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Shift/Work Unlearning



Since the formation of the Bauhaus 100 years ago, artistic education has been predicated on ‘anti-foundationalism’, the dismantling of underpinning knowledge. This promised to provide an unstructured space in which artists could experiment and develop their own learning. Since the 1970s, unlearning has been pivotal to the principal of accommodation that underpins constructivist educational theory (wherein failure leads to reframing and thus to learning). Unlearning, thus conceived, promise enlightenment. Is it possible to pursue unlearning virtuously as a means of becoming less ‘enlightened’? Can it foster something other than anti-foundationalism? Given that workshops seem to inherently embody the process of ‘active learning’, how a workshop might reverse this axiom?

Shift/Work: Unlearning is a paragogy wherein participants co-create and share unlearning practices. It challenges a group of participants (Shift/Workers) to assist each other in collectively devising and playtesting unlearning. In this, it surfaces, scores and performs a number of the prevailing educational orthodoxies of the past century.

Unlearning was composed by Neil Mulholland and Dan Brown. It was beta-tested by a group of artists at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop in 2014 over two days. The workshop was supported by the School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh.

The event began with talks from artist Sean Kaye (Leeds United) and designer Crille Lampa (Stockholm) on how unlearning informs their art and design practices. Unlearning practices are easily distributed as Open Educational Resources (OER).

There are number of options for playing Unlearning:


I. Unlearning can play as a stand-alone workshop over the space of one day.


II. Unlearning can play over two days, the day-long workshops it composes playing on the second day.



• Shift/Workers

• Post-it notes

• Roll of wallpaper and marker pens

• Space divider (wall, curtain, insulation tape)

• [Break] where a comfort break is listed, it must be taken at a pre-determined time.

• Other materials are provided by Shift/Workers to enable their compositions to be


• The scroll score and short score (PDFs downloadable from this page)

- Induction (5mins)

Shift/Workers should arrive unprepared. They convene in a common space and are briefed on the workshop by a notice which reads: “The purpose of this workshop is to devise and take part in a workshop that will facilitate unlearning.”


2-3 participants are then nominated by the group to take on the role of Shift/Supervisor.


The Shift/Supervisor then follows this score:


- Calibration (>1hr 30mins)

Shift/Workers are broken up into smaller groups (no more than 5 members in each) each facilitated by one of the Shift/Supervisors. Each group must convene in a distinct space (e.g. separate rooms or space divided by a black/whiteboard, curtain, wall or insulation tape placed on the floor…) It is crucially important that the groups do not see each other and have no awareness of each other’s activities from this point onwards.

Each Shift/Worker is asked to silently meditate on ‘unlearning’ (what does it mean to them). They are not told how long this will take (Shift/Supervisor should judge >10mins) 


Each Shift/Worker is given a stack of post-it notes and spends a protracted amount of time writing and drawing anything that they associate with ‘unlearning’. They do this independently. No talking or conferring should take place at this stage. (Shift/Supervisor should judge when this process is exhausted >10mins) 


The post-its are now stuck onto a wall so that they are visible to the group. The Shift/Supervisor invites Shift/Workers to silently move the post-its around so they form clusters (>10mins)

The Shift/Supervisor will facilitate a Harkness discussion, working systematically through each cluster, gently encouraging the authors to expand upon their thoughts on each note.


More notes should be added to build up the clusters as required. (>60mins)


During the break, the Shift/Supervisor will draw a timeline - dividing up 3hrs - on a roll of wallpaper.

- Composition (1hr)


The Shift/Supervisor should work systematically through each cluster now to eliminate anything that the group do not deem to be a form of unlearning. The group need to rationalise each case for elimination. Eliminated post-its should be placed in the marginalia so that they remain visible to the group. (>20mins)


NB: This is the only brief. There are no supporting learning materials and no online access is provided. The brief is a provocation and catalyst for action and acts as a window on the cognitive biases of participants.

The Shift/Supervisor will now ask the group to consider which aspects of unlearning that they identified might be devised as a practice that can be scored and performed. This phase of the composition process takes the form of a cooperative Jigsaw Classroom wherein Shift/Workers deploy their ideas and experiences to design an unlearning workshop. Focusing on verbs and visual actions, probes and props can be beneficial.


The Shift/Supervisor will invite the group to move the post-its from the wall to the wallpaper to create a time-based score that the other group(s) can perform. (>40mins)



- Playtesting (>1hr)


The Shift/Supervisor invites their group to playtest all elements of the workshop that they have composed. The elements must be carefully timed. The group can be split 2/3 to speed up the playtest. This phase should last no more than one hour.

- Recalibration (>30mins)


The Shift/Supervisor invites their group to recalibrate and refine the workshop elements that they have composed. The workshop will then be scored in a legible, stand-alone format (e.g. on a timeline). The Shift/Supervisor will be responsible for ensuring that the workshop runs according to the score. This phase should last no more than 30mins.

[Break] This break at this stage, ideally, should be overnight. This will allow each group to complete any preparations required for their workshop to run the following day. It also enables the participants to forget something of what they may have learned.


- Unlearning Workshops (>3hrs)


The Shift/Supervisor convenes with the other group and conducts them through the score. If there are more than two groups, each group will complete the workshops composed by all other groups. (So, in a session with three groups, each group would participate in two workshops.) The length of the workshops can be reduced to accommodate this. 

NB: To limit what they might learn from the curriculum design stage, neither group will experience the workshop they devised or have any sense of how it went. There is no feedback session, since feedback is a constructive learning process.

After 3hrs the workshop concludes and the groups disperse.

- ShareAlike


Shift/Work Unlearning is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 2012 Shift/Work (Neil Mulholland and Dan Brown) Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International You may remix, tweak, and build upon this score non-commercially, as long as you credit you and license your new creations under the identical terms. To enable your workshops to be convened

at a later date Shift/Supervisors are asked to share their group’s scores with Shift/Work via email.


Shift/Work will add new Unlearning compositions to the Shift/Work website as a CC BYNC- SA 4.0 licensed OER.

Supported by:


Knowledge Exchange & Impact Grant

College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences 

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 May 2014 Shift/Work (Neil Mulholland, Dan Brown) Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International


Performed by Shift/Work at: Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India March 2017 | University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway August 2017 | Listaháskóli Íslands Sept 2016 | Malmö Art Academy 2014 and 2016 | ESW 2014


Peer reviewed papers presented at Paradox: Alternative Zones: Uncovering the Official and the Unofficial in Fine Art Practice, Research and Education 2015 (The University of Arts Poznan, Poland), the 4th International Visual Methods Conference 2015 (Brighton University, England), International Teaching Artists Conference: Best, Next and Radical Practice in Participatory Arts (ITAC3) 2016 (University of Edinburgh, Scotland) and the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2017 (University of Calgary and Mount Royal University, Canada).

UoE Logo.jpg
ITAC3 Unlearning.jpg
Unlearn Paper.jpg
Kochi Split Studio.jpg
Split Studio Krtistiansand.jpg

SHIFT/WORK unlearning slide CAROUSEL

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