What a Diploma Doesn’t Tell You

Look in my office closet. In a box on the top shelf you will find a stack of diplomas and related documents, including a 6th grade diploma. Look further into the box and you will find several certificates indicating successful completion workshops, training programs and certificate programs.

What do these documents mean? Choose any one of these items and find another person with an identical piece of paper. Then ask this question. What do the two of you have in common? Find three or four more people with the same piece of paper and ask again. Do this again until you have interviewed twenty to thirty people. What would you expect to discover from this exercise? With a little perseverance and carefully crafted follow-up questions, you might learn a little more about the meaning of that piece of paper. You may also discover what the paper does not signify.

In the case of my certificates and diplomas, they are historical documents. They only show what I did in the past. At minimum, barring the possibility that I cheated my way through the program or school, they indicate that I met some minimum threshold of requirements needed to graduate at a given time in history, but there is no guarantee that I still meet those requirements. Graduation requirements, curricula, and the faculty likely change over time, so simply seeing that diploma in hand does not show what I do or do not know in comparison with someone who graduated twenty years earlier or later.

Looking only at the diploma, it only indicates a fraction of what a person learned during their time pursuing a degree. One might expect that the diploma is evidence that the person met certain standards for college level reading, writing, listening and speaking; as well as competence in certain bodies of knowledge. However, if you think back to your most recent schooling experience, I have little doubt that you can recall people with widely different levels of knowledge and skill who earned the same diploma, even the same grades, in many classes. If three such individuals applied for the same job, I am confident that the hiring body could (often with ease) discern the differences between the three.

While nature contributes to these differences, nurture is no small influence. Self-nurture, in particular, makes a tremendous difference. Consider the following questions as a way to get at much of the learning that goes well beyond what the diploma signifies.

  • What did the students do during their free time?
  • Did they attend optional lectures on campus or in the community.
  • Did they get involved in extracurricular activities?
  • Which books did they read for fun or personal interest?
  • How many books did they read?
  • Did they travel domestically or globally?
  • What sort of volunteer activities occupied their time?
  • What sort of late night conversations and debates did they have with their classmates?
  • Did they cram for every test and pull all-nighters to finish every paper, or did they spread that work over weeks and months?
  • Did they spend time exploring topics in their professor’s offices, or over lunch or coffee?
  • Did they work with their professors on any research projects?
  • Did they spend time building a personal learning network that extends beyond their campus, finding others who share their intellectual interests.
  • Did they attend any professional conferences, workshops or related events?
  • How much time did they actually study?
  • Did they do just enough to get the grade, or did they sometimes over-learn and dig deeper into a topic just because it interested them?
  • Did they work during school or the summer? If so, were these jobs anything to make some money, or were they jobs that they used to learn new skills or to better understand a given profession?
  • Did they ask many questions (in their head or out loud) in class and while they were reading?
  • How much did they learn how to learn? Did they develop effective organizational strategies, study skills, problem-solving heuristics, as well as strategies for listening well and communicating persuasively?
  • How did they nurture their emotional growth and development? Did they intentionally find ways to practice postponing gratification, empathy, or the ability to real the nonverbals and emotions of others?
  • What sort of relationships did they develop amid their studies?

These questions help us surface what is different between two people who went to the same school and ended up with the same diploma. There is little doubt that how one answers these questions will determine much about what someone learns. In fact, one’s answers to these questions may well influence the rest of a person’s life much more than simply looking at the grades they earned or their performance on individual assessments.

Do Self-Directed Learners Use Mentors, Guides & Coaches?

For those not familiar with self-directed learning, they sometimes have a stereotype about what it means to be a self-directed learner. One of them includes this vision of the solitary and independent learner who does things her way. She only depends upon herself, not relying upon teachers or others. Yet, in my study of self-directed learning, that tends to be far from true. In fact, many self-directed learners actively seek out different guides and mentors in their pursuit of new learning goals. They own the learning, but they seek out mentors and guides to accomplish their learning goals.

Self-directed learning is not solitary learning. It is not anti-teacher, anarchist, nor is it selfish. At least that is not the vision for most advocates and champions of self-directed learning. What makes it distinct is that the learner, not a teacher or other authority, takes increasing ownership for the what, why and how of learning. It stems from a conviction that teaching self-sufficiency and self-regulation is effectively done by providing contexts where one is able to practice self-regulating and being increasingly self-sufficient.

As such, growing as a self-directed learner often involves developing a deeper understanding of the value behind finding and learning from coaches, mentors, and other guides. Within the context of some of these relationships, you might find a self-directed embracing a largely teacher-directed learning experience. Consider the many examples in team sports, ballet and dance, martial arts training, vocal coaches and music teachers, and much more.

Interestingly enough, almost all of those learning contexts have rich traditions and practices associated with personalized and frequent feedback. I love watching this in action when my son is in Taekwondo class. They start sitting on the floor in a very structured manner. Where you sit matters. How you sit matters. How you dress matters. The teacher is up front and starts the class in a similar way each day. Then he takes them through a series of elements. The students largely imitate what the teacher does, yet the teacher is watching closely and giving almost all of his feedback to individuals, not the group. It is less about the class getting their act together and almost always comments specific to a person, and it is a precise correction.

