The Problems with Self-Directed Learning

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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.

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