May 21, 2013

Self-Education Is Not Done Alone


I could have easily titled this post “Why the word self-education is misleading and why I will continue to use it,” but I went for brevity. The point of this post is that in spite of my vehement belief that we need to move more of our educational effort focus to self-education and all its permutations, the truth is that the most effective self-education, perhaps all of self-education, isn’t really done alone.

If you look at some of the names for variations of self-education, among the terms used are such words as independent learning and autodidactism. Both of these terms, and similar ones, would seem to indicate that the learning is done entirely alone, without any outside involvement. But as was driven home recently as I was reading Kio Stark’s excellent book, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything, people do not actually learn in isolation. Rather, they typically learn with others, or as enabled by others. And learning is often best accomplished when the learning is done with others.

So you like learning by reading books? Someone had to write that book. You like learning by doing special projects at work? It’s likely you’ll be mentored by someone to assist you and you will learn from others at work as you undertake the project. You prefer to learn through e-learning modules? Someone had to create those e-learning modules. A company offered you an internship during which you can learn? Someone has to manage that internship program and someone will have to train and coach you along the way.

In short, no one really, truly learns entirely alone. And there is strong evidence that learning is best done when accomplished by social engagement with other learners. We are social creatures and our learning tends to be best when done socially. If formal education has a strong argument for its continuation and improvement, I feel that it’s the social learning aspect that is higher education’s greatest argument for its continued relevance. But, in my opinion, for it to maintain a high level of relevance it must adapt its learning facilitation to indeed be more social and less lecture and testing focused. But that’s a topic for another post.

Regardless of the slight misnomer that the term self-education embodies, I still plan to use it to describe the type of self-directed learning and education that is near and dear to my heart. It’s indicative of what I’m talking about and is generally pretty clear to those reading it. It’s not a perfect term, but none of the likely alternatives are any better. However, it’s always important to remember that we usually learn optimally when we engage in social learning of some sort to enhance that which we learn when actually alone.

In a future post I’ll discuss some of the various ways self-educators engage with others to enhance their self-directed learning.

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