Students must concentrate. They concentrate on the teacher’s instructions but also very carefully upon what they are doing. They are engaging in a deep, focused, deliberate form of practice; something well supported in the literature for optimal growth and performance. Sometimes the teacher calls one person up front to perform. Others observe and learn. The teacher is almost entirely focused on that one student, giving any necessary correction and feedback. If one needs further assistance, that person is sent to the back of the room to work with another teacher, practicing even further as the class continues. There is little to no judgment or losing face. It is just part of the process. It is an understood method of getting better, achieving the goals.

Considering such a context, it does not seem very self-directed. In fact, it is among the more teacher-directed learning context that you will see. Yet, when we look closer, it is incredibly personalized and each person is challenged to develop a growing capacity for self-correction. In fact, when I see my son practicing at home, he is making constant corrections to himself, not at the end but with each precise movement. It was only a matter of months after starting Taekwondo that he was able to think and speak with more precision about his movements than in any other domain in his life. His sense of agency is growing. His understanding of deliberate practice has drastically improved. His attention span has extended. In other words, in this very teacher-directed context, he is building critical skills for self-direction.

Yet, this is all something that he chose. He is not forced to return to practice. He chooses to do so. He owns this. In doing so, he is achieving a set of personal goals. This is what happens with all of us as we grow as self-directed learners. We set personal goals, explore our options for learning (including more structured and teacher-centered contexts), weigh the benefits and limitations of these options, and choose that which we think will help us best reach our goals given other limitations and parameters (time, money, other resources, etc.).

We can all learn from others, sometimes peers, other times people who have traveled much further down a specific pathway. This is just as true for the self-directed learner. In fact, the empowered self-directed learner is likely to see that the options are far more extensive than we might think. They are certainly far beyond the menu of options within a given school or context, and they continue throughout our lives. As such, self-directed learners are open to a myriad of teachers, coaches, mentors and guides in their pursuit of new learning and experiences.

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Let’s Start Building Airplanes with Our Students

I’m convinced. It is time to start building airplanes with our students. I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Hong Kong where I gave a keynote at the 21st Century Learning Conference, followed by a short stop in Hanoi, Vietnam. There I led an evening workshop for educators at three international schools. The topic for my keynote and workshop was self-directed learning, especially exploring the why and how of creating opportunities for students to develop the competence and confidence to be self-directed learners. While I hope that I shared something of value, I certainly came away with a story that challenged me to take my thinking and work about self-directed learning to the next level.

Technically, it wasn’t even a story about self-directed learning. As best as I could tell, it was more of a teacher-guided project-based learning experience, but the scope of the project was incredible. I was about halfway through my workshop on designing self-directed learning projects when a teacher in the back of the room mentioned something about building an airplane with his students. To tell the truth, I don’t think it stuck at the time. It was only during a short break when I spoke with this teacher, he pulled out his phone, and showed me a picture of him, his students, and the actual airplane that they built together over a 12-18 month period.

This was a first. I’ve seen some incredible projects in schools throughout the United States, but this is the first time that I’ve ever heard of a teacher building an airline with his students and then flying it. Can you imagine the impact of such an experience upon the students who worked with the teacher on this project? How many young people can say that they accomplished as monumental of a task as to building an airplane at school? This certainly puts all of those baking soda volcano science projects into perspective.

What excites me about this story is that it is the sort learning experience that changes the lives of learners. This is the kind of accomplishment that has the potential to nurture incredible confidence and a sense of agency. As we accomplish increasingly uncommon and larger tasks, we tend to develop the capacity and confidence to take on even larger projects.

Here are five reasons why I would love to see more “build an airplane” projects in schools.

Small Pieces & a Big Result

In the case of this teacher and his students, they used a kit to build the airplane. As such, you could just think of this as a massive puzzle, but building something from individual pieces is a great way to discover how individual pieces come together to make something massive. With a little guidance, there are some rich lessons for learners in such an experience. Great accomplishments, projects, and products start with a single step…a single piece.

Expanded Sense of Possibility

These stretch experiences broaden our sense of what is possible. How many times do we miss out on opportunities because we do not think they are in the realm of possibility for us? Yet, when young people are involved in accomplishing these seemingly impossible projects, they are set up to do the same thing throughout their lives.

Extended Projects

Many great accomplishments in life take more than a few days or weeks, yet most of what students work on in schools is broken into small chunks. Great accomplishments involve persisting with a project over months or years, so why not give students some experience with that in school?


This was a team project. No single student built the airplane, but together, with the help of their guide, they accomplished this task. Now that is the type of cooperative learning that aligns well with the nature of great cooperation and collaboration in the world beyond school.

