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When Bill Gates was still a teenager, he would sneak out of his family’s house before dawn and ride his bike to a building on the campus of the University of Washington. He had discovered that the university’s huge supercomputers were idle between the hours of three and six in the morning, allowing the budding computer enthusiast to teach himself how to program—night after night, until the sun came up.

At a young age, Gates was already an autodidact, someone compelled to learn for himself what he needed to know. Over the course of his life, Gates has maintained this habit: He dropped out of college after two years, but he has continued his education through incessant reading and conversing. Michael Specter, a New Yorker writer who profiled Gates for the magazine, has said that the Microsoft founder “is one of these autodidacts who reads, reads, reads. He reads hundreds of books about immunology and biochemistry and biology, and asks a lot of questions, and because he’s Bill Gates [he] can get to talk to whoever he wants.”

Gates is particularly interested in these topics because of his philanthropic work combating disease in developing countries. Another arm of his philanthropy, of course, involves the promotion of technology in education. Many of Gates’s fellow leaders in the ed tech world are also members of the autodidact club. Computer scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, academics—they are a self-selected group of individuals who have schooled themselves in a fast-changing field for which there is no settled syllabus, no well-established curriculum. In turn, their preferences and proclivities have shaped the educational technologies that the rest of us use, as well as the expectations we hold about what ed tech can and should do.

Self-directed learning
Bill Gates (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

This is no surprise: we all rely on our own experiences in forming our ideas of how learning works. But the experiences of ed tech creators and promoters are notably influential—and notably unusual. Most people are not autodidacts. In order to learn effectively, they need guidance provided by teachers. They need support provided by peers. And they need structure provided by institutions. Amid all the effusions about how ed tech will “change the way we learn,” however, these needs rarely merit a mention. Instead we hear about the individual and his app, the person and her platform, as if teachers, classmates and schools were unnecessary and unwelcome encumbrances.

This is a very particular take on learning: the autodidact’s take. We shouldn’t mistake it for most people’s reality. Productive learning without guidance and support from others is rare. A pair of eminent researchers has gone so far as to call the very notion of self-directed learning “an urban legend in education.”

In a paper published in Educational Psychologist last year, Paul A. Kirschner of the Open University of the Netherlands and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer of Maastricht University challenge the popular assumption “that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning.”

There are three problems with this premise, Kirschner and van Merriënboer write. The first is that novices, by definition, don’t yet know much about the subject they’re learning, and so are ill equipped to make effective choices about what and how to learn next. The second problem is that learners “often choose what they prefer, but what they prefer is not always what is best for them;” that is, they practice tasks that they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would actually enhance their expertise. And third, although learners like having some options, unlimited choices quickly become frustrating—as well as mentally taxing, constraining the very learning such freedom was supposed to liberate.

And yet, to paraphrase the economist Larry Summers: There are autodidacts. Look around. We all know at least one successfully self-taught expert, and the tech world is teeming with them. How’d they get that way?

Here the psychological literature is largely silent. There are assessment tools, such as the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale, which asks those who complete it to agree or disagree with statements like “I know what I want to learn,” “If there is something I want to learn, I can figure out a way to learn it,” and “No one but me is truly responsible for what I learn.”

These instruments are officially agnostic about where the “readiness” to engage in self-directed learning comes from, but they’re often employed as if such readiness is an inborn characteristic of the individual, even a personality trait.

Is self-directedness, in fact, innate? Though it doesn’t speak directly of autodidacts, the psychology of motivation and interest suggests that self-directed learners are not only born, but can be made. The research suggests it’s likely that the autodidacts among us did make the wrong turns and poor choices Kirschner and van Merriënboer warn about—made them, but then kept going until they got it right. It’s likely that their keen interest in their subject carried them past the failures and frustrations that would have deterred less ardent learners.

And it’s likely that they had more help along the way than is generally acknowledged. When Bill Gates was a senior in high school, he wangled an independent study project writing code for the computer system of a local power station. There he was supervised by a man named John Norton, “who Gates says taught him as much about programming as almost anyone he’d ever met,” according to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

Gladwell’s title is apt: Bill Gates is most certainly an outlier in his relentlessly self-directed acquisition of knowledge. But there’s no reason the rest of us can’t cultivate the autodidact’s virtues of persistence and passion. By the same token, the autodidacts who create and promote the educational technology used by the rest of us could keep in mind that the support of people and institutions is always integral to learning.

