Is it really that hard to teach yourself?

Britain’s youngest Olympic medalist, skateboarder Sky Brown, also happens to be an autodidact.

“I just learn tricks off YouTube,” said Brown in 2019. Her father concurred by adding, “Her friends are all [at the skate park] so it’s more like just playing with them. It’s not serious. It’s not ‘going to training’.”

No coach, just making it up as she goes along. And winning a bronze medal at age 13.

A brief history of the self-taught

An autodidact is, very simply, someone who teaches themselves, and history is full of them:

  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Granville Woods
  • James Cameron
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • James Baldwin
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Walt Disney
  • Albert Einstein
  • Alex Haley
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Bob Dylan
  • Michael Faraday
  • Henry Ford

Just to name a very few. Can you imagine the world without these self-taught individuals?

Most of these individuals also carry the more familiar label of “drop-out”. If that doesn’t seriously make you question our society’s definition of education and its purpose, I don’t know what will.

It’s difficult to think of a novel idea, invention, discovery, etc. that came from someone who actually had a “traditional” schooling experience.  And if they did, they usually had their creative breakthroughs in spite of their schooling, not because of it.  And yet, we insist on labeling them as deficient because they didn’t “stick with” their schooling. What exactly does that make the rest of us?

A very poignant example of an autodidactic “dropout” is William Kamkwamba. Although I had already started to feel like a self-directed approach to learning was best for our children, it was in reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind aloud to our children that sealed the deal.

Even after 14 year old William taught himself physics using an English textbook (which meant that he also had to teach himself English), and even after his inventions brought electricity and water to his famine-ridden Malawian village, he carried a sense of failure for never having finished high school. It wasn’t until his fame grew that he was “discovered” and was helped to finish school. I literally could not believe the pomposity of what I was reading. Was it a joke? This completely backwards way of thinking about success led my children and I into a great discussion as to the purpose of education, and the role that schools play in society.

The “game” of school

Are all of these autodidactic, school “dropouts”, somehow “smarter” than everyone else? More talented? Why didn’t they need school? Why aren’t there more of them?  

I would argue that there would be more of them- a lot more of them- if our institutions of education allowed for more autodidactic (aka self-directed) learning. If children were given permission to wonder, to experiment, to fail, to collaborate, to make connections across disciplines, to get wrapped up in a particular skill or content for months or years at a time, who knows how many more William Kamkwambas we would we find. Who knows how many other children we could encourage to stop wasting their time and “drop out” of school. Instead, society perpetuates the myth that the biggest educational accomplishment is “graduating with honors”.

Because of a school’s limitations, however, parents are increasingly taking their children’s education into their own hands so that their children will have the necessary freedom to learn in an autodidactic way. This is not a new idea. Thomas Edison, for example, was “bored and labeled a misfit” in school and so only attended sporadically for about 5 years. Thankfully, he had parents that encouraged him to learn in his own way.

More recently, Jeff Sandefer, co-founder of Acton Academy, was also one of those parents. Some advice from his daughter’s teacher caused him to consider an alternative to mainstream schooling for his children. His sons were finishing at a Montessori school when he asked a teacher about when would be the best time to enroll them in a traditional classroom. Her response took him aback: “Enroll them as soon as possible. After they’ve had that kind of freedom in Montessori, they won’t like being chained to a desk and being lectured for eight hours a day.” This led Sandefer and his wife to start their Acton Academy.

The more time someone spends in an institution, the better they get at playing the “game” of school- following the rules, learning what will be on the exam, not asking questions, doing what is expected, etc.  On the flip side, though, is the tendency to play less, create less, think less critically, and make less connections between disciplines. It’s a dark place to go, but it makes me think about the scene in the film Shawshank Redemption when the inmates are released and have no idea how to really live because they’ve been institutionalized for so long.  It’s no doubt easier for the masses to follow rules and social norms, but is it better?

“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

An autodidactic approach takes courage and determination, and is often counter-cultural, but is so much more life-giving than the rote learning of arbitrary standards. There is an internal drive that comes, not from external rewards or punishments, but from an authentic connection to what is being learned. And with that connection, comes purpose. Don’t let your child slip through the cracks. Perhaps you would even consider allowing them to drop out opt out of school altogether.

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