I have lots of thoughts about education, especially higher education. The theme that keeps popping up in my head though is that school isn’t too far removed from teaching yourself. Honestly, let’s look at the learning process:
- Encounter a “problem” that needs to be solved.
- Do background research and look at past examples of how it was solved.
- Apply your newly gained knowledge to the problem at hand.
- If a new problem arises that is not encompassed by the recently acquired wisdom, go back to step 2.
- Report on your findings to others.
Doesn’t this sound like work? Or studying on your own? Or doing a hobby project? How is this any different?
Since I’ve had this debate with friends before I can tell you what others say. They say that the classroom environment and being shown some of the methods before doing the problem is helpful. That having the theory explained directly helps the brain to acquire the necessary knowledge. That being able to step into the professor or teacher’s office and ask a question is a nice luxury to have. But does this always happen? I know I’ve had teachers I don’t understand (or very much disliked), notes that didn’t make any sense upon second reading and semesters where I’ve taught myself completely out of a textbook (and of course it happened to be the worst textbook of all my classes that semester).
Furthermore, there are resources today that allow individuals to continue learning on their own. Video resources like MIT Open Course Ware (OCW) can replace or augment self learning on particular topics. Message boards can provide a forum to interface with experts and to keep up on recent developments in your industry. The prices of equipment have nosedived in the past 10-15 years, allowing many more people to have a “lab section” in their house. And things like hackerspaces allow for social interactions and places to flesh out more advanced ideas.
So what’s really left? Motivation. When you’re paying $30,000 a year or are spending every Tuesday and Thursday in a classroom somewhere, you’re going to make the most of your time there. You’re going to do the homework and go get the help you need to figure out the subject matter because you aren’t allowed to put it off a month or a year. You’re going to be motivated by the piece of paper you receive at the end of your degree program saying that you completed all of the necessary requirements and did so while meeting or exceeding the expectations of your institution. Or you might even want to just prove you can do it. All of them really are valid reasons, they just don’t exist when you’re teaching yourself at home. External motivation is needed for many people (myself included) to pick up a book on a subject. In fact “motivation, momentary lapse of” is how this post came about. I was reading about active filters for a side project (where the motivation is showing off the side project and becoming “internet famous”) and I started thinking about how similar my current situation is to my former schooling. And all of the self-teaching and gained experiences are occurring without paying the $31,000 a year (yes, you read that right, tuition went up just since the last time I listed the number).
Do I hate higher education? No, I think there are some factors that make it invaluable to those that pursue it (and many more that benefit from the output). I may still try to get back to grad school myself some day. I love that there are institutions dedicated to research that might never get done otherwise. I’m glad that there are institutions that stress the rigor of the scientific method. I love that there are places where learning and advancing knowledge is the main purpose and task of those that attend. But all I’m saying is sometimes this happens in basements and bedrooms too.
Is learning at home without the structure of schools possible, especially in higher education? Does anyone ever teach themselves at home and why do you do it? What problems do you have with it? People currently enrolled in a University, do you find any fault with this thought?