say, “If you are comfortable failing every single day at something, thinking
about why you failed, and not doing
the same thing wrong again, this may
be right for you. May!” The ability to
reflect and not get defeated is the only
way to continue. (Granted this failing
happens at the expense of the kids
you are trying to teach, which is its
own conversation.) There were some
great books on teaching strategy like
Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion
that I referenced a lot, and more importantly, I had a few good mentors to
ask tough questions of when I couldn’t
solve problems myself.
When coding, as Jeremy noted,
Google can take you very far. Searching
error messages and finding Stack Overflow discussions is incredible. But having people to help you is indispensable.
Somehow my group of friends has become largely a group of programmers.
This resource is crucial.
This all makes me wonder, philosophically, whether you can ever truly
teach yourself. Is teaching yourself
just the ability to define your goals and
gather the resources to achieve something? If you read books to learn something, that book was just a more efficient way for another person to share
knowledge with you. Is the only thing
you can teach yourself truly if you’re
alone in nature and a bear is chasing
you and you need to either get eaten or
figure out how to survive? What if you
once read a book about wilderness survival?
A person can surely stare at a Rubik’s Cube and figure out how to solve
it. But if they have learned how to solve
other puzzles first, does it count? If
someone taught them algorithmic
thinking, and they understand they
need to develop an algorithm, is it still
teaching themselves? Why isn’t everyone just following these three steps
and teaching themselves everything?
Regardless of these philosophical
musings, there is a more practical Step
0 that comes before the first step I outlined. Practice in critical thinking and
abstraction. The ability to reflect and
apply lessons to new situations is how
I would define intelligence. It is also a
skill that can be taught, and must be.
Currently, many of the people who are
best at reflection have had the privilege
of succeeding within the framework of
a traditional education. (If you take a
look at the Codecademy success story
page you’ll see a lot of people who were
very successful in their traditional edu-
The real innovations in online self-teaching will be programs that provoke and require critical thinking. In
my work at Flocabulary, I think a lot
about how to do this in the K- 12 realm.
We need to be careful about betting that MOOCs, online lectures like
Khan Academy, or other online tutorials will change the landscape of education until we can ensure students are
equipped to successfully direct their
own educations and think critically
about what they’re hearing and seeing.
Without teaching critical thinking,
a lot of people will learn the steps to
solve a Rubik’s Cube and have no idea
why, and no idea what to do with the
knowledge. Without teaching critical
thinking, the same students who had
privileges that allowed them to succeed in traditional education, will succeed in online education.
And there is a final privilege that
underlays all of this autodidacticism:
The belief that teaching, or coding, or
solving a Rubik’s Cube, is something
you have the ability to do. If you have
been successful in a traditional education, you will have the confidence that
you know how to learn. This is a real
privilege, which many intelligent people don’t have. The efforts to increase
girls’ confidence in math and science
skills, for example, are a necessary first
step to expand both traditional coding, and certainly self-teaching.
I am extremely privileged in my
educational background, my family’s
educational background, my group of
friends who I know as a result of both
of my education and family. And on top
of all that, Teach for America taught
me how to effectively teach myself.
As more and more resources become
available to ostensibly help people
teach themselves online, I hope that
comparable thought is given to how
to help people successfully use the resources.
My first project I felt real success
with was something simple. Flocabulary’s website has 500 videos, but we
had listed more than 2,000 image credits for these videos on a single page. We
wanted to move each image credit to
its related video page, and I realized
I might be able to write a script to do
this, rather than asking our intern to
very unhappily do it by hand.
I wrote a python script to determine
which video the image credit belonged
to, and associate that video’s ID. I woke
up early on a Saturday thinking I’d play
around with it for awhile, and ended
up spending five hours on it without
realizing time went by. I tried various
approaches. I searched StackOverflow
when I got error messages. I asked a
few key questions of my friend Teddy,
who is the lead developer at Flocabulary.
And it worked. I was too ashamed to
tell anyone that I could solve a Rubik’s
Cube. But I wanted to shout from the
rooftops that I’d figured out how to
transform a simple csv with Python.
I was misguided when I was heading to SFO that day. I didn’t actually
want to be the sort of person who could
solve a Rubik’s Cube. I wanted to be
the sort of person who could figure out
how to solve it. And on my next flight,
I’m going to try.
Aliza Aufrichtig is fascinated by both the philosophical
and practical considerations of teaching and learning.
She does this professionally as the product director at
Flocabulary ( flocabulary.com), where she designs and
builds engaging tools for students to learn. As you may
have noticed in this piece, Aliza often uses herself as a
test subject to explore the limits of what can be taught.
Despite doubts that it could be done, she recently taught
all of her colleagues how to pun better. In addition to
coding, she’s also recently been teaching herself about
cooking, plants and the occasional mix thereof. You can
find more of her musings at aliza.aufri.ch/tig, where she
has written extensively about crumpets.
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I was a kid learning
I knew the notes on
the piano keyboard.
I was young French-
English pop songs