For centuries, we have been fascinated by autodidacts, people who teach themselves immense amounts of knowledge and go on to accomplish great things. From the Wright brothers and Benjamin Franklin to Steven Spielberg and Jimi Hendrix, we are naturally drawn to unorthodox success stories outside the confines of education. After all, who hasn’t daydreamed about dropping out of school, founding the next Facebook or Microsoft, and making billions?
Autodidacticism is defined as the act of teaching oneself about a subject in which one has no formal education. This typically involves extensive reading and independent research on a subject. There are many proponents of self study in modern education, and yet, there is disagreement about the role that it should play. Slate published a summary of a report arguing that autodidacticism is rare enough that we should still be prioritizing traditional education. As elearning bridges the gap between guided learning and self study, we’re pretty interested in how it’s changing education and training.
So why is self study so popular?
The image of the self taught genius is appealing because it speaks to the exceptionalist nature that’s present in most Americans. UCLA reported that the majority of college freshmen described themselves as “exceptional” or “above average” in school. The problem is, of course, that 50% of the population is statistically below average. It’s a bias that leads most people to think that they are “better” than standardized education, and that they could be just as successful as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Humans also display a type of bias known as a clustering illusion, where we put too much emphasis on small “patterns” or “clusters” within vast sets of data. Because autodidacts are both impressive and unusual, we focus on their achievements while ignoring the countless successful individuals who do pursue formal education.
Does this mean autodidactism is a myth?
Two Dutch researchers argue that self study is not effective for the majority of people, and that most will do better with guided learning. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a teacher or instructor has to be present 100% of the time. In fact, studies have shown that students perform just as well in online learning settings as they do in a physical classroom. And, in many senses of the word, online education is self study. Whether done through elearning like on OpenSesame, MOOCs such as Udacity, or free courses like Khan Academy, it’s done primarily by oneself, and involves internal motivation to complete assignments and readings. However, it is guided and focused enough for anyone to succeed. After all, even Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Michael Dell had guidance and mentorship.
Whether your employees are autodidacts or not, there’s a learning approach that works for everyone, and sometimes that is a blended approach. It’s important to have an understanding of the different learning styles preferences, and work with employees to find the right approach that sets them up for success.