Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I'm Not Bill Gates. I'm Still An Autodidact (and So Are You).

There was an article published last week in Slate titled Bill Gates Is an Autodidact. You’re Probably Not., and when I read it yesterday, it was pretty eye-roll inducing. So I decided that it was time to write a rebuttal on the blog. The article starts by talking about Bill Gates:
At a young age, Gates was already an autodidact, someone compelled to learn for himself what he needed to know. Over the course of his life, Gates has maintained this habit: He dropped out of college after two years, but he has continued his education through incessant reading and conversing. Michael Specter, a New Yorker writer who profiled Gates for the magazine, has said that the Microsoft founder “is one of these autodidacts who reads, reads, reads. He reads hundreds of books about immunology and biochemistry and biology, and asks a lot of questions, and because he’s Bill Gates [he] can get to talk to whoever he wants.”
Many of Gates’ fellow leaders in the ed tech world are also members of the autodidact club. Computer scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, academics—they are a self-selected group of individuals who have schooled themselves in a fast-changing field for which there is no settled syllabus, no well-established curriculum.
This seems to be a pretty clear case of someone seeing autodidacts as "special." The geniuses, those destined for greatness, no matter what they face. The "autodidact club" is thus considered to be something pretty exclusive.

Though that particular club might be exclusive, I think it's pretty misleading to think that the fact they're autodidacts is the main thing that sets them apart. I'd argue that what sets them apart is that they're business people, corporatists, very wealthy, and largely male (also almost certainly largely white. Statistically, the richest and most "successful" people in America tend to be both a. white and b. male, so I figure it's a pretty good guess). No, these people are not your every-man, but I don't think being an autodidact or not has all that much to do with it.


The author continues with what is their main point of the article:
Most people are not autodidacts. In order to learn effectively, they need guidance provided by teachers. They need support provided by peers. And they need structure provided by institutions. 
...Do they now. I know a whole lot of unschoolers who would disagree.
Productive learning without guidance and support from others is rare.
It seems that the author suffers from the misconception that self directed learning means learning entirely and completely on your own, alone, with no help, ever. While I disagree in a major way that learners need "guidance provided by teachers" and "structure provided by institutions," self-directed learners do need other people. Peers, mentors, parents, and yes, sometimes even teachers. The thing is, self directed means just that: the individual is making the decisions about their own lives and learning. These decisions can include a large amount of other people, and even a large amount of structure. It all depends on the individual learner and what they want and need.
A pair of eminent researchers has gone so far as to call the very notion of self-directed learning “an urban legend in education.”
I... Well. I told my sister, Emilie, about the "urban legend" thing and she laughed. "Hi, I'm Bigfoot!" was her response.

Emilie's life and my own life are proof against this supposed truth. But lest anyone quickly jump to the "then you must be special!" conclusion, I'd like to point out that every single unschooler I've met is proof against this absurd idea. Lifelong unschoolers and unschoolers who left school in elementary, middle, or high school; unschoolers who left school because they were struggling, and unschoolers who left because they didn't feel challenged; unschoolers whose parents made the choice to unschool, and those individuals who chose themselves. We're all managing to learn just fine, in the most self-directed way you can find!

So, who are these apparently "eminent" researchers and what are their conclusions?
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, van Merriënboer and Kirschner 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.
Again, I find myself re-reading to make sure I actually read it properly the first time. This reads like just the regular criticisms everyone has about self directed learning. "Children don't know what's best for themselves, you can't trust children," people say, and "if no one's making them do hard things, they'll never do anything difficult!"

Though to be honest, I've never heard the researchers last assertion, that choices are bad. Wow. Okay. I think I am a very different person from those researchers, who are apparently pretty overwhelmed with the vast variety of choices life represents. I loved how my sister put it, in discussion about this article. She said that while in theory there might be "unlimited choices," there aren't actually, because life doesn't work that way. You want to go out to eat, so theoretically you could go to any single restaurant in the city, but in reality your choices are going to be based on what's close to you, what's within your price range, what type of cuisine you like, what you're in the mood for, what any friends or family you're going to dinner with like... In practice, you'll be able to pare down your theoretical choices to a few actual options pretty quickly. That's how all choices, including about your learning, work. As Emilie said: "I could try and go into engineering school tomorrow. That's a choice I could make. But it wouldn't make any sense based on my interests or goals or the past choices I've made." This 'too many choices are bad' thing seems pretty detached from the reality of how people make choices.

