Integral Education and Unlearning

By: tommurray

I'm delighted to offer some musings on integral education following Terri O'Fallon's blog post last month.  Terri's message speaks in such a direct and balanced way to the two primary things that develop within us: our minds and our hearts—our capacities to reason and our capacities to care and feel.  Terri's focus in her post was on the education of children.  My primary interest is in how we continue to develop as adults (and it must be said that, these days, Terri works primarily - and magnificently - with adults).  If you are perusing this blog site you, like others drawn to integral education, have a bigger picture of education and learning than what the status quo portrays.  This picture probably includes psychological and spiritual growth, embodied perspectives on learning, and learning that leads to solving pressing problems in creative and deeply ethical ways.  This territory is vast, with so much terrain for the mind and heart to grow and flow into.


Below I'd like to share some rather random musings on the development of mind, the opening of heart, unlearning, and our capacities for imagining generative solutions to wicked problems.  It’s an invitation to explore some questions for which I have no definitive answers.  


Some of my work of late has been related to dialogue, deliberation and conflict resolution in online environments. Conflict, whether it looks like heated head-butting, mundane irritation, or sensitive-selves immobilized by indecision, seems to be where the rubber meets the road for human psychological and spiritual development. As in the story of the mountain-cave monk who reenters the township, our capacities are put to the test in the visceral encounters with others, whose needs, perspectives, or goals are different than ours. It has often been said that most of our human challenges are due to a crisis of imagination—more so than a lack of resources or knowledge


I believe that the root of this crisis of imagination is that people seem to have a difficult time getting enough distance from their habits, ideas or attachments to see generative possibilities available to them when faced with different mindsets.  That is, addressing this crisis of imagination is only partly about creativity per se, and more centrally about the ability to let go, let be, and listen in, which allows us to navigate our differences.  This is the case at all levels of human relationships, from friendships to organizations to nations.  If this capacity is fundamental to addressing our shared personal and global challenges, then adult education and learning processes/theories should be concerned with strengthening this capacity to let go, let be, and listen in.  What are the causes of this inability to see into generative possibilities?  I think it is centrally about two related ideas that I will elaborate on below: unlearning and orienting from the heart.


In the integral community we talk about horizontal and vertical growth, i.e. learning more things at the same level of complexity versus building capacities at higher developmental levels.  Educational and learning theories deal well with horizontal growth and at least for content-related domains, deal well with vertical growth as well.  The established principles include practice, support, challenge, feedback, reflection, and proper sequencing and diversity of learning contexts or examples.  Yet, this way of thinking about learning does not adequately address the ‘crisis of imagination’ mentioned above.


There are also approaches that explore building capacity for creativity or brainstorming/imagination, but, as implied above, for the really wicked problems and conflicts that plague us, I think the crux of the matter has more to do with unlearning and healing than with learning and problem solving.  In developmental and therapeutic terms, I am pointing to things like regression, shadow, suppression, developmental pathologies, and defense mechanisms, or "immunity to change" as Kegan put it.  These are unproductive knots of consciousness waiting to be untied—learned patterns of thought, feeling, and attention that need to be re-programmed.


One's level of development, defined as altitude along a number of related lines, sets the bar for many capacities important to dealing with wicked problems: complexity thinking, making nuanced distinctions, dealing with grey areas and uncertainty, reflecting on self and social context, etc.  However, increasingly we are seeing that it is important to differentiate one's competence in ideal situations from one's performance in actual situations.  The developmental level that one exhibits in a challenging context may be well below one’s full capacity.  We are just not at our best when arguing with despicable uncle Frank, and this emotional down-shifting or "amygdala hijack" is true for individuals, groups, and whole cultures negotiating diverse values, worldviews, or goals.  Each of us has vulnerable regions of psychic terrain that are scarred, dissociated, or incomplete—lying in wait for completeness and the radiance of wholeness and grace.  Healing or wholeness in this terrain is as much unlearning, including releasing stuck patterns, as it is about learning.


So, while it is important to do what we can to encourage growth in developmental altitude (along cognitive, ego, socio-emotional and other lines) we also know that such growth happens quite slowly and happens as one is ready—i.e. it can be supported but can't be rushed or forced.  In many situations what is holding back a deeply generative response is more about stuck thinking than developmental center of gravity. Thus, the way forward is probably more about unlearning than about hierarchical development.  


