The Enduring Myth of Self-Teaching & Self-Directed Learning

The Enduring Myth of Self-Teaching & Self-Directed Learning

Categorized under: education

Recently, I was reading an article entitled, “How this self-taught 14-year-old kid became an AI expert for IBM”. Curious, I clicked in to learn more about how anyone, much less a young kid, could self-teach himself a complicated subject like artificial intelligence. As it turns out, his dad was a computer programmer who began exposing his son to technology at a very young age (5 years old). From there, Tanmay dove into books and other online resources to further develop his skills likely with his dad coaching & encouraging his interest. Along the way, he began to develop technology based solutions (iOS apps) and gained a good understanding of the fundamentals of programming. This enabled him to identify a bug within an IBM artificial intelligence application. As a result of this future promise, deeply technical experts in the field of artificial intelligence & machine learning from IBM took an interest and began to further mentor & develop his skills. Unfortunately, the article title doesn’t quite match the actual journey.  However, that makes what Tanmay is accomplishing no less spectacular. Instead, my concern is the myth of self-teaching & self-directed learning does a disservice to others who may have just as much potential but give up prematurely because they didn’t become world class programming prodigies by self-teaching themselves.  In fact, we think that in general to become good at something, you need to learn how to learn the subject.

Learning to Learn

Actual learning is a harmonious, concerted and often difficult mix of individual, teachers, parents, peers & other supplemental resources. Learning is also not always linear. One just doesn’t progress through the various stages of learning to build with technology without having some struggles along the way. In fact, we have found that some of the most groundbreaking learning with kids in our learning studios comes when they held an assumption about how to give the computer instructions and it didn’t quite work as intended. As a result of the unexpected outcome, they had to go back & challenge their assumption or identify an error in their logic that needed to be fixed in order to achieve the expected result. Through that process of deconstructing and re-building the solution, students fully internalize the learning & become better technology builders in the process. There are some students who are able to handle this process independently (our ultimate goal). However, there are others who require an instruction or peer intervention.  For example, recently I was working with my daughter on an algebraic equation. It was the classic setup with 3 variables & 3 equations that could be re-arranged to independently solve for a single variable and then back-solved for the remaining 2 variables. My daughter initially just wanted to take the numbers & iteratively develop a solution. Perhaps with a supercomputer, she may have eventually arrived at the solution. But, instead I wanted her to develop a methodical approach to translating the word problem into the necessary equations to see the beauty of structure & the simplicity of the algebraic process. After about 60 minutes, she finally understood the concept of equations and how to use the available information to systematically get the required solution.  Our experience in our learning studios is similar. True learning is often a laborious process that requires explaining a concept in a variety of ways until you connect with the mental model the student holds to be true. Self-directed tutorial solutions can lack this capability simply through the challenge of accounting for all the various scenarios (student mental models) & the associated computing power required to connect the dots. As a result, they often default to one or more traditional approaches to solution development. This is great if your child thinks about that solution in that manner but frustrating if that is not how they see the problem.

Kids that requires instructor or peer assistance doesn’t mean that these kids are any less brilliant. It simply means that there are several different paths on the journey of learning & one of the most harmful myths is that kids can self-teach & self-direct themselves to become expert technology builders.


Over the next 50 years as technology becomes more and more infused into all aspects of society, I think a bigger requirement will be the ability to learn/unlearn/relearn. This means that it will be nearly impossible for educators to predict the exact skills that will be required of students. In previous generations, you could focus on industries (manufacturing, banking). Going forward, because of the rapidly evolving nature of technology, it will be very important for those who intend to be successful to quickly learn/unlearn/relearn. This will require a change from developing expertise because you know that your knowledge base won’t be disrupted to developing expertise in learning because you fully expect your knowledge base to be disrupted.

A great example of this is the emergence of cryptocurrency and blockchain based technologies. While these have recently entered popular culture because of the exponential growth in value; cryptography, computing power & digital value store are concepts that have been under development for a long time. If you never learned about these concepts, then you have to figure out how to get up to speed quickly on how the blockchain brings all these things together and why it is important – the application. Employers who intend to leverage this technology will not accept that you didn’t study it in school. Instead there will be an expectation that you unlearn whatever knowledge you gained that has decayed and you learn about this new technology so that you can apply that information to develop solutions. 

Those who are able to learn/unlearn/relearn new skills quickly and then translate that knowledge into customer centric applications will be the most in-demand within the emerging information economy. So, let’s focus on preparing our kids for this exciting future by being honest with them about how true learning takes place and the amazing outcomes that can occur when they dedicate themselves to becoming lifelong learners.

About the Author: Omowale Casselle is the Co-Founder & CEO of Digital Adventures.