On self-directed learning as an end and means for education

One of the deepest and most motivating but often unexplored pleasures for many people is the satisfaction that comes from creating meaning.

Meaning is a connection or link tying pieces that would otherwise stand alone, but that through the link come to be perceived as a natural whole.

This glimpse of a whole, where none existed before, is what brings satisfaction. The more natural the whole and the more remotely disjoint the pieces, the more surprising and satisfying the connection once it is achieved.

How natural the whole seems to be is a quality that is hard to characterize. The sense of wholeness may seem to be hollow, contrived, or tenuously composed, and therefore the whole may seem less striking as an instigator of meaning.

Given the motivation most people feel for finding meaning, it makes an excellent focus for learning.

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The primary aim of formal education in the present hyper-wired, knowledge-flooded world ought to be to cultivate a savvy curiosity that is robust enough to propel students into a lifetime of continuous learning, agile information management, and creative adaptation.

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Learning ought to be seen as distinct from data collection. To learn does not mean to accumulate a catalogue of facts represented by a structured list of sentences, such as a textbook.

To know how to recite or manipulate sentential knowledge counts as proficiency, but not as meaningful learning, because the information does not necessarily intertwine with the deeper elements of the learner's own experience.

Education is successful if it cultivates a sharp and sophisticated curiosity.

When information is meaningfully learned, it changes the learner's perspective, not only regarding the subject of the information, but also regarding unrelated aspects of the learner's thinking.

It's remarkable that many people receive an institutional education but are only superficially affected by what they learn through it.

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Meaningfully learning a subject requires that the learner fully engage in the subject in its natural, unfiltered habitat at the earliest possible opportunity.

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Any opportunity to create meaning is an excellent learning experience.

The more challenging the creation of meaning, the greater the satisfaction when the learner succeeds. Failure to succeed is less satisfactory, but on balance the satisfaction gained from making the attempt, taken together with the possibility of actually succeeding, make the risk of trying difficult problems more appealing.

What is meaning creation? How is meaning created? What is meaning, in fact?

Meaning implies completeness, connectedness, emergence. When meaning is found a new figure stands out from its background. The figure unites otherwise disparate elements. Above all, however, the appearance of meaning brings the surprise of novel form.

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The question arises whether information should be presented to learners using the most accessible format possible or whether learners ought to sift through relatively unformatted information, under the premise that the task of organizing the information is one of the most valuable aspects of the learning process. The format itself, and the order of presentation, implicitly organize the content.

The learning medium ought to avoid creating meaning, and instead should allow learners to create meaning for themselves. What exactly constitutes the learning medium then, if no explicit attempt is made to shape the subject matter?

One approach is to deliver the subject as raw material which the learner may sculpt and out of which the learner will create form. The medium then becomes only a space or opportunity for learning. Above all, it is a chunk of raw worldly substance rich enough to contain surprises and to be likely to accidently catapult the learner along unexpected trajectories.

The medium supplies the learner with the rough marble and perhaps a few read-to-hand tools.

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One might remark that we could have expected self-directed education to have already replaced institutionally-directed education long ago, as it is a continuation of the Protestant Reformation, which made individual believers responsible for their own faith. Perhaps the rigorous requirements of industrialization derailed what would otherwise have been a natural development in Europe and the West.

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Here are a few basic principles by which any person of average intelligence and sufficient motivation can learn any subject, no matter how difficult.

# 1  Students should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own development.

One of the primary goals of education must be to teach students how to teach themselves. Students must learn how to map out their own paths through knowledge space, and to develop their own strategies for mastering difficult subjects. Ultimately, a teacher should be a guide, not an authority or motivator.

Education is successful if it cultivates a sharp and sophisticated curiosity.

Learning, in this sense, is not so much about acquiring knowledge as it is about learning how to create meaning in a given subject area.

# 2  The end of the learning process should always also be its means.

For example, even while still beginners, students of a foreign language can begin reading magazines, newspapers, fiction, or whatever interests them in the target language, if the extracts are heavily supported by glosses and explanatory notes.

Wrestling with meaningful, realistic challenges is probably the most effective way to master basic skills because it gives the learner an opportunity to be create using what is being learned.

Knowledge is most valuable when it is used creatively. Some educators have mistakenly believed that fostering creativity is antithetical to achieving a deep mastery of basic skills. In fact, skills are the medium upon which creativity depends. Likewise, skills can never be fully mastered until the learner can create based on those skills.

# 3  Dive into problem-solving at the earliest opportunity.

Students should use lectures and preparatory reading materials only as follow-up to deepen what has already been learned through problem-solving. Without first gaining the hands-on experience that comes through problem-solving, students will either be confused by the lecture or it will give them a false sense of mastery.

The human mind is the most effective of any known adaptive system. Its adaptive powers are based on its extraordinary capacity for identifying and then remembering the elements of the environment that are likely to have a bearing on well-being.

We excel at remembering experience, especially when that experience forms a meaningful whole with the rest of our experience. However, we're relatively poor at retaining purely symbolic content.

We usually remember a person's face remarkably well, perhaps for years after only a brief encounter, but we may struggle to remember a person's name after only a few minutes. Problem-solving moves knowledge from the symbolic to the experiential.

Students learn more from experiencing a broad selection of partial problems than from working a handful of excessively difficult problems. Most topics that are part of challenging subjects have many aspects, which can only be revealed through rich problem sets.