Build It and Try It

There was no certainty that they would be successful with this project, and that is the nature of projects in the real world. Nonetheless, they set out to build it, tested it, likely had to make adjustments and gain new knowledge to troubleshoot problems, and they persisted until they got their desired outcome. This strategic experimentation is a valuable life lesson.

This story leads me to wonder what would happen if students had the chance to do the equivalent of building airplanes every year or two in school. What would that do for their confidence, capcity for taking on large tasks later in life, working through complex problems and projects, working with a team to carry out something grand and inspiring, and persisting with a project over an extended period? Can you imagine a student experiencing the completion of 8-10 such projects over the course of her K-12 schooling?

If you can’t tell, I’m sold in the idea. Maybe it is time for us to start building airplanes with our students.

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A Self-Directed Learning Reality Check

I’m an advocate for self-directed learning. There is no question about that. I write about it often, and affirm its benefits so much that it has led to valid critiques that I seem to bite the formal education hand that feeds me. This does not mean, however, that I disregard the limitations of self-directed learning, and there are genuine potential limitations. Here are four of the more common ones.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 1 – Opportunity

Formal credentials and degrees still open doors for people. This is true in some fields more than others. There are plenty of fields and positions where alternative pathways to demonstrating excellence are adequate for getting an interview and the job. Yet, I’ve witnessed dozens of situations where otherwise qualified people did not get an interview, an invitation to apply, or the job because they lacked the minimum degree qualifications on the job posting. Some people are willing to make exceptions but there are plenty of companies where people are just working at a pace and with such a volume that they rarely take the time to look for alternative evidence. Some companies only accept applicants with degrees from specific institutions. Fair or not, this is a reality. The degree is shorthand to some for being at least potentially qualified. It is an easy way for an initial screening. As such, there are ample situations today where not having the degree decreases your chances or sometimes restricts you from having any chance at a given job or a promotion.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 2 – Gaps

Sometimes the self-directed learning pathway leaves gaping holes in one’s education or training in a given area. A well-designed, systematic program is intended to fill most of those gaps. We can debate how well some programs do this, but certain jobs or professions call for more precision, and gaps are highly problematic. A surgeon needs to have a core set of skills and we probably don’t want surgeons who have too many gaps in those core skills. This is true in other less life-or-death jobs and fields of study as well.

Of course, self-directed learners can embrace formal study and carefully constructed learning pathways that reduce gaps in learning, but not always. This is sometimes a limitation of the self-directed learning approach. Some people can learn to play an instrument independent of a teacher, but most benefit from an expert guide.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 3 – The Network

What I call “degree drive” is a learning pathway that is often about more than just taking a series of courses, getting adequate grades, meeting graduation requirements and getting a fancy piece of paper at the end of the journey. Some, but not all, college experiences are also rich opportunities for building a network that can serve you well throughout your life. Intentional self-directed learners can certainly build powerful networks as well, but I can’t disregard the impact of being an alum from well-respected schools that offer not only a solid education but a network that can help throughout one’s life and career. Some argue that this is the true bonus of graduating from many top ranked colleges and Universities. Yes, they provide a solid educational experience, but they also give you an incredible, world-class professional network.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 4 – Followership

I’m quick to talk and write about developing leadership skills, but I can’t disregard the importance of learning to be a world-class follower too. Not all of us will be our own boss throughout life. Most people will hold jobs and positions where they report to others. Even when you are a CEO, you might report to a board. As such, it is important to learn to follow with excellence.

I’m not sure that being a student in school is the absolute best training ground for followership. In fact, I’m certain that it isn’t. Yet, it can be a place to learn some of the associated skills of great followers, and this can be an important journey toward great leadership. There is no question that you can learn important skills of followership through a more self-directed learning experience, but I want to at least recognize that some of the scripted or directed aspects of a schooling experience (even in more self-directed schools) can be opportunities to learn these skills.

There are many benefits to self-directed learning and I write about them often. I even go so far as to argue that nurturing self-directed learners is important for society. At the same time, for a balanced consideration, I want recognize that there can be limitations to this path, and that the degree or schooling pathway has some affordances as well.

Three Questions to Thrive as a Self-Directed Learner

Amid a fun and rewarding conversation with a couple of colleagues recently, I found myself articulating the challenges of being a self-directed learner in the contemporary world. What does it take to thrive as a self-directed learner? There are certainly many benefits to being one, but self-directed and free range learning is not without difficulties. In a world that is often drawn to academic abstractions in the form of degrees and certifications, it is not always easy to thrive as one who chooses alternative pathways to learning.

With that said, there are three key questions for such current or aspiring self-directed learners. Attending to these can greatly improve the joy and quality of the self-directed learning journey.

What do you know? What don’t you know?

Self-awareness is important for everyone, but especially for those who venture further into self-directed learning and alternate learning pathways. Champions of SDL in their own lives represent a full range of self-awareness levels. Some are very competent but not very confident in their abilities. Others are not very competent but they have immense confidence. They have an inaccurate few of their current level of expertise. There are also those with low confidence and competence. Then, of course, there are those who are highly confident and competent, a potent combination.

