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On the heels of my recent article on lifelong learning – a response to Pew’s recent study on the topic of “professional” and “personal” learning – Will Richardson prompted me to articulate my thoughts more clearly about schools’ effect on autodidacticism.

One way to think about this, of course, is in terms of whether or not schools encourage students’ agency, autonomy, curiosity. (And more precisely which students are encouraged and allowed to be intellectually inquisitive, and how and why.) But I want to come at it a slightly different way…

I want to think about this in terms of the sociological grammar of Will’s query. To put it another way: what are the effects of an institution on an -ism?

I want to start here because I want to be able to tease out how much of what we identify and in turn praise about autodidacticism is often more (or at least as much) about signaling cultural capital than it is about having a capacity for or even an interest in self-instruction.

What do we mean by “self-directed learning”? “Self-made,” “self-taught” – these are such iconic phrases describing a certain type of American individualism, for a certain type of man. These adjectives work in contrast to “self-radicalized,” a phrase used to describe a certain sort of “self-directed learning” that veers dangerously in the “wrong” direction.

So again, the question: what are the effects of an institution on an -ism?

Is autodidacticism about how you get to know something? Or is it about what you know? It is who you know? Is it how you know? (Or rather how you demonstrate knowing?)

Is autodidacticism an aptitude or an attitude? A behavior? A predilection? A performance?

Is autodidacticism a signal of learnedness?

I don’t write this to suggest that humans are not “natural learners.” But we should unpack what exactly that means, when that word “natural” gets applied. (We should always ask questions when that word "natural" gets applied to social practices.) Learning might be a biological process, sure; but it is also culturally constructed. And it’s culturally constructed within and without and against and inside and outside of institutions – that is, within and without and against and inside and outside of schools.

I find Tressie McMillan Cottom’s framing of the “roaming autodidacts” – the idealized students imagined by education technology – to be particularly useful partially because it highlights the assumptions made about the cultural construction of "good learners." It's an insightful framework too because that modifier “roaming” helps to underscore the ways in which what we perceive as educational self-directed-ness is often intertwined with a certain untethered-ness – the ability to navigate markets, places, spaces with little or limited risk. This, in turn, is a reflection of socioeconomic structures, of course. And it prompts me to ask not only how ed-tech might privilege autodidacticism but how much of autodidacticism is about privilege.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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