No Easy Answers
Self-Directed Education, Critical Thinking, and Human Bias.

How will self-directed learners know whether they have learned the right things and learned them correctly? (Once, I was asked this question in a very concrete way that went something like this. “Suppose a self-directed learner wanted to learn,” – pause for effect – “‘creation science’ instead of real biology? What then?!”)

I appreciate the motivation behind the question. We all want kids to go on and lead good lives, and that depends on them learning the right things in the right ways. But the assumption always seems to be that if we send kids to conventional schools with curricula designed by experts, kids will learn the right things in the right ways.

A recent and highly concerning New York Times study, however, shows that this confidence may be a sort of overconfidence. The study, “Two States, Eight Textbooks, Two American Stories,” examines the same eight high school textbooks used in US public schools in two gigantic American states: California and Texas.1 These states largely use the same textbooks, but have different versions to satisfy the states’ differing (and often very political) requirements. The findings? “The textbooks have the same publisher. They credit the same authors. But they are customized