Regardless, it is important for the self-directed learner to have an accurate and continually updated picture of what they actually do and do not know. We need mirrors to help us see ourselves as we really are. Only then are we able to make adjustments and progress.

When a self-directed learner lacks this self-awareness, it can be disappointing and frustration. They find themselves troubled by a world that doesn’t seem to get them. If one is not careful, it can turn into a cycle of bitterness and even depression. Know thyself.

How do you achieve goals to learn something new?

Once you have a clear and accurate picture of your abilities, it is time to set goals and establish plans and pathways to achieve those learning goals. I can’t overstate how powerful of a skill set this is for people. It allows them to no longer be limited by a ready mix of formal educational offerings to achieve learning goals, but truly turns the world into one’s classroom. Of course, self-directed learners may opt to learn through formal courses and programs, but they are not limited to or restricted by those pathways.

How do you show what you know and can do? How do you tell your story with narratives and numbers?

This last one has occupied more of my attention lately. If you are going to venture into the world of self-directed learning, you must be ready to represent yourself and communicate your learning to the world around you. To learn something through self-direction can be incredibly freeing and rewarding, but what about when you need to seek a job or you are trying to communicate your accomplishments and abilities to others? For the self-directed learner, it is often not as easy as showing your diploma or formal credential. People like myself can complain about such abstractions as inaccurate and inadequate means of communicating expertise, but much of the world remains content with such signifiers of learners. As such, as a self-directed learner, you must find ways to tell the story of what you know and can do. You must be able to do it with narratives and numbers, succinctly and substantively, and in varied mediums depending upon the target audience.

Without this, you can find yourself frustrated and with limited opportunities. You might feel like people don’t get you, that they overlook you. You might even get bitter because far less qualified people seem to get the jobs instead of you, just because those people have the formal piece of paper. Yet, part of choosing the path of the self-directed learner is facing this reality and investing in the skill to effectively represent yourself in such a world. Sometimes it involves knowing when to take the common pathway and earn the credential. Other times you recognize that an alternate pathway will work as well or better to achieve your goals. Those who learn to do this well find few doors closed. We can even find instances of people finding their way in academic or University jobs with few or no degrees even when there is limited precedent for such a thing. Consider people like Joi Ito.

Being a self-directed learner has immense benefits. Yet, it takes time and effort to learn how to thrive as a self-directed learner in many contexts. Learning to invest in the skills associated with these three questions can give you a much greater chance to thrive.

Self-Directed Learning Definitions

It occurred to me recently that, while I have been writing and talking about self-directed learning for years, this is not a familiar term to many in education. Or, even if people have a general sense of the term, they are not necessarily informed about the broader conversation and understanding of the term. As such, I would be wise to take a couple steps back and offer a couple self-directed learning definitions. At first glance, self-directed learning could be interpreted as solitary learning, independent learning, teacher-less learning, and a dozen other things. It can include any of those elements and more, but it is also a concept that has relevance whether you are exploring learning outside of formal learning organizations, learning in traditional schools, as well as the myriad of learning communities in various alternative schools.

To help dispel myths and generate more productive conversation about the value of self-directed learning, this article is focused on defining our terms, or at least getting familiar with two solid self-directed learning definitions. Both are by thought leaders in this area. The first is by Malcolm Knowles, is over 40 years old, and originally has adult learners in mind. The second has a history as well, but it is more current and has a broader set of learners in mind.

“Broadly, as a process in which individuals take the initiative with or without the help of other[s], to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes.” – Malcolm Knowles, 1975

Knowles popularized a common definition for self-directed learning, and his definition is still the most quoted one in the academic literature. He used it to focus on his primary area of interest, adult learning. Some used his writing and ideas for younger learners, but that was not the target audience. For decades (and even today), some argued that this concept of self-directed learning is better suited for the adult learner, that younger learners are neither capable nor developmentally ready for doing what Knowles describes in this definition.

In more recent conversations about self-directed learning, some argue that this is an “approach” to teaching that is better suited for gifted and talented learners. This is why starting with Knowles is important because his definition and application was certainly not focused upon some small, élite group of minds. It was a concept applied to a broad set of adult learners ranging from formal higher education to continuing education, informal learning, and continuing education and community education.

If we look at Knowles’ definition as representing a spectrum, we can see that an environment need not be entirely self-directed or absent of self-direction. It is possible for learners and teachers to partner on identifying learning needs, setting goals, planning the learning experiences and monitoring progress toward learning. In one circumstance,  the teacher might set the goals and plan out each detail of the learning activities and the assessments.  In another, the learners might have some input on one of those elements. In yet another context or at the “right time”, the learner might be a true partner with the teacher and classmates in designing one or more of those elements. And finally, at a time and context of great learner independence, the learner might be in full or nearly full control, using the teacher simply as a guide or coach on occasion. As such, we can benefit from thinking about degrees of self-directed learning and not just labeling something as self-directed or not.