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What about assessment? For any learning model to be practical, it must incorporate a way to measure the breadth and depth of what has been learned. Today's models are obviously becoming more emphatically assessment-driven, as political pressure grows to force-march students and educators toward clear-cut goals.

On the other hand, in a non-institutional educational environment, where learners are given as much responsibility for their own education as they can bear, and where learners are asked to forge meaning from the subject for themselves without relying on textbook editors or other pedagogical resources to pre-digest it, how can the larger society, learners' families, or learners themselves be assured that they are learning as well as expected and that they are learning what they need to learn for practical purposes?

The crux of the difficulty in assessing learners engaged in self-directed education is that self-directed education is by its very principles more oriented around intrinsic learning than is institutionally-directed education, which is more oriented around explicitly measurable results.

In other words, how can intrinsic educational values be assessed extrinsically?

We note that although a self-directed learner might arguably learn more overall than a student who is forced through a curriculum, several factors work against the self-directed student at assessment time.

First, the institutional assessment may prioritize subject matter differently. Areas where the self-directed learner is weaker might be given arbitrarily greater weight on an assessment, often for reasons of inertia not necessarily having to do with the subject matter itself.

Second, and this is probably the most significant factor, institutional assessment is generally standardized, and so follows a handful of carefully defined formats.

Standardized exams are like test-harnesses applied to products during manufacturing. The student is required to perform with mechanical speed and efficiency, with rapid and accurate recall of memorized reference data.

In other words, standardized test-taking is itself an essential skill, and is what is being measured almost as much as the subject content itself. Without years of practice taking standardized tests, the self-directed learner is apt to perform less well on them than an institutionalized student.

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A significant factor in crafting a relevant culture-transfer policy is that the pace of change in the present world requires that the average person endeavor in lifelong advanced education. Yet, only during the early years of adult life does the average person have time or resources to practically dedicate toward advanced education.

For lifelong education to be practical and effective, it must be portable and easily integrated into the lifestyle of a fully employed person who has responsibilities.

The educational institutions have failed quite terribly in meeting this need. They have been unable to cleanly break with patterns and formats going back to the first universities of the late Middle Ages.

As a result of that failure, the economy has lost a great deal of productivity, and many individuals have missed opportunities to reach a fuller potential in their work lives.

Institutions appear too shortsighted and momentum-bound to change or to realize the opportunities lost, both for the institutions themselves and for the public they are meant to serve.

Only recently have institutions begun to take advantage of new media such as the Internet. But these attempts at breaking out of the mold are rather feeble and limited.

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Education and training are two distinct learning modes that are often conflated or interchanged with each other. However, approaching either as if it were the other will degrade both. Education concentrates on building insight and perspective, and training on building proficiency and know-how.

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The role of intuition in learning is often overlooked. On one hand intuition must be acquired in the given subject area, and at the same time, intuition is a central part of the learning process itself. Intuition is what allows the learner to take leaps between what the learner already knows and the material being presented.

This requires the learner to take minute leaps in understanding and perception. The learner must literally create the new knowledge in his or her own mind.

Again, the view that learning is a creative process at the most intimate level differs from the traditional view of education that actually began with the training of priests. The traditional view shows the institution as imprinting the knowledge upon the learner's mind. The learner's main role is to cooperate and obey.

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The manufacturing metaphor also strongly influences institutional education. Standardization and smooth, linear process flow are ideals in industry. Unfortunately those ideals are not compatible with the cultivation of intuition or self-direction.

Linear, well-planned curricula relieve the learner of having to scout out a subject and to choose a strategy for traversing it.

Learning how to carry out that initial exploration is one of the most valuable skills for people living in an age where knowledge always exceeds the capacity to learn, and yet the prime opportunity to learn that skill is denied the institutional student by well-meaning teachers and curriculum planners.

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Several tidal shifts are changing what education will be required to deliver to its customers, the students.

First, the amount of content to be learned, even after restricting to "important" content, is greater than most people can comfortably acquire in a lifetime.

Second, tools for locating, retrieving, and presenting stored information make holding information in human memory less advantageous after taking into account the relatively high cost of loading knowledge into human memory.

Those two trends are quite well documented. Another trend is the growing need for creativity and initiative in the workplace. The emphasis in education on knowledge-recall will not necessarily encourage or help to develop those traits.

Just as unskilled and semi-skilled labor has been shifted to less industrialized nations, the economic trend in the near future will be to send abroad those intellectual services that require less connection to nuances of meaning.

A common view is that services requiring creativity are less likely to be outsourced. That assumption supposes that less industrialized people are somehow not as capable of doing creative work, which is almost certainly false.

In fact, the critical factor that stands at the apex of the economic chain is the ability to digest and transform meaning. Meaning transformation is what lies behind self-initiative, and what keeps the intellectual workers bound closely to the clients they serve.

As an economic matter, therefore, education should emphasize the creation and transformation of meaning. That requires synthetic thinking, not just the analytical thinking skills that are emphasized now. Students must learn to create their own high-level view of the content. Most curricula tend to leave synthetic thinking out of the learning process, or treat it superficially.

Self-directed learning emphatically requires the learner to create and maintain the high-level view in order to be able to steer through the complexity of the content.

Michael Webb, 2003

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