In 2009, at 12 years old, I decided to set my education free.
The final day of sixth grade in 2009, I decided, would be my last day of school. While my peers were welcoming another school year, I was at home reading Agatha Christie novels, writing, teaching myself the basics of the Chinese language, and constructing my own math curriculum. Years later, I’ve learned more in the course of reading, researching, and gathering learning materials than in all years of my formal education. My journey towards claiming (or re-claiming) my education, which began immediately after I left the classroom, is a record of my alternative, multi-disciplinary learning quest that encompasses many fields ranging from art and architecture, to history, science, and foreign languages. The result of my home-made curriculum are sparks of insight, knowledge, invaluable realizations, and fresh ideas resulting from different disciplines that I discovered, analyzed, and integrated on my own. My education was not a collection of PowerPoint presentations or standardized tests to assess rote memorization of accumulated facts. Instead, it was, and still is, a series of discoveries that help me cultivate wisdom and open mindedness, and empower me to think differently about how the world works.
“Our whole theory of education,” Henry Miller wrote, “is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water.” A mimicry of the factory model, the industrialized education system is silently starving for improvement in terms of encouraging creativity, nurturing different types of learners, and raising critical and independent thinkers. Our broken system, at its best, produces industrialized conformity, stifles independent learning and discourages freedom of thought. Noam Chomsky labelled this process as outright, “indoctrination of the young.” The rigid structures of our schools dampens attempts at self-discovery and the innate desire to harness abilities to the point where curiosity feels like an obligation, and passing the next exam becomes the ultimate aspiration, NOT curing cancer, building the next useful software technology, or inspiring the masses through various art forms.
The outcome of this assembly line is the illusion of comfort in being followers rather than leaders. When greeted with free time and choice, we shy away, confused, and in need of guidance, structure, and authority. Now that we are aware of how the present system works and what its limitations are, we have a right and a duty to ourselves to demand more from it. So while we can’t wait forever for reformers to fix a system unfit for the working mechanisms of current reality, what we can and should control is the type of learners we ought to become. Ultimately, the role of education is to help us become the best version of ourselves through cultivating deep-seated and effective habits, and, to quote John Dewey, “to equip us with the sort of critical thinking necessary for questioning authority and dispelling false beliefs and illusory ideas bequeathed to us by society.”
Who are Independent Learners?
As you step away from the structure of formal schooling, you begin to see more opportunities for learning outside of school than within. Education that is independent of school is driven by natural curiosity and a desire to learn more about the world and yourself. To forgo school and seek alternative forms of learning is to be ready to experiment with building one’s own infrastructure and finding structure in freedom. The key to becoming an independent learner is discovering how you learn, figuring out the methods that work best for you, and creating the conditions that support you. This is all a matter of trial and error. Identifying the methods that don’t suit you is just as crucial to sustain your motivation.
Characteristics of one’s Independent Learning Process:
- Autonomy: Internal motivation relies on learners “taking control of their own education” (as Jared puts it) and the conditions in which they learn, instead of working within a predetermined, inflexible structure. Autonomy means that you follow your own path and have complete control over your learning. Thus, motivation comes from within when you learn what you want to learn, when and how you want to learn it, for your own reasons.
- Feedback: In school, feedback is provided through advancing in classes, grades, and the occasional praise. As an independent learner, it is essential to create a feedback loop that examines your learning and guides you as you move forward. It’s essential to have a set of short-term goals that serve long-term goals, and act as benchmarks of progress.
- Application: Sustaining internal motivation is largely dependent on materializing the knowledge you are gaining. The best learners are the ones who are quick to utilize abstract knowledge and situate it in a context that matters to them. The context is a variable, mainly a project you wish to accomplish. This target goal helps you learn more effectively as you keep track of your progress.
- Pursuit of Interests: Upon my exiting the structured world of formal education, I became an autodidact. I learned how to take a subject I was interested in, research it, and make myself a map for learning. Where can I find resources? How can I examine and apply what I’ve learned? Independent learning, with all the freedom it provides, gives you permission to research concepts and figure them out on our own. You have the freedom to approach a problem from any perspective, analyze it through different lenses, and employ knowledge from different disciplines to offer a novel solution. Instead of being a passive consumer of abstract knowledge that is classified under “STEM” or “Liberal Arts”, independent learners are not confined to a narrow path. They find ingenious ways to learn through merging of various disciplines, which results in valuable insight. Ultimately, learning should be viewed a continuum, rather than a finite progression with a defined beginning and end that is deemed to terminate at a certain age.
- Collaboration and Controlling External Influences: The most fulfilling learning tends to take place outside of school, because it is not compulsory; and the best learners are those who learn out of intrinsic motivation rather than being tempted by extrinsic rewards. Contrary to what it implies, independent learning doesn’t mean working solo or learning in isolation, in fact independent of the school-like structure, learning becomes a social act, something that happens naturally and all the time. There is a subtle ingenuity in learning from the people you surround yourself with, which awakens curiosity and wonder and increases motivation to explore new perspectives.
Eric Hoffer famously said, “At times of change, the learners are the ones who will inherit the earth, while the knowers will be beautifully prepared for a world which no longer exists.” Success is not chained to a single institution, it can be found in alternative paths. So regardless of whether you are in school or not, it is your duty to own your education and strive to become an independent learner. Still, do not mistake true education from the one chained in the ivory towers of elite universities. True education is the one that paves that path towards self-discovery and understanding. Give yourself the permission to seek a true education… now this doesn’t need anyone’s approval.