Advocates of self-directed learning argue that at least creating a progression toward this type of learner independence is important. It represents a collection of skills that are valuable, sometimes critical, for independence and a high degree of agency in the rest of life. Most people agree with this idea. Where we disagree is in considering the best pathway(s) to helping learners become independent and more self-directed.

A common myth related to defining self-directed learning is that it is somehow inherently anti-teacher. In a sense, that is correct on one far side of the self-directed learning spectrum. Yet, for many, even most, that is not how it works. In a chapter in The Sourcebook of Self-Directed Learning (edited by Rothwell and Sensenig), Hiemstra explains it this way when writing about self-directed learning in training environments. “SDL calls for trainers to adopt new roles. SDL does not mean that trainers are superfluous and that trainees should learn everything in a sink-or-swim manner. Instead, in SDL, trainers enact such important roles as: facilitator, enabling agent, and resource agents.

Adding a stronger editorial comment to this, my greatest concern is not when formal education is heavily teacher-centered, but when there is no intentional planning or vision for helping learners progress toward independence. This is a short-sighted and short-term approach to education that is only concerned with what students “need to learn” about a given content area and not how to equip learners to grow as self-regulated, self-motivated lifelong learners. Learning how to learn, the joy of learning, and developing effective habits as a learner are important enough to call for a national conversation.

This is important whether we are teaching elementary school children or teaching doctoral students. As an example, consider the difference in quality between doctoral programs. Some programs only accept highly self-directed learners. Others accept capable but dependent learners, but don’t help them progress toward the independence needed to thrive on a thesis or dissertation (having a high non-completion rate). Still others have changed doctoral programs to make them more step-by-step, helping people finish well but never really learning how to be a self-regulated and independent researcher and scholar.  They graduate with a terminal degree and are not much more self-directed than when they started.

Another helpful definition for self-directed learning comes from Maurice Gibbons.

“Self-directed learning is any increase in knowledge, skill, accomplishment or personal development that an individual selects and brings about by his or her own efforts, using any method, in any circumstances, at any time.” – Maurice Gibbons

This is a less tactical definition than what we see in Knowles definition but they certainly have similarities. What they have in common is that self-directed learning is about the learner having competence and confidence to not just be a passive recipient of learning, but to be an active agent, even the director of one’s own learning. What I appreciate about Gibbons’ definition is that it contrasts self-directed learning with other forms of learning by focusing upon one key component. It is by the learner’s “own efforts.” At the same time, the “any circumstances, at any time” part of the definition allows us to recognize that self-directed learning is not limited to one context or setting, one type of school or program. The self-directed learner can make use of any method or circumstance, including traditional teacher-directed learning environments. What makes it self-directed is that the learner “selects and brings about, “the increase in knowledge, accomplishment or personal development.”

I’ve never spoken directly with Gibbons about this, but his definition itself has the breadth to help us see self-directed learning as starting with agency. The learner is the agent, not just a recipient. In mandatory K-12 public school settings, this might be difficult to see. Yet, even in such mandatory settings, the enlightened learner can still recognize that she has final say on what, if, how, and why she learns. She might choose to submit to the instructions and guidance of a teacher. She might not. She might also blend some of her own goals and strategies with that of the teacher. Some learners do not perceive this as a choice. This might seem like splitting hairs, but learner choice is always present in learning environments (unless that environment is using manipulation or brain-washing strategies).

Both of these definitions give us a helping starting point for thinking and talking about self-directed learning. As with most terms in education, there is not uniform agreement or universal usage of a single definition. Yet, these two provide enough clarity for us to have fruitful conversations and to consider how we might nurture or at least leave room for the growth and development of self-direction.

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5 Myths About Being an Autodidact

Have you ever heard people refer to themselves or others as autodidacts? Today I hear quite a few people describe themselves this way as if it were a largely genetic trait like having blue eyes or being a certain height. “Some people are autodidacts,” they explain. “Others are genetically predisposed to depend upon others for their learning throughout life,” they seem to suggest. Others use the term “autodidact” as interchangeable with genius. Still other people reserve the word for the few and rare people throughout history like Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet, perhaps there is value in keeping our minds open to a broader understanding of what it means to be an autodidact, recognizing the potential in every learner and helping people bring out their inner auto-didacticism. To do that, let’s take a moment to dispel five common myths.

All autodidacts are geniuses.

There are certainly some fascinating and inspiring examples of people with incredibly high IQs who also happen to be autodidacts, but the term is certainly not limited to those who score off the charts in traditional IQ tests. An autodidact is, in the basic sense of the word, a self-taught person. The term comes from two Greek roots that mean self and teaching. It has nothing to do with your raw or natural cognitive abilities. It does have to do with embracing an approach where you own and pursue your learning.

Either you are born an autodidact or you are not.

Some people seem to have higher natural propensities for curiosity and other traits closely associated with the personal pursuit of learning, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that autodidacticism in the broader sense is simply the result of a collection of genes. We can learn to grow along the spectrum toward autodidacticism. Becoming an autodidact is a about cultivating a commitment, habits, and mindsets more than living out some genetically pre-determined path for your life.