When it comes to needing experienced teachers to steer a novice learner, that's why, as I mentioned before, unschoolers often choose to make other people part of their learning. Emilie has been taking Ninjutsu classes since she was 16. That's because she can't learn Ninjitsu on her own. Her choice to start classes and her choice to continue them are all her own. Self-directed, yes, but not something she's pursuing alone.

I wondered if these researchers were being quoted out of context. It seemed, to me, that their paper sounded more like an an attempt at legitimizing what educators want to believe in regards to why self-directed learning can't possibly work (even though it obviously does) than anything else. But was that really the case? Sadly, it seems so. The summary of their paper is this:
This article takes a critical look at three pervasive urban legends in education about the nature of learners, learning, and teaching and looks at what educational and psychological research has to say about them. The three legends can be seen as variations on one central theme, namely, that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning. The first legend is one of learners as digital natives who form a generation of students knowing by nature how to learn from new media, and for whom “old” media and methods used in teaching/learning no longer work. The second legend is the widespread belief that learners have specific learning styles and that education should be individualized to the extent that the pedagogy of teaching/learning is matched to the preferred style of the learner. The final legend is that learners ought to be seen as self-educators who should be given maximum control over what they are learning and their learning trajectory. It concludes with a possible reason why these legends have taken hold, are so pervasive, and are so difficult to eradicate.
I disagree that these are common notions. It's only very recently that self-directed education has become trendy again, and the vast majority of people still feel strongly that the way people learn is by being taught, by a teacher, in a school. The authors of the above paper provide no new research, and simply quote research done by others, pulled specifically to make their points which are pretty clearly stated in the above summary. I will point out that the Slate article obscures the fact they're talking specifically about the idea of self-directed learning online, but then again, though that's what the authors of the paper claim they're looking at, they seem to lump all self-directed learning together, whether online or not. So I'd say the Slate article is a pretty accurate representation of what these authors are saying (basically that they're pissed that teachers might be losing power, and students gaining some, and they want it to stop, because they claim science isn't behind these changes, which is bad).

But back to the Slate article. According to the bio on the article, "This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University." I think that really puts it all in perspective. While they might be nonpartisan, I'd hardly consider a teacher's college to be unbiased when it comes to the role of teachers and schools in society. Their very livelihood depends on teachers retaining power, and students staying in school, listening to the teachers.

So that's the reason this is a subject that seems so important to the author. And the central point that the author seems to be attempting to drive home in protection of their livelihood is that self-directed learning isn't for everyone. Most people can't do it. Only special people learn that way.

I grew up a life learner. An autodidact, if you will. I called the important shots in my own education, and still do today. I didn't sneak out of my house as Gates did to work on supercomputers, I don't read texts on immunology and biochemistry, and I'm not a scientist, engineer, or academic. By all accounts I'm not part of an exclusive "autodidact club" made up of the rich and influential. What I am is a plain old run-of-the-mill self-directed learner. The type who learned to read because I loved Harry Potter, who memorized old poems, wrote books reviews, studied World War II, played for hours with my sister, and learned alongside my family as a child. I'm the type of autodidact who spends hours in the kitchen working on a new dish, and tons of time writing about self-directed education. The type who reads books about living on less money and re-imagining domesticity (Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Man in the World and Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture), and on unschooling and alternative education (I finished Challenging Assumptions in Education recently, and am now in the middle of The Unschooling Unmanual). I go to workshops and talks and conferences on my favourite subjects, such as unschooling and alternative education and preserving food...

How my life and education looks is intimately shaped by my own passions and interests and goals. That's how being a self-directed learner works. Sometimes what you're doing will look impressive, and sometimes it won't. That's perfectly fine. We don't have to be impressive. And autodidacts as a whole are certainly not part of a special club.

I also think it's important to recognize the role school and forced teaching play in killing motivation. As unschoolers we end up repeating, time and time again, that humans are innate learners, that babies learn to walk and talk because they have a burning desire to learn, grow, and become a part of the culture they find themselves in. Humans are perhaps best defined by our ability to learn, our ability to adapt, our flexibility and busy minds. So why does it seem so hard for so many people to grasp that learning isn't something that must be induced in someone? It's not something you have to make people do. Learning is something you need to support, to encourage, and sometimes just to keep out of the way of. If supportive environments are provided, and people stop putting blocks in front of learners in the form of curriculum that must be followed, times in which learning must occur, tests and assessments and grading, then learning will happen enthusiastically and well.

We WANT to learn. It's in our nature.

