Lately I’ve seen a lot of blog posts talking about autodidacts (people who learn things without teachers) as if they were some strange breed of alien being. For example, there is the post Ed tech promoters need to understand how most of us learn | The Hechinger Report, which includes the following paragraphs:
This is a very particular take on learning: the autodidact’s take. We shouldn’t mistake it for most people’s reality. Productive learning without guidance and support from others is rare. A pair of eminent researchers has gone so far as to call the very notion of self-directed learning “an urban legend in education.”
In a paper published in Educational Psychologist last year, Paul A. Kirschner of the Open University of the Netherlands and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer of Maastricht University challenge the popular assumption “that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning.”
There are three problems with this premise, Kirschner and van Merriënboer write. The first is that novices, by definition, don’t yet know much about the subject they’re learning, and so are ill equipped to make effective choices about what and how to learn next. The second problem is that learners “often choose what they prefer, but what they prefer is not always what is best for them;” that is, they practice tasks that they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would actually enhance their expertise. And third, although learners like having some options, unlimited choices quickly become frustrating—as well as mentally taxing, constraining the very learning such freedom was supposed to liberate.
And yet, to paraphrase the economist Larry Summers: There are autodidacts. Look around. We all know at least one successfully self-taught expert, and the tech world is teeming with them. How’d they get that way?
While I do see a benefit to teaching (or I wouldn’t spend so much of my time teaching), I don’t think that the autodidacticism should be dismissed as “an urban legend in education”. In fact, the end goal of all my teaching is to turn out students who can continue to learn on their own, without needing the continuing crutch of having a teacher lead them. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been in a lot of cases—I see students for a 10-week class and then they disappear, giving me no clue whether they have developed new ways of learning that stay with them or they have just managed to fake it through my course and relapsed to expecting to be spoonfed immediately afterwards.
I think that Annie Murphy Paul has it wrong when she claims that few people can be autodidacts—she seems to be assuming that it is some sort of innate gift that one is born with (Carol Dweck’s hated “fixed mindset”). I am convinced that becoming an autodidact is something that most people are capable of. I recently read an account of one student who turned herself into an autodidact, and what prompted her to do it—How to become a programmer, or the art of Googling well | okepi:
He was the very picture of the competent hacker I held in my head, that I nursed a secret crush for. But most extraordinary, he threw something together using tools that he’d never used before. Yes, he did spend more time on Google than he did coding, but through sheer force of googling and a prior, general picture knowledge of how these things worked, he’d roped together a pretty sophisticated and working app. He knew where Twilio belonged in the grand hierarchy of things, knew exactly where to apply it, and so, even without knowledge prior, was able to figure things out.
And I despaired. How do you get so good that you can build something out of nothing?
The rest of the semester passed glumly, and without incident. Come winter, I began to panic again. Driven by the need to become employable, I tried my hand at a couple Code Academy website tutorials. Hm. Not bad. I made an attempt at my first website—pretty terrible, just one, static page full of boxes and awful colors, but it was something. Something I realized. Just like my code-god compatriot, when I didn’t understand something, all I needed to do … was google it.
To a large extent, the difference between the autodidact and the ordinary student is not one of competence, but of confidence. It is Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset”—the conviction that you can learn the material and are not doomed forever to learn only what someone predigests for you. There are tremendous resources now available to everyone that can turn them into autodidacts: Wikipedia, for example, has thousands of excellent articles in all sorts of sciences (and the science articles suffer much less from point-of-view problems and vandalism than pop culture articles). And, as “okepi” says, Google can find all sorts of answers for you (she goes on to much larger accomplishments later in her post).
I learn a lot of stuff on my own by reading Wikipedia articles, reading survey articles, reading research papers, googling stuff in StackExchange, going to weekly research seminars, even (sometimes) taking classes. [The astute reader will have noticed that I did not include MOOCs or videos in that list—despite the claim that MOOCs are a godsend for autodidacts, I have found them profoundly unmotivating, and videos as a learning tool are just too bloody slow for my taste—I fall asleep before anything has been conveyed.]
There are some things for which teachers are essential—it is very hard to learn a foreign language well on your own, without a native (or near-native) speaker to help you hear the differences between what you say and how a native speaker would say it. Theater is hard to do on your own (though a group of autodidacts could get together to learn to act). Feedback on writing is very valuable, as is having an audience for public speaking. And there are times when it is useful to have the structure of a scheduled course to help with time management—to keep you on task to meet an external deadline when there are dozens of other things to do. But in a lot of cases, a textbook is all the structure that is needed, or an on-line tutorial document, or even just a particular problem that needs to be solved shaping what needs to be learned. I learned those skills decades ago, and I think that my son learned them well by the time he was halfway through high school.
So I know how to be an autodidact, but how do I teach it to others? That is a question I have no easy answers for. I try giving open-ended assignments, I try scaffolding by having students search for answers to specific questions, I try deliberately leaving material out of a lecture or a lab handout and telling students to go read about it in Wikipedia, and I try whatever else I can think of that will get students to learn on their own. For some students something clicks, and they start doing more learning on their own—sometimes a lot more. For others, I’ve not found a secret sauce.
I particularly despair of those students who take copious notes in class and want to record my lectures (I have two of them this quarter)—they seem to have developed the attitude that I am the sole source of knowledge, and that if they just cram everything I say into their memories, they’re golden. But I’m not interested in hearing my words echo back to me—if I wanted that, I’d lecture to an empty classroom. I’d much rather the students wrote down two or three keywords from my lecture, so that they could find what others had to say on the topic using Google and Wikipedia—or even looked up the topics I’m covering in the textbook (which does have an index). I’d rather that they thought about how to derive the algorithms we are learning in class, rather than trying to memorize what are really fairly arbitrary recursive definitions (and ones that are more easily derived than memorized).
Does anyone have any good techniques for converting note-takers into autodidacts? Those are the techniques I need to learn (and I didn’t really see anything in Teach like a Champion that would help).