Autodidacts must always be anomalies.

Traditional education systems do not largely celebrate, nurture or create space for autodidacts in the making. In fact, this approach to learning may well be frowned upon in some formal contexts. This perspective has become so prominent that some treat the autodidact as an aberration…an oddity. It just isn’t normal. That is only because the system doesn’t know what to do with it. When we look at spaces created to nurture self-education, we see that it is far from an anomaly. It can even be celebrated as the standard way of learning. In other words, what we consider normal or an oddity is contextual. Go to more self-directed learning communities and dependent learning is the oddity.

Autodidacts don’t go to school.

Most do go to school. Some flourish in school. Some don’t. However, there are plenty who embrace a self-taught approach to life while also taking advantage of a formal schooling experience. In some ways, that is represented in what I write about self-blended learning. The connected and digital worlds are helping even more people begin to discover the benefits, what this looks like and how it is possible for them.

In addition, there are many instances where a person gets a more traditional education in many areas but cultivates a more autodidactic approach to learning in other areas of one’s life, perhaps skills and knowledge not focused upon in formal education. Consider the budding hacker who never takes coding classes, the history major who becomes a gifted sales executive or stock broker, the high school student who teaches herself to sing and play a half-dozen instruments, or the young woman whose fascination with nature leads her to become a self-taught outdoors woman and naturalist.

In addition, it is the autodidact who pushes knowledge forward in the world, venturing into fields that don’t have formal areas of study in academia or elsewhere. They are the groundbreakers. They might participate in formal education, but sometimes they are launched into the life of an autodidact because their curiosity does not align with the formal curriculum.

Autodidacticism is a rarity.

Much of the innovation in our world depends upon a spirit of autodidacticism. Our world is full of people who are self-taught in one or more domains of their lives. While we often reserve the world for someone who seems to be self-taught across many domains of learning, the truth is that all of us are autodidacts in one or more areas, even if it is in simple skills that we use around our homes. Any of us can expand that approach to new domains, using it to develop greater skill and ability in the arts, academic subjects, solving complex problems in the world, personal finance, starting a business, personal health and fitness, building stronger and healthier relationships with other people, or maybe pursuing a social innovation in the world.

The time is ripe for an autodidact revolution, and those who embrace it will find their lives enhanced and their opportunities expanded.

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Excessive Teaching Stifles the Love of Learning

Come to the edge,” he said.
They said, “We are afraid.”
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They came.
He pushed them. – Guillaume Appollinaire

I came across a picture recently where a parent or teacher was holding up a sign that said, “Excessive Testing Stifles the Love of Learning.” I agree. You could take an otherwise engaging activity (whether it be in the classroom, on the basketball court, in the wilderness, or even on the playground), and turn it into monotony by filling it with testing. That is just poor instructional design. Feedback and tracking progress are good, even important in many contexts, but testing isn’t the only way to do that. Just throwing tests into otherwise engaging learning environments does little to improve the learning environment. In fact, it can sometimes do the opposite. Yet, testing is not the focus of this article. As much as I agree that excessive testing stifles the love of learning, excessive teaching also stifles the love of learning. Excessive learning, on the other hand, is what I want to see.

What do I mean by excessive teaching? I’m referring to teaching that doesn’t leave room for students to learn how to self-direct and self-regulate. I’m talking about obsessive talking and explaining, filling in all the blanks, not leaving room for messy learning, and running the classroom like one is trying to control a team of bridled horses. As a way of explaining what I mean, I’ve included a series of six quotes followed by a brief commentary.

“Schooling, instead of encouraging the asking of questions, too often discourages it.” Madeleine L’Engle

Excessive teaching is about asking questions and often answering them too. What we want is a learning spaces where teachers ask questions, but students ask even more. And students are the ones exploring and grappling to find answers that often lead to more questions.

“None of the world’s problems will have a solution until the world’s individuals become thoroughly self-educated.” – Buckminster Fuller

Self-education and human agency go hand in hand. If we want to nurture a growing sense of agency in people, then that means less explicit teaching and more nurturing people on how to own and manage their learning.

“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” ~ Jean Piaget

Discovery is a precious gift. Excessive teaching robs learners of that gift. Or, it is at least a bit like running up to someone and unwrapping their birthday presents for them. Where is the fun and excitement in that…at least for the person with the birthday? We want to remove the equivalent in our classes. Teachers, please stop opening all the presents. Give the learners a chance at the fun and excitement.

“I think schools generally do an effective and terribly damaging job of teaching children to be infantile, dependent, intellectually dishonest, passive and disrespectful to their own developmental capacities.” ~ Seymour Papert

“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” ~ Alfie Kohn

We want authentic, real-world (or at least simulated) activities where the learner is making decisions, experiencing and reacting. This is where some of the best learning happens.

