Humans are by far the most skilled social learners of this planet’s millions of species. We’re biologically equipped to pay attention to and learn from each other, and we’ve devised cultural tools such as speech and writing to augment our biologically endowed cognitive capabilities. We’ve created institutions to equip our young people to benefit from and contribute to civilization. Unfortunately, as is often the case with powerful inventions, schooling has its drawbacks – foremost among them the dulling of many young people’s hunger for independent learning. I’ve thought about these issues ever since I was identified as a troublemaker by my first grade teacher for my inability to sit still and listen to her drone on about knowledge I had already sought out on my own.
Don’t get me wrong. Public education has helped lift billions of people out of ignorance and poverty. My mother was a public school teacher. I’ve been a university lecturer for the past eight years. And my daughter managed to navigate sixteen years of schooling without damaging her eagerness to learn. But one important change has erupted in recent decades, enabled by the advent of digital media and networks, that alters the traditional power equation between holders and seekers of knowledge: schools no longer hold the monopoly on learning. When I want to learn how to do something, I can find a video, an Instructable, a blog post, a peer-learning platform. Schooling is still essential for many – perhaps for most – but for independent learners, tools we didn’t dream of a generation ago are available through the nearest web-connected device.
Every teacher reading this, and many more people, are already thinking of the obvious rebuttal – that media access and hunger for knowledge aren’t all there is to effective learning. Teachers direct learning, correct errors, answer questions, pose problems, inspire effort, set up collaboration, and encourage exploration. The alphabet isn’t all you need to be literate. At some point, most of us learn to read. Usually in a school. Almost always from a teacher. There’s a methodology to learning. Fortunately, a cornucopia of learning methodologies are also available to those who know how to find and crap-detect them.
I was thinking about these issues a lot toward the end of 2011, while I was composing the UC Regents’ Lecture in which I proposed the initiation of a volunteer-driven effort to create a free online handbook for independent learners. At that time, I was excited to encounter Kio Stark’s Kickstarter campaign for a book she wanted to finish, Don’t Go Back to School, “a handbook based on over 80 interviews with people who have successfully taught themselves a wide variety of skills and subjects outside of school.” The Kickstarter campaign was launched Nov. 11, 2011, funding ended successfully on Dec. 15, 2011, and the book is available as of this month.
In our brief video interview, I talked with Stark about what she learned from independent (more properly, we should probably call them “interdependent”) learners like “Cory Doctorow about learning to be a working writer, Dan Sinker about learning to code, Quinn Norton about learning neurology and psychology.” I suspect that Anya Kamenetz, Kio Stark, and the Peeragogy Project are forerunners of an entire nascent genre about how to learn anything outside of formal schooling.
Banner image credit: EWagner79 http://www.flickr.com/photos/65258022@N06/6908048618/