The Problems with Self-Directed Learning

002564bc654b12b5f4960f

Hendrix could play the guitar like no one else. Da Vinci was arguably the greatest inventor the world has ever seen. Lovecraft wrote some of the most haunting stories in English literature. All were autodidacts, self-taught individuals who followed their curiosity and passions, educating themselves to become pioneers within their fields. Like most autodidacts, they failed to finish school or didn’t attend it at all.

The thing is though, most people are not autodidacts. We are not disciplined. We don’t like to read. We lack motivation. For the majority of us, in order to learn effectively, we need guidance from teachers, the support of our peers and the structure provided by institutions. Learning is rarely productive without them.

Yet self-directed learning has become fashionable in education, mostly due to the advancements in learning technologies and the explosion of ed-tech, an industry full of autodidacts who have schooled themselves. In the process, the learner has been increasingly placed at the center. They know best. Allow them to direct their learning as they see fit, they say. Give them the freedom to learn what they want, when they want and how they want. Sounds nice, but does it work?

There are three problems with this premise. The first is that novice learners, by definition, don’t know much about the subject they’re learning, so they are ill equipped to make effective choices about what to learn next. There is no map, no compass. The second issue is that it’s human nature to often choose what we prefer, rather than what’s best for us. Learners have the tendency to practice tasks or skills they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would stretch their thinking and improve their expertise. Given the choice, most of us take the easy way out. The third problem is that although learners like to have some options, unlimited choices quickly become frustrating. It taxes us mentally, constraining the learning that such freedom was supposed to bring.

No one learns in isolation, as education is inherently social. Or is it?

Isaac Asimov once said, “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” I tend to agree.

One thought on “The Problems with Self-Directed Learning

  1. “The first is that novice learners, by definition, don’t know much about the subject they’re learning, so they are ill equipped to make effective choices about what to learn next. There is no map, no compass. The second issue is that it’s human nature to often choose what we prefer, rather than what’s best for us. Learners have the tendency to practice tasks or skills they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would stretch their thinking and improve their expertise. ”

    I think the first part of your observation here makes sense, but I have to dispute the second premise. Young people of my acquaintance do push themselves and tackle difficult tasks just as readily as adults: sports, magic cards, video games are all fiendishly difficult and young people make great efforts and show amazing persistence in pursuing mastery of these things and many others, and all of it is largely self-motivated (or perhaps culturally motivated.) But I know that they are capable of choosing to push themselves for reasons that make sense to them. The subtext of what you are saying seems to be, “they won’t push themselves, it’s human nature, so we just have to force them to do whatever challenging things seems appropriate to this politically exigent curriculum or that pedagogically fashionable methodology.” In my experience carrots and sticks don’t work, and the learners they appear to motivate were going to be motivated anyway, and the rest will do exactly as much as they have to to get a desirable outcome (avoiding punishment, accruing praise, etc. Worse yet, they will think that is the point of all learning.) It is true that in a self-directed learning environment you can’t just walk away and assume they will turn into Jimi Hendrix, on the contrary, you have to develop a relationship with the learner and find out what motivates them, what kinds of challenges make sense to them, and help them come to their own conclusions about what is important. They almost always conclude that sports, magic cards, and video games are ultimately not important, but when they do decide what matters to them, they know how to pursue it with the same desire for mastery they developed doing those apparently trivial and childish things.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s