Are autodidacts the future of learning?

Autodidacts, the saviors of school?

Autodidacts, the saviors of school?

September 29, 2020

Author: Victoria

Would the farmer need the infrastructure of fence posts if the sheep voluntarily walked through the paddocks of their own accord?

People are sent to school so that they may be filled with the minimum standards of information. Theoretically, they spend hours on tasks that are scientifically sequenced to be digested optimally. Yet despite moving on identically manufactured conveyor belts, being plied with the same clinically approved diet of facts, schools obtain woefully vast results.

How Much Time Is Actually Spent On Task

The problem is that ’theoretically’ all brains on the belt get the same information. Anyone with an imagination knows that the minds eye is often where the body is not. While the brain should be focused on the topic of the day, the neurons instead fire and wire what is interesting to it, and not what’s interesting to it’s educators. Some students will be bored and daydream, yet worse, some will seek to extract entertainment from their peers, becoming irritants the other occupants. The teacher must spend time and energy shepherding each lost ward back to the approved path. If they are unable to, many secondary school features like detentions and remedial classes exist to process the unrepentant students. How many resources are devoted to ushering students from what they want to know onto things they don’t?

Is School Good?

The cost may be great but it is also necessary. Surely if people were left at the mercy of their own curiosities, they’d meander aimlessly through life never knowing anything of substance. Yet the greatest thinkers don’t consider themselves the product of schools, in fact, many of them actively hated their scholastic prisons.

‘one had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not.  This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problem distasteful for an entire year ’ - Einstein

‘Education is the period during which you are being instructed by somebody you do not know, about something you do not want to know’ -Gilbert K Chesterton

‘I loathed every day and regret every moment I spent in a school’ -Woody Allen

‘How I hated schools, and what a life of anxiety I lived there. I counted the hours to the end of every term, when I should return home’ -Winston Churchill

‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education’ -Mark Twain

‘Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality’ -Beatrix Potter

Yet one brief glance at the feeds of Instagram and TikTok are enough to cast the shadow of doubt on the possibility of self directed learning. How can the likes of Billie Elliot connect with the ancient fields of STEM, or the broad ideals set out by the American goals 2000).

American students will leave grades four, eight, and twelve having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter, including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, art, history, and geography; and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well (1)

Everything Is Connected

Then again, it is hard to think of any topic that doesn’t connect with biology, chemistry, physics, math, history and some geography too. As tosowaseed notes in their article ‘raising an autodidact (on purpose)’ when their child developed an intense interest in the Titanic. Naturally, from this sprang a thirst for

‘all kinds of materials on that moment in history, ship building, navigating, social classes, oceans, water safety, you name it. When the urgency to know more, more, more didn’t die, I knew we had a passion on our hands. Over the years, she has built models, watched films, read more books than I can count (including some really dull, really dry, really boring nautical accounts). She can tell you names, dates, temperatures, and details that are beyond the pale’ (2)

To quote Plato:

‘Knowledge that is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind’ -Plato

Said another way, the brain learns best when it wants information for it’s own purposes. It might look to an outward observer like students in the classroom are being maximally efficient, but how many of those brains are actually thinking about the task at hand? Many spend their time halfway between things they’re required to consider and things they actually want to consider.

Agent of Change: The Information Age

Once upon a time, there were good reasons to cluster around the rare sources of information. When books were transcribed by hand and cost as much as a house, literacy was scarce, learning was slow. The few that did learn were vastly outnumbered by those who needed to learn. In the age of information, this has changed. We now have the previously unimaginable ability to copy information just shy of instantly and transmit it at speeds so fast it could travel the circumference of the Earth 5 times in one second (3). We no longer travel to the information, the information best documents and sentences are ranked and delivered to use by search engines.

The Assessment

If the only purpose of the educational institutions were to deliver us information, they’d have been made redundant the instant the search engine was born. Education however, is only schools secondary purpose. It’s primary purpose, at least as far as the productive world is concerned, is assessment. Schools must test and sort students by skill, so employers may feel comfortable that they are getting value for their money.

While the computers ability to transmit and display information has matured, it’s ability to assess a users knowledge is in its infancy. Multiple choice quizzes are abundant, but they only test the simplest of skills. Video games provide some hopeful development in the form of puzzles and simulations, but are unable to probe the more advanced subjects, the subjects employers are most interested in. The computer is a long way off from being able to grade even the simplest of written responses.

So while a society of thirsty autodidacts might be a perfect, if impossible, solution for the learning side of the educational equation, complemented by the arrival of the information age. The assessment side of the equation however, remains a gaping chasm to be filled. When school is a tool to differentiate prospective employees, any new educational measures must provide the same delineation of their products quality.


1: unknown (September 2006). Principles and general objectives of education. World Data on Education. 6th edition.

2: Heather (July 2014). Raising an autodidact (on purpose).

3: Orest (unknown). How Does Data Travel on the Internet?. Networking Guides