For most, that will mean the physical presence of teachers, of peers, of classrooms and schools. No human being learns in isolation; education is an inherently social enterprise. Even the autodidact is surrounded by social influences, guided by the voices of parents and past teachers, as he roams library stacks and Internet sites alone.

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  1. This article is pointing in an important direction, but it currently misses the crucial point. It misrepresents the source article and frames the perspective of the article as if it represents a comprehensive view of educational psychology, which it is not. The claim that “the psychological literature is largely silent” on the issue of the origins of autodidactic learning is false (although that term is not used in the relevant literature, so the author is not to blame for this oversight). There is also a direct contradiction between the premise set at the outset and the final sentence, though this is a trivial issue and nothing more will be said about it.
    The source article was specifically addressing internet learning by “digital natives” while this article gives the impression that it is addressed to learning in general. The source article is not generalizable beyond that specific context. I will explain why in a moment.

    Regarding the source of autodidactic learning the author was clearly not aware that there is a large and significant psychological literature going back to the 1970’s that can be said to address this issue without using that term. The over-all theoretical framework is called Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and the specific sub-theory that effectively addresses the origins of autodidactic learning is the Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT).

    SDT can be used to explain the origins of autodidacticism by starting with the assumption of an active organism. Humans are inherently active organisms. This activity is not random, it is directed by basic needs, including the psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Under conditions in which the basic needs are supported then autodidacticism can be expected to arise. The problem is that all mainstream K-12 schools studied to date since 1979 have been shown to thwart basic primary psychological needs. This includes studies from various theoretical and methodological traditions, not just SDT.*

    The non-generalizability of the source article is based on specific research conducted within the SDT tradition that looked at the issue of the mythical contradiction between autonomy and structure**. It turns out that what is necessary is both structure and autonomy. It helps understand this finding to know that what counts as autonomy in any given situation is the subjects perception of autonomy not the objective circumstances. What the source article points out is that structured interactions are necessary for effective learning. The authors of the source article essentially arrive at the same conclusion that structure and autonomy are necessary, but their phrasing implies that the objective circumstance of autonomy are what matter. Given a proper understanding of autonomy their statement is slightly misleading and should instead emphasize that students should be given maximum support for their perception of autonomy with appropriately customized structure for their specific levels of development and skill. As the author concluded all learners are embedded in social systems. The question is how well those social systems support their basic psychological needs. The generalization of the specific lack of structure in certain studies of the effects of structure on learning via the internet to the statement that “the very notion of self-directed learning ‘an urban legend in education.’” is grossly misrepresenting the psychology generally and the specific article. In fact, self-directed learning communities are the only schools to have data showing that they support the psychological needs of their students*** (Disclosure: I conducted one of those studies).

    The important direction is how individualism is an assumed ideology**** whereas the truth is that schools are systems. School systems have become dysfunctional under the influence of individualist ideology that frames all significant issues in term of the holy trio of students, parents, and teachers and completely ignores the systemic features. This article could be an important contribution to pointing out how the individualist framing in education is detrimental, but it does not accomplish that purpose in it’s current form.

    Don Berg

    * Bouffard, Marcoux, Vezeau, & Bordeleau, 2003; Corpus, McClintic-Gilbert, & Hayenga, 2009; Gottfried, Fleming, & Gottfried, 2001; Harter, 1981; Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003; Lepper, Corpus, & Iyengar, 2005; Otis Grouzet, & Pelletier, 2005; Pintrich, 2003; Prawat, Grissom, & Parish, 1979; Wigfield, Eccles & Rodriguez, 1998 (Full citations can be found at

    ** Jang, H., Reeve, J., & Deci, E. Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 588-600.

    *** Berg & Corpus, 2013; Newell & Van Ryzin, 2009; Van Ryzin, Gravelly, & Roseth, 2009; Van Ryzin 2011; Vedder-Weiss & Fortus, 2011 (Full citations can be found at

    **** FrameWorks research paper: Reform What? Individualist Thinking in Education: American Cultural Models on Schooling (2008)

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