21 February 2015

A Straw Man Against Self-Directed Learning

Journalist Annie Paul Murphy asks, "Are You an Autodidact? Or Do You Need Other People To Learn?" The answer to both of the title questions is yes, despite the author's attempt to suggest they are mutually exclusive. And there is a raft of research supporting that conclusion despite the author's ignorance of that research. The source article is misrepresented and the perspective of the source article is framed as if it represents a comprehensive view of educational psychology, which it is not. 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 post seems like it could have made an important point against the assumption of individualist ideology in education, but it currently misses that mark, too.

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 which I will explain 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 explains the origins of autodidacticism because it starts with the assumption of an active organism. Humans are inherently active organisms. This activity is not random, it is directed by primary or basic needs, including the psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Under conditions in which the primary 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 to understand this finding to know that what counts as autonomy in any given situation is the subject's 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 [is] '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 truth is that schools are systems and as a consequence individualism as an assumed ideology**** is detrimental to managing that system properly. 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 post could have been 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.


* 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 http://www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com/intrinsic-motivation-research.html)

** 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 http://www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com/intrinsic-motivation-research.html)

**** FrameWorks research paper: Reform What? Individualist Thinking in Education: American Cultural Models on Schooling (2008) http://frameworksinstitute.org/toolkits/educationreform/resources/pdf/education_cognitive_interviews.pdf

The original article got wider distribution here:

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