Self-taught? The importance of independent learning

Did you know that Jimi Hendrix, considered to be one of the greatest guitar players of all time, was a self-taught musician?

It’s remarkable to think that this journey supposedly began with a 1-string ukulele!  What’s more, both Prince and Eric Clapton are also considered to be self-taught.

These learning journeys are interesting to consider as they took place in the pre-internet era and therefore involved significantly reduced access to resources compared to today. Yet these artists found a way to observe and listen (e.g. through radio and TV) to guitarists, practise and develop their skills to such an expert degree that they rose to the top of their field.


How important were curiosity, motivation and feedback loops (no pun intended!) in their journey?

How different would the journey have been if they did receive formal instruction? Would they be even more technically accomplished? How would their creativity have been impacted? We do not know the answers to these questions but the point of looking at these self-taught individuals is not to suggest that learners do not need teachers and they should all become autodidacts instead.

We know from Bloom’s 2 sigma problem that students tutored in a one-to-one environment perform 2 standard deviations better than those in conventional classroom environments and so there is certainly value in (tailored) instruction. However, if a teacher is not available for some reason (e.g. for ordinary reasons or exceptional ones e.g. a pandemic), need a student’s education grind to a halt?

It’s a question which is taking on greater significance each day. As we get closer to the start of the next academic year and with more guidance coming out about examinations in 2021, thoughts are turning to how to help students sitting their exams next year. More certainly needs to be done to eliminate disadvantage arising from access issues such as lack of devices at home such as laptops, little or no internet connectivity and a lack of other learning resources e.g. textbooks.


This provocative quote does not tell the whole story of the reality faced by many (who do not all have access to these tools) but it provides us with something to ponder when it comes to thinking about the desire to learn. If we’re to help the A-Level students of 2021, let’s look at what role the desire to learn may play in their lives a few years down the track.

First of all, let’s look at the transition from school and college to university life. It’s not uncommon for university students to struggle without the high-intensity structured learning provided by schools. For many, university courses provide students with plenty of free time to pursue their own self-study and it would be really interesting to see data on how students use this time, whether that’s self-study related to the subject or unrelated topics. While university life offers so much beyond learning opportunities, it would seem difficult to argue that effective independent learning would not be a valuable trait for a university student.

Let’s now consider the world of work where we can suppose that learning opportunities lose some structure (i.e. less frequent direct instruction, although perhaps more implicit learning opportunities). If young employees stop learning and therefore stop helping their companies to do better than their competitors then companies may need to (re-)train these employees or hire new ones. This should lead to employees wanting to continue learning, either by specialising further in an area they are already in or by learning something different, to become more valuable to their employers.

Employees may wish to keep learning (without the desire to arise from the fear of losing their jobs) as being more valuable to an employer normally means that higher pay follows. Having more knowledge and skills also makes one more suitable for more opportunities, especially if the knowledge and/or skills are transferable. This can be very important in an economy that changes quickly.

While the incentives are there to encourage ongoing learning and development, it would seem that these practices are not followed by enough people and this could be a significant factor in the UK’s productivity puzzle. The article linked actually makes reference to a report which found that the desire of UK employees to learn new skills is not being met by employers. It would be interesting to see if these employees followed through to satisfy their learning desires by becoming self-taught or through independent training. If they did not, could we conclude that the desire to learn is in fact scarce?

Either way, it should be apparent that learning takes place at all stages of life and that as the individual ages, they start taking more ownership for their learning and are possibly more self-taught rather than going to learn through explicit instruction. At some stage, it would seem that we are required to become autodidacts. Perhaps the earlier we start, the quicker we become better at it. Inculcating the habit of independent learning seems like it could well be the most important habit we can pass on.

You can find the next post in our a2z series of important education terms and concepts HERE.

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