance venue, the community did a double-take. Charlotte Players wasn’t just the people at the Cultural Center, they were the managers of the Langdon and the Black Box Theatre. In this case, the community has had to unlearn what they thought they knew, and in so doing exposed themselves to all that the Charlotte Players has to offer.

Somewhere around 5000 years ago, at Historic Spanish Point, Native Americans settling along the shallow bay shifted their diet upon the discovery of an abundance of readily available seafood. After chipping stone for thousands of years into mammal-bound projectile points to feed the hunter’s families, they now needed new tools to harvest food that didn’t require hunting. But this new food did put up an obstacle — hard calciferous shells that needed leverage to be opened. Largely abandoning their traditional folk skills, they crafted new tools from the shell material itself, to pry open clams and oysters and knock the back out of whelks and conchs to remove the luscious meat. In doing so, they had to unlearn their dependence on stone tool technology — and develop a whole new way of shaping shell. As they mastered this new material, they were able to create a wide variety of items from woodworking chisels, to drinking goblets, to jewelry. Very different in composition to flint and chert, this new material required an unlearn-relearn adaptation in craft techniques. Once mastered, these new technologies revolutionized life along Florida’s gulf coast. And 5000 years ago, these native craftspeople didn’t have the coaching of No Margin No Mission to help them with the transition!

A modern example for Historic Spanish Point involves a shift from weddings as the primary rental use to a more diverse range of revenue-generating offerings. With a solid reputation as a wonderful wedding venue on Little Sarasota Bay, Historic Spanish Point had to unlearn that status quo and think beyond the limitation of matrimonial ceremonies. By stepping back and exploring new horizons, new opportunities surfaced, such as business meetings, retreats and other types of celebrations. After all, Historic Spanish Point has been a meeting venue for 5000 years, why limit the business to weddings?

As I listened to the humble-yet-powerful presentations during the Knowledge Sharing Session, it became clear that each team had experienced what Toffler had observed, and that abandoning our traditional approach opened up a whole new world of discovery, opportunity, and growth.

To contact John McCarthy: john.mccarthy@historicspanishpoint.org
Follow Historic Spanish Point on Twitter: @HistoricSpanish

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