RE – “Urban Legend” that Self-Directed Learning is Effective

Yikes, I just caught up to a paper published last year in Educational Psychologist, “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education” (link here). In this paper the authors focus on three themes they mark out as “urban legends”: i, that there exists a new generation of “digital natives”, ii, that learners have specific learning styles, and iii, that self-directed learning leads to valid  learning outcomes.

By their nature urban legends are found to be laughable yet malevolent whoppers when investigated. Like the one about the “wild child” found living with coyotes just beyond your city limits, wherever you live. That’s an urban legend that isn’t true and never was but you fell for it and you sure are gullible.

In this case the authors assert that educators are gullible to even remotely believe there’s such a thing as “digital native”, a preferred learning style, or that self-directed learning is effective.

These are all based on pseudoscience, they say, and rather than support any such notions, we need to stifle them. And then we need to go back to the good old days of textbook-test-and-curriculum-driven schooling.

What piffle. These authors cherry-pick evidence from start to finish in this paper in support of their appointed themes and ignore any evidence to the contrary. Like any data or insights from millions of homeschoolers/homelearners and the legions of auto-didacts who, throughout history, have learned their way to thrive and prosper despite the constraints of conventional schooling and society. Think Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein, or consider the Digital Revolution that began in the 1990s and transformed our world. This was sparked in the main by drop-outs and walk-outs who hunkered down in their basements, garages and clubs, learning alone and socially, mentoring each other, and “failing” again and again until they got it right. This is an example of real-world learning with real issues, authentic experts and complexity that no classroom could ever match. And as for their assertion that there is no such thing as a digital native or preferred learning mode, well, that’s sure not what Dr. Temple Grandin has to say in her numerous books and papers about kids on the autism spectrum who are learning and thriving. And it’s not what I see as an educator or parent, either.

  Edison    JKRowling

Thomas Edison and JK Rowling  are just a few of history’s most successful auto-didacts. For a longer list, see here.

As a career educator (25+ years) who has started two schools based in self-directed learning and helped nurture and support thousands of learners in their learning interests I see a spectrum of ‘self-directedness in all learners we have served ranging from strong to weak. Most learners excel at self-directing their learning with the help of perceptive and adept educators who, like good coaches, observe learning first before proffering advice or questioning to further guide the learner.

The truth is that in most conventional schooling there is neither support nor motivation from administrators or educators for emphasizing self-directed learning, largely because the (default) inference is that learners can get by just fine without the curriculum and the teacher. That self-directed learning is ignored, wilfully or otherwise in conventional schooling is most unfortunate because i, there is a deep need to nurture self-directedness, leading to heightened self-responsibility, in our children and youth, and 2. there is a vital role for educators to play in nurturing self-directed learning, though it looks and feels different than conventional schooling.

Supporting this will be helped along by recognizing that we are ALL auto-didacts to some degree, that we all honed expertise in something significant that we’d mark out as uniquely non-linear and non-conventional. (i.e. not in a classroom aided by curriculum guides, instruction and standardized testing). And that’s no urban legend.

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