Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.

–Isaac Asimov

I am, I suppose, what one would call an autodidact. Consulting the Dictionary.com page, one sees this roughly means that I learn by myself. I tell everyone I meet that this is how I learned French. Humble brag? You bet. But I will continue to share it with everyone anyway, becauseupon reflection, it’s a pretty cool feat to be able to learn a language to the point of independence without the aid of a teacher to correct one’s mistakes. It requires an awful lot of self-reflection, constructive criticism, and motivation to be able to identify one’s errors and to find a means of correcting them. Judging by some of the students that I have — who are simply physically present in class because they must but couldn’t care less whether they learn anything or not — it’s pretty impressive to hear stories about those who have taken the reins of their own education and have driven the coach to success.

I’m sure some would say that pushing for self-education is a means of pushing myself out of a job, seeing as I’m a teacher. I think the opposite is true, though, and I will make my case to the best of my ability.

I just watched a lovely video (below) featering Isaac Asimov and his thoughts on self-learning in the computer age.

One thing Asimov said is that computers can help a child* find information and learn based on the child’s own motivations. I wholeheartedly agree. There is an immense wealth of information online for students to consult and, with a bit of coaching, children can learn to weed out biased information in favor of more objective sources (which is a skill that transfers into daily life hors Internet).

From my love of Spanish came my desire to learn French. My family has some French ancestry and I was frustrated at not being able to see the English subtitles when watching La Vie en Rose in the theater, so I decided to learn French alone. Textbooks can be woefully out of date; though I purchased one for basic help, it has only served to collect dust in my closet. I knew, however, that the internet, with its frequent updates, would serve me better as a tool for learning.

In learning languages, it has been particularly helpful, as it helped me to find penpals with whom I could communicate in order to practice the language more frequently. Without the Internet, I never could have gotten by alone, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay money I didn’t have for a private tutor with whom I could only speak once or twice per week.

Critics of self-guided learning may identify the child’s tastes as a barrier to effective and comprehensive learning, the argument being that if Billy likes soccer but hates English, he won’t want to study English on his own and will never learn it. Judging by the way children (and adults, for shame) speak currently, I don’t think much has been learned in the classroom anyway. However, putting little Billy at a computer means that he will likely first consult his favorite player’s Wikipedia page. He will then remember that his favorite player used to play for another team, whose roster includes another of his favorite players. From there, he will either click on a link about a town in England or he will think of something original to search. In any case, each page is pretty well monitored for grammar and little Billy is positively swimming in the language. He is learning to use it by seeing how it is used. In the event that he eventually makes a contribution to the WWW, he will quickly be reminded of grammar rules by everyone else. It’s pretty much what the Internet is known for.

But little Billy still hasn’t gone out of the sphere of sports. Teachers still need to be present to introduce basic concepts, because simple browsing won’t present everything. From there, however, what harm is there in letting Billy see where that little spark of information takes him?

Furthermore, what harm is there in using this tool to find a better teacher for Billy? I have known many teachers who taught well in general, but did not teach in the way that little Susie or Kevin could understand. There is a vast amount of information on the internet and thousands of ways of explaining different concepts; little Susie even has a pretty good chance of finding someone who can explain complex physics in a way she can understand.

This is precisely how I learned French. I studied what I could understand on my own, then asked for an explanation of something I didn’t from someone who did understand it. If I couldn’t make sense of the answer given, I kept searching until someone could explain it in a way that made sense.

The internet has made things like math — at which I am shamefully unskilled — comprehensible. It has opened doors to other cultures; this week I learned about Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as Zoroastrianism (which I found through looking up Freddie Mercury). I learned geography in reading about Zoroastrianism, too, with its roots in Iran and Mercury’s birthplace of Zanzibar and subsequent rearing in India.

The one thing I hated most in school was having learning forced on me. I love books, but I hate required reading. Guiding my own learning via computers has made me more of a scholar than my schooling years ever did. I’m now learning German, Dutch, and Irish thanks to Duolingo and am understanding pesky math problems with Wolfram Alpha.

Yes, we still need teachers to help guide students and to present information in a clear, concise, unbiased manner, as well as to provide help when needed. But children — and adults — are more than capable of guiding their own learning.

A fellow teacher saw me learning another language on my cell phone at lunch. She said it was cool that I am always learning new things. I thought, it’s sad that she isn’t.

My learning did not end when I left school. On the contrary, I think that’s when it truly began.

*Asimov specifically references children, but anyone is capable of using computers to guide their own learning, the process of which may guide a learner to other media, such as books and magazines.


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