Autodidacts are rare; everyone else needs a teacher

27th April 2016 at 17:45

We can marvel at the self-taught geniuses, but we mustn't design education around their exceptionalism


‘Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe’

Lex Luthor, Superman: The Movie, 1978

Let me start with the very worst Prince story ever. Years ago I used to do some voluntary work for a Gorilla charity. Amongst the chugging and hugging sweaty simians at the London Marathon, we also helped out with the corporate side of fund raising, at events designed to rob people who sweated money. It was an odd world. One tactic was to persuade sympathetic celebs to show up to events for fifty minutes in lieu of donations, on the understanding that their attendance could buy publicity and draw punters. Your local Supermarket does much the same when they get the Cheeky Girls in to open the new deli section. 

So one night we’re in a Mayfair club full of sweaty Barnabys in their jumpers and suits all getting down to a lively, undemanding set from Vanessa Mae. Alicia Duvall was lurching around, gurning at cameras. One mysterious table was conspicuously roped off from we the proletariat, reserved for some unnamed VIP known only to God. And then God turned up. The Artist Then Probably Still Known As Prince sat down a metre from us, and we boggled like groupies. This tiny, tiny man sat down, pawed at some oven chips while looking like if he’d been parachuted into a vat of slurry. After about five minutes, he turned to his entourage, clicked his fingers (satisfyingly in exactly the manner of Chris Tucker playing Ruby Rhod in the Fifth Element) and left. The second he did, the magic ropes were taken away, and we did the obvious thing and took turns to sit in his chair as we hoovered his fingered chips in the manner of pilgrims binging on water from the grotto at Lourdes. 

I told you it wasn’t much of a story, which explains why the papers turned down my offers of an exclusive.

The Olympian Tripod

Minnesota’s mightiest mortal was rightly revered for a musical talent exceptional even at the top end of the measuring stick. Quite apart from his legendary reputation as an Olympian tripod, he reputedly played 27 instruments, and when asked how many he really could play he allegedly said, ‘Thousands.’ He played every instrument on five of his albums, wrote his first song when he was seven, and he could sing from falsetto to baritone. According to Rolling Stone ‘Prince started playing piano at age seven, guitar at 13, and drums at 14, all self-taught.’

All self taught. The mind boggles at such ability. Auto-didacticism, as it is known, is a fascinating phenomenon. Understandably, fiction cleaves to it; from Good Will Hunting’s eponymous polymath to Batman, to real ones like Leonardo Da Vinci and Sam Freedman. The capacity of the human mind to educate itself without outside influence is a seductive subject for educators. Is this something anyone can do, or is it the preserve of Gods and Monsters? 

This Holy Grail has inspired many knights: the quest for self-driven learning has been with us since the days of Herbert Spencer at least. Inquiry based learning. Discovery Learning. These methods all inhabit the same ideological space of people like Maria Montessori who believed (and whose modern adherents believe) that learning is the natural process of the infant mind. Observe, they will say, the way in which the child furnishes its tabula rasa with the busy materials of experience, without effort or fuss. Language acquisition, causality, facial recognition, spatial relationships, and the whole wardrobe of inductive inferences coalesce from the chaotic soup of noumena, the unprocessed experience. Faces, for example, contain far more data than any times table, and yet a child processes it from the crib. What a feat if we could reproduce this talent throughout our education, instead of merely at its inception.

Seen through this lens, the educationalists in the last decades of the 19th century and onwards deduced that the most efficient thing we could to to educate children would be to emulate these natural processes, to remove obstacles to learning, and to encourage the understanding of the world through its interaction; through practical experience, building on experiences that were already understood by the child. Nothing must be learned without comprehension; nothing must be told when it can be discovered, and the child’s own interests must be the driving force behind it, as they are when a child learns through play, eager to clutch and chew and view every new byte of information about the world. 

The frustrating reality

There are many attractions in this theoretical framework which I have all-too briefly outlined. For a start it makes a rough intuitive sense; it seems right that children should learn best by building upon what they already know; that something discovered for oneself is more memorable than something memorised on a table; that people learn best when they enjoy the process. But there are a number of problems with this approach.

Young children do learn, it is true, by a seemingly magical process resembling osmosis; they mop up languages with ease, free from work sheets and call-centre microphones that exhort their wearers to écouter (BEEP!). But this works best with only certain forms of the verb ‘to know’. Our brains, many have observed, are good at intuitively mopping up things like judging distance and remembering that water feels wet, for example, far better than it does committing to memory formal education. We appear to have been built with amazing faculties to understand our immediate environment, but far less advanced abilities beyond that. Our amazing advances as a species have been the result of accumulated wisdom, bequeathed to our descendants through...formal education. Not only Newton, but we too stand on the shoulders of giants. Were some enormous extinction level event to happen that hired us back to the stone age, we could face the Sisyphean task of starting again practically from scratch. 

The internet era should be the age of the Autodidact. In previous centuries, well educated men and women had to seek out and apprentice themselves to experts, or beggar themselves tracking down key texts; now the wisdom of humanity is available online. So why do we still need teachers? 

Because education does not occur simply when you put information near to a brain. It happens when the mind attends to that knowledge. When it thinks about it. Memory, as Willingham puts it, is the residue of thought. Knowledge, comprehension, understanding, and the profitable manipulation of that knowledge comes from understanding the basics, and gradually introducing our minds to the processes that incrementally follow from those basics, increasing in complexity and diversity.

The world doesn't need that many ballerinas

We can do that ourselves, of course. We could also learn how to climb Mount Everest for ourselves. But how much better when a Sherpa shows us the path; when a teacher attends to our learning, someone who can point out what is salient and what is not; when to pause, when to reflect, when to advance. This is the role of the teacher. We can’t rely on children to drive their own learning, because they don’t know what they’ll need to know before they know it. And to rely on their own interests is to leave them hostage to their tastes and biases. Left to my own devices, I would be the world’s expert on Superman of the Silver Age, as my tastes compelled in childhood. 

But I would be the poorer for that. And speaking of poor, if you want to guarantee that poor people remain poor, then insist that they only learn what they’re interested in; while you’re at it, design their programs of learning around what they already know; compel them only to read texts that revolve around their culture and climate; insist that their texts be relevant rather than remote or abstruse. In short, compel them to be live, and die, within a mile of where they were born, demographically. There is a world beyond the classroom, and I want to drag it before my students so they can marvel and gasp. 

Adult education is a different beast, of course; mature minds that have chosen to follow their academic heart song can perform miracles of ambition. And there will always be exceptional men and women who carve mountains our of their lives with bare hands in their bedrooms. Obsessed outliers, who sacrifice their leisure on the altar of exceptionality. Olympians have little time for stand and stare. But we cannot design whole national systems around the genius/ obsessions of a few. I've read educators who were passionate auto-didacts, who assumed that every child was like them. But children's interests vary. Teachers are the beating heart of education; human beings who stand over their students and softly repeat their lessons until something blooms in their minds. The true autodidact is a comet, and comets are beautiful. But most children need help escaping the gravity of their circumstances. And no MOOC, online course, home study course, or otherwise will replace the men and women who walk the Green Mile of the classroom day in and out.