Which is why I'm an autodidact. Or life learner, as I sometimes prefer to call myself. And you know what? So are you. Embrace it, and enjoy your own uniquely individual self directed learning journey.


  1. I think that the "too many" choices thing isn't a personal opinion or a philosophical view on freedom. It comes from pretty well established research on happiness (see e.g. http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice or http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/bad-good-choices).
    There are personality traits that make this less of an issue (google "satisfier vs. maximizer" for one example that may play into this phenomenon), and of course very few of us would want to give up what we see as essential freedoms, even if they provided more happiness/well-being. But analysis-paralysis is a real psychological phenomenon.

    The other thing is that you are totally missing the cultural context of this stuff. Admittedly, the US cultural context may be different from the Canadian one- there are a lot of people trying to privatize public education here.
    Some people, when they talk about "digital natives" are just thinking of how easily their Millennial friend fixed their laptop! But some people talking about "digital natives" want to pretend that once you've provided a kid a laptop, you are all set. No need to pay teachers or have schools or help them pay for Ninjutsu classes! They have TEH INTERNETS! (*cue inspiring music*).
    Basically, there's an argument being made by rich white men like Gates that all poor students really need is a laptop (running Windows, of course). The power issue here isn't just students v. teachers, it's about for-profit educational charter school corporations v. poor students. At least, that's what it really looks like on the ground, here in Michigan (80% of our charter schools are run by for-profit corporations).

    So I do agree with you philosophically, about people having an innate drive to learn. But I think it's worth talking about what a "supportive environment" to learn really looks like and how to get that for more people. I don't know about you, but I don't think the Bill Gates funded KIPP schools look like an autodidact's paradise.

    1. Hey Becca!

      That's true, but I feel the authors of that paper where using that research in a misleading way. If you sit down in front of someone and list 100 different things they could do, that's paralyzing. But that's not what self-directed learning looks like at all, which the authors didn't seem to grasp. Having people available to help kids narrow their focus when necessary is definitely a good thing, but the idea that a wide range of choices is a bad thing is completely ridiculous in my opinion.

      The Canadian cultural context is vastly different. The same privatization around schooling and charter schools and all that simply doesn't exist here. However, I am aware that it exists in the US. I'm not a big fan of Gates at all, or the host of other super privileged education tech reformers, and have criticized similar types of views in the uncollege/self-directed education world as well: http://yes-i-can-write.blogspot.ca/2014/03/uncollege-hackschooling-and-when.html This post wasn't meant as a defense of those big name reformers at all. I don't think they have actual children's interests, especially as you say the interests of poor children, at heart. I firmly believe their version of "reform" is more about making money than anything else, so I agree with you there.

      But, I have a blog with lots of posts. I've covered a wide range of topics, which I hope are a good collection of my views overall. Each post can't cover everything I think on a topic, and can't include a whole bunch of addendums on every possible interpretation of what I'm saying. I don't mean that badly at all, and do appreciate your comment, but I want to point out that in one blog post, I do what I can to make my main points as best I can. In this case, it was a defense of self directed learning, which, no matter what was influencing the author, they were very clearly saying that most people aren't CAPABLE of self directed learning, which I absolutely and completely disagree with. Thus, that's what I focused on.

      I *do* talk about what supportive learning environments look like. I talk about that all the time! I also try and talk about how to make that more accessible for people. But having chosen to focus specifically on unschooling, I don't really give myself as many opportunities to talk specifically about freeschooling, democratic schooling, learning centers, and self directed learning in schools, all things that help or can help make self directed learning more accessible. I fully, completely and with all my heart support any projects working on those philosophies while seeking to be actually accessible, and find that very exciting. I just write about unschooling because I also find that very exciting, see it as the end goal as such (everyone learning from life, with nothing that looks like the current schooling model), and because that's what I have actual, real life, extensive experience with. It makes sense for me.

      Nope, I think Bill Gates and his ilk do not really care that much about students. We agree there. But where we disagree, it seems, is that it's important to champion self directed learning as something ALL people deserve, which means challenging ideas such in the article that only "special" people can do it, an idea I might add that to me promotes severe inequality and the idea of some people as smart and motivated and others as not.
      There are some major problems with the privatization of schools, absolutely. But the way to address that is to talk specifically about the problems of privatizing school, and how Bill Gates isn’t helping. You know what isn’t helpful? Attacking self-directed learning, saying most people can’t manage it (which to me sounds a lot like most people aren’t deserving of freedom of choice), and making it out like self directed learning is the problem. Blame the rich tech reformers, not the philosophies which promote greater freedom of choice, trust, and respect for children.