” I learned most, not from those who taught me but from those who talked with me.” –  St. Augustine

Augustine’s quote represents the distinction between learning from and learning with. One is about control. The other is about community. If we can nurture robust and vibrant learning communities, then I think we can address many serious concerns about modern education. The answer is not more or excessive teaching. It is creating spaces for excessive learning.

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Autonomous Learning: A Life-Changing Education Moonshot

My favorite part of life in a connected world is connecting with mission-minded, high-impact people around the globe. As such, I am excited to tell you about a recent connection and an education moonshot in autonomous learning. It is one that could change the lives of countless children in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the world. This is a moonshot worth sharing and supporting.

What is an education moonshot?

An education moonshot is a bold and grand vision for a desired future condition in the education space. It starts with the equivalent of JFK’s speech to the joint congress in 1961, when he challenged a nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. It was an inspiring speech, one that JFK repeated countless times over the upcoming year, but it took more than the words of an influential leader to make it a reality.

After speaking those words, there was a national rally around the challenge. The government allocated resources, and some of the best minds devoted years to making this happen. Along the way, some people even lost their lives amid the preparations and experimentation. In 1969, this vision became a reality, “a giant leap for mankind.” This is where we get the idea of a moonshot, and an education moonshot is nothing more or less than an equally compelling vision that is focused upon a social innovation in the education sector, one that represents a giant leap for humanity.

Meet Dev4X

With that in mind, allow me to introduce you toDev4X. The term “moonshot” is gaining use and attention in education, but I contend that is best reserved for the type of bold initiatives represented by Dev4X. We are not just talking about sustaining or incremental innovations, improving or refining past models and efforts. An education moonshot is a game-changer. It is doing something that has never been accomplished before. It is the type of vision that I learned about recently when I had the joy of talking with Bodo Hoenen, a social innovator and founder of Dev4X. This is an education startup largely powered by talented and committed volunteers around the world, all focused on, “Empowering all children, including the most underserved, to improve their lives and their future through learning.”

Why is this a moonshot in autonomous learning?

This isn’t just about trying to create more schools in different parts of the world. It is larger and more disruptive than that. Bodo wants to create a future where, “every child can learn anything they need, even if they don’t have access to formal schooling.” This calls for the design of hardware, a software platform, and access to learning resources (content) that lend themselves toward peer-to-peer learning, self-directed learning (or autonomous learning), and what Sugata Mitra coined as Self-organized Learning Environments.

Think of it as a social innovation that blends ideas inspired by game-based learning, the $100 laptop project (now known as the One Laptop Per Child Project) started a decade ago, self-organized learning environments, and lessons learned from Khan Academy. This is a project focused on a massive problem in education, the reality that countless children around the world have no access to teachers, quality schools, or educational opportunities. Now imagine inexpensive hardware and learning platforms that change that by allowing children to learn independently and through peer-to-peer networks.

What will young people learn from this platform? With an initial focus on literacy and numeracy, the Dev4X team is also planning to work with locals to design culturally sensitive content that focuses upon the knowledge most important to thrive and survive in a given part of the world. This is starting with projects designed for children in Liberia, rural Kenya, and serving the needs of girls in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Who will this help?

After decades of unrest in Liberia, most schools are empty shells with no resources. Books were burned and many trained teachers left the country. Even as there are efforts to rebuild an educational system, young people return to schools that are little more then empty buildings.

In parts of rural Kenya, schooling options are limited, but there is also no electricity grid or widespread access to the Internet. This means we need to build a system that doesn’t depend upon connections to the outside world, but instead builds a mesh network among all the people using the devices in given area, one that also empowers self-organized peer-to-peer learning across devices. It also needs be available in Swahili.

In places like Pakistan and Afghanistan there are efforts to increase access to education, but young girls remain largely disconnected from those opportunities. Their ability to get an education provides important opportunities for their future, but that is not a reality for many. If they are not able to attend school, then the Dev4X effort will bring learning opportunities to them.

Teachers are valuable, but as I’ve written many times before, the most critical elements in a learning experience are learners and experiences. As such, the Dev4X moonshot is focused on those two elements, inspired by an immediate need in the world. The education of one child is too important to wait on government resources and massive school reform projects. This is the start of an educational “design” experiment (informed by many experiments before it) that will show us a new way of thinking about increasing access and opportunity in a connected world.

How can I help?

As I mentioned before, Dev4X is a volunteer-powered effort, so your help is needed.

  • First, you can share this article and other information about the project (Watch and Share Bodo’s TED Talk here). In the sprit of TED, this is definitely an idea worth spreading.
  • In my conversation with Bodo, he also explained that they are still in need of more software developers, especially those experienced with Java and the Android platform.
  • Finally, look for upcoming information about a crowd-funding campaign where all of us can provide financial support to this inspirational moonshot.
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Self-Directed Learning is a Key to Access & Opportunity

A University education can be rich and rewarding experience. It is not, however, a magical solution to access & opportunity. The more that I learn about promising possibilities in formal K-12 and higher education, the more I become convinced that an emphasis on curiosity, a love of learning, agency, and capacity for self-direction are among some of the best investments of our time and resources in education reform. The is because even the most elite lecture halls are not the solution to issues of educational access and opportunity. I offer an early personal college experience as a way of illustrating this point.

My first year in college I had a MWF 7:30 AM American civilization class. The class met in a room a few hundred feet from my dorm. Since the entire University, with the exception of one building, was connected by hallways, I didn’t have to go outside to get to class. I would set my alarm for 7:25 AM, put on sandals and and wander into class a minute or two early.

Given the day and time, this class was where I experienced my first college exam. The entire class consisted of one paper, a midterm exam, and a final exam; so I had not received any feedback from the instructor before this first test. I’d never even had a one-on-one conversation with him. I completed about half of the assigned readings, made it to class every session (albeit half asleep), took notes as best as I knew how at the time, and that was about it. The content intrigued me, but not as much as the important challenge of building new friendships and experiencing college community from 8:00 PM to 2:00 AM almost every night/morning. I arrived on the morning of my first college test having reviewed my notes for about an hour, assuming that was adequate for the task. He handed out something that he called a Blue Book, a 5×7 empty collection of sixteen lined pages of paper. He wrote a few essay questions on the board and told us to begin.

I didn’t really know what to do. One of the questions on the board did not trigger any memories from the readings, lectures or notes. A second related to a topic that piqued my interest in an earlier lecture but my knowledge of the details was limited. The third was familiar from high school American history class where I’d written a research paper on the subject. I started with the familiar question and easily scribbled (if you ever saw my handwriting, you would commend me for such a precise word choice) four or five pages of an answer. I struggled through the essay for the second question, but there was only so much that I could do. It wasn’t like I could work harder at recalling the necessary insights because they didn’t exist in my brain. I had an interested but shallow knowledge base on the subject. Then there was the third question. I don’t know what I wrote, but it was not good. As class came to an end, I set my Blue Book on the table in the front of class and headed to a late morning breakfast.

Skip to 7:30 AM on Friday morning. I showed up for class, listened to the lecture, took notes, then he returned the graded exams during the last five minutes of class. I opened my book and found a “B-” marked at the top. I scanned the pages and counted a total of twenty words of comments, most of which consisted of phrases like “more detail” or “inaccurate.”

Two months later, I was better prepared for the final exam. I even showed up earlier than usual. As I waited for the exam to start, I mumbled a few words to the person next to me, explaining how I’d studied but had no idea if I was ready for this test, alluding to the belief that the professor was largely to blame. I didn’t expect such a strong reaction from the classmate, a senior who must have switched majors along the way or somehow missed this introductory class earlier in his college career. He was a football player and I’d never talked to him before. I had seen him in a completely different state on Friday nights after enjoying the party scene off campus, but he seemed surprisingly serious at the moment. He was not pleased with my critique of the professor, leaned toward me, and retorted with three simple questions. Did you read? Did you study? How long did you study? There was no time for me to answer before the professor arrived and the exam started.

This classmates’s reply represented a belief about what it takes to be successful in college. It has less to do with the professor and almost everything to do with the student. Students who read, think, study, and work hard within the parameters set by the instructor earn the best grades. The professor lectures, creates tests and assignments, and grades the quality of your work.

Over the entire semester, I never had a  one-on-one conversation with the professor.  Thinking back, this might have set the groundwork for my growing interest in self-directed learning in a connected world. In some ways, it did not set the bar very high. If I can find quality content and a person or group of people to give me rich and substantive feedback on my progress, I would have met or exceeded what I experienced in this first year American civilization class.

The first year of college consisted of the largest class sizes with the least amount of personal feedback and interaction with the professor. Later years involved ample small seminars, rich and rewarding one-on-one conversations with professors, robust peer discussion in and out of class, and even a good measure of formative feedback on my work. Not every class was like that, but many were.

It wasn’t just the class structure that changed. It was me. As I progressed through college, I gained the confidence to seek out mentors. I read and studied for personal interest, not just for a class assignment. I engaged in volunteer work at a large museums to explore my passions and interests in anthropology. I sought out peers with shared interests, and our late-night conversations far exceeded the depth that we reached in formal class settings. In other words, my education took off when I relied less on the instructor and more on my growing capacities as person with curiosity and a love of learning.

While there is much that learning organizations can do to create higher quality learning experiences, the single most important part of an education that promotes access & opportunity is student ownership. If K-12 and higher education institutions are going to truly equip people to thrive as learners and throughout life, it will come from nurturing people who are not dependent upon a formal teacher-student construct. People with ownership who can self-regulate and self-direct have a huge advantage in the connected world. Where traditional literacy was once a key to the treasures of learning and opportunity, self-direction is that key in the emergent future. Resources that meet or far exceed what I experienced in a first year American civilization lecture are freely available to those who can find and take advantage of them. Empowering people to take advantage of such resources and communities is one of our best changes at making progress toward access, opportunity, even workforce development.