Autodidacticism: The Argument for Self-Learning

During summer school, I facilitate credit recovery.  I’m not for or against credit recovery; as I see it, it exists and someone has to do it.  I am a proponent of autodidacticism, and credit recovery provides one of the few experiences in our school in which I witness students being resourceful and taking their learning into their own hands.  The Wright brothers, Frank Lloyd Wright, Michael Faraday, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, Karl Marx, and a long list of famous writers had little to no formal schooling, especially in their area of expertise.  It doesn’t mean that they weren’t learning; they were just teaching themselves.

I’ve had more than a few conversations with fellow teachers who scoff at the idea that students might be learning something during credit recovery.  “There’s no math teacher in there.  They’re probably lost.”  “There’s no science teacher in there; the students are just clicking buttons.”  This is my favorite: “How can they learn something just by reading?”  Seriously?  Seriously?

Here is what I see during credit recovery:  students generating their own notes, students generating their own graphic organizers, students reinforcing the lesson with additional research, students consulting video and animation resources when they need it, students working problems, students working additional problems from the class set of textbooks in preparation for their mastery tests, and students forming written short answer and essay responses.  When needed, students conference with other students in the hallway and discuss difficult concepts.

When credit recovery fails, it usually has to do with lack of classroom management or setting up courses with little to no rigor.  I’ve had several students say if they had realized how difficult the credit recovery course was, they would have tried harder in class.  The temptation to cheat is real, and my job as the facilitator is to keep them honest.  If I’m not aware of what they’re doing, even the sweetest student will attempt to cheat.  My most important job is to help them help themselves.  When I conference with students, I help them with pacing, goal-setting, notetaking, outlining, finding additional resources, forming written responses, and developing a system that works for them.  I assume a traditional teaching role only when a student’s reading level is so low that it hinders his ability to help himself.  Let’s face it, at that point, we have bigger things to worry about.

Why do I think autodidacticism is important?

On a regular basis throughout my teaching career, I’ve been asked to teach courses in which I had no formal training… courses that weren’t even in the realm of my subject area and that even seem to target my weaknesses.  Through reading, research, discussion, and self-directed experiences, I learned the subject matter well enough to teach these courses.  My students have won awards in these areas and gone on to work in related fields.

With so many online options for humans to learn new material, I think I’m preparing my students for lifelong learning… learning beyond classroom walls and without the direction of a sage on the stage.  When my students want to learn something, I hope that they realize that learning is more than a grade, a test score, or a certificate…  though in credit recovery, they are indeed working for all three.  Such is the reality of our education system.

Personally, my credit recovery experience has affected my traditional teaching.  I have transitioned more to a coach or a facilitator.  My students seem more invested, and I’m more capable of providing a differentiated learning experience.

I’m not sure I’ll ever understand an opposition to self-learning.  Maybe some teachers are deluded with visions of self-grandeur, or more likely, they’re just afraid of becoming obsolete.



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