    2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply!
      First, there's plenty of things we agree on- I'm not emphasizing those as much, because that's not what I feel compelled discuss (I'm kind of disagreeable/argumentative by nature).
      Also, just to be 100% clear- I'm not trying to tell you what to write about. Even if a small aspect of your perspective could be used by someone who is furthering causes in a way neither of us agree with, that doesn't make you wrong or mean you shouldn't blog about it.

      Ok, that said... we agree it is ridiculous to view choice as intrinsically bad, but it's also ridiculous to assume that more choice inevitably leads to more happiness / well-being. Choice can be valuable in itself, even if it doesn't lead to happiness.

      I also feel like the author of the Slate piece did not do the best job summarizing the actual academic article's take on choice, so I was making sure to discuss the original article. That's a habit of mine because in many fields I'm interested in (e.g. public health) the popular media reporting is so atrociously bad compared to the actual original academic article that I simply filter out the journalist's "contributions" (NB: oftentimes, headlines are The Worst this way. After speaking to enough journalists/writers, I've come to realize that it's unwise to respond much to headlines, as the point is mostly to get you to read further. Headlines aren't always written by, and sometimes not even approved by, the authors of articles. I absolutely dislike "Bill Gates is an autodidact. You're probably not" as a sentiment, but I don't hold it against Murphy Paul). In any event, I do think the original academic article makes good points on "choice". They make it clear that they are arguing in favor of a "Goldilocks" level of choice (not too much or too little), where the goal is to improve learning efficiently as measured externally.

      Of course, even if that's sensible, is "efficient learning as measured externally" the general aim? Not to paint with too broad a brush, but I think that usually in school, it is. Usually in unschooling, it isn't. That's the crux of the matter.

      The one part of the Slate article which rings true to me, is where Murphy Paul discusses how inefficient and social learning can be, even for a lauded successful autodidact like Bill Gates. Ultimately, what I notice most about this is that society doesn't give everyone the same number of chances to get things wrong, or the same social opportunities.
      Unschooling worked for me. However I think that if unschooling works for you, you need to be aware that you are special- not because you've got some kind of magic brain superpowers, but because you occupy a relatively privileged place where inefficiencies of learning don't sink you. If you ask me, Murphy Paul is not so much arguing against self-directed learning *as an option* as arguing against tech-enhanced psudeo-autodidactism pretenses that take away educational resources from poor kids. But again, I'm using a fairly specific cultural context to assume that (well, and Murphy Paul's other writings).

  2. Your blog is really interesting! You should check out mine at confessionsbyateen.blogspot.com. I think its really good and I post as much as I can. :)

  3. Even Bill Gates needed others...someone had to write the books that got him started down his path. Someone before him gave him knowledge...whether it be in person or through a book. And everyone, given the right environment as toddlers and preschoolers and elementary age can naturally develop skills needed to pursue what is interesting to them to learn. They don't need teachers in the traditional sense. They need more individual attention and opportunities to explore. They no longer need institutions to access information, either. the biggest complaint I hear from teachers/former teachers is teaching is mostly about classroom management. While kids may learn there, their individual needs are rarely met. Sometimes kids just need the right jump start in order to realize they naturally love to learn...at least what suits them best :)

  4. I love your writing - very thoughtful and on point. We have been unschooling our autistic son for the past three years and have found that, yes, anyone can be autodidactic. In the case of autistic people, instead of constantly trying to force them to learn things which are of no interest, they can really dive into their very specific interests and use them to develop skills (often autism therapy discourages intense interests as distracting from "typical" or "age appropriate" ones". For example, my son has always been into alphabets and numbers. This led to an intense interest in fonts. From this, he developed an interest in font design, foreign alphabets (and other languages) and graphic design - which led to video editing and animation. He's used the internet and his own curiosity to teach himself most of the Adobe Suites, iMovie, VideoPad, Sony Vegas Pro and Blender. His visual interest also led to him taking art lessons. I trade vocal coaching for Chinese lessons and he attends a hybrid homeschooers' program where he learns from a Waldorf style teacher about life science, Vikings, Greeks and Geometry. In that case, he chose a teacher who inspires him and will happily engage in anything he brings to his classes. With perfect pitch, he also loves music and has been able to take two music classes a week and play in a band (they just recorded their first 6 originals). My son is 11. Autism limits his social and communication skills. Unschooling unlocks his potential.