So, with all of its focus on learning as development, I wonder whether the field of integral education could be focusing a bit more on unlearning.  The integral community, with its attention to shadow work and transformative practices, is already at the leading edge of this exploration.  But, compared with what is known about learning, so little is known about the mechanisms or practices of unlearning.  Even more problematic is that society at large, including adult educational and learning establishments, have almost no acknowledgment of the importance of unlearning.  How do we rigorously identify these stuck places, and what are the methods of unlearning?


Realizing generative possibilities will require developing capacities in many areas including cognitive, ego, and social-emotional. Put more simply, it will require adequate capacities of both mind and heart.  Imagine yourself in a situation where participants are stuck in old ways of thinking and unable to proceed with any sort of positive creative response.  If you feel into that situation (you may be among those who are stuck) you can sense that what is needed is fundamentally about a movement of the heart; which, in turn, paves the way for shifts of mind.  Moving beyond stuck could be framed in terms of releasing the ego, shifting perspective, or letting go of rigid beliefs, but in stuck situations such shifts are initiated in the heart and engage an opening of empathy or compassion for others or self; or perhaps a shift into courage, solidarity, or vulnerability.  So unlearning, at least in those areas that keep us from generative solutions to human situations, must engage the heart as well as the mind.  This is also called wisdom.


The primary theoretical model of development in integral theory is hierarchical development, in which earlier capacities, developed horizontally, are coordinated and integrated into new emergent levels that transcend and include prior capacities.  Theories of unlearning are less developed and less salient; as are theories about the growth, movement, or expansion of heart.  The progressive opening of the heart is tied to unlearning, as both open up expansive spaces of generative possibility by releasing rigid or contracted ways of being.  Both unlearning and the expansion of the heart may have different rules, or a different "math," than that of hierarchical development. 


Though deep theories about unlearning are sparse compared to deep theories of learning and growth, there are many practical approaches and mid-level theories about unlearning (including contemplative practices and psycho-therapeutic theories about shadow).  And there are many practitioners skilled in supporting unlearning; and many adepts skilled in their own unlearning.  To name a few of the approaches: Shadow Work, the Immunity to Change Process (Kegan and Lahey), Polarity Management (Johnson), somatic approaches, U-Theory (Senge and Scharmer), and methods from the conflict resolution field (e.g. Arnold Mindell; Marshall Rosenberg).


There is no dearth of practical frameworks and methods for unlearning to navigate human differences.  What we lack are stronger threads and deeper theories that tie unlearning to learning, development, wisdom, and conflict resolution skill, so that the importance of unlearning can be better recognized in non-therapeutic and non-spiritual contexts.  What if we had a theory of unlearning that was as specific and powerful as our developmental theories about learning?


So in a nutshell:  while most approaches to education and learning focus on building up skills and knowledge, our world also greatly needs individuals with heart-oriented capacities to let go, open up, and unlearn (so-called "negative capability"); teachers and leaders skilled at guiding us there; and theories to map the way.  How do we get there in a systematic way? I said I would be posing questions rather than offering solutions!  If you are familiar with deep theories of unlearning that are relatively unknown in the integral community, send them to us!  I think there is probably a lot out there we could learn (and unlearn) from. 


More about Tom...


Is reading: 

  • The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How irrational beliefs keep us happy, healthy, and sane, by Matthew Hutson
  •  Dialectic and Difference: Dialectical critical realism and the grounds of justice, by Alan Norrie. 

Is listening to: A nice collection of mostly 70s rock and folk put together by a friend (Little Feat, Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Allman Brothers, Talking Heads...)

Is unlearning:  Those devilish thought-forms that want me to be smaller than I am.  

Shadow issues faced while writing this piece: I struggled somewhat with feeling pretentious, and my inner perfectionist was not so happy with this piece of writing!

If someone really knew you, what would they know about you?

  • That there is a lot I don't know about myself. 
  • Tom's published articles related to integral theory are listed at, and his chapter in Igniting Brilliance: Integral Education for the 21st Century is titled "What is the Integral in Integral Education?--From progressive pedagogy to integral pedagogy."


Submitted by davidmccallumsj... on



I appreciated your focus on the importance of unlearning as a dimension of the developmental growth process. When you mention the dearth of theories that relate to this concept and referred to Polarity Management, Shadow Work, Theory U, etc, I was surprised that you didn't include transformational learning theory (Mezirow, 1995, 2000; Cranton 1994, 2006; Dirxx, 2006, etc.). TL is fairly mainstream adult learning theory, and focuses on the experience of perspective shift, including the questioning, re-evaluation, and often the surrender of previously tacit biases. Perhaps you are already familiar with this material? 



David C. McCallum, S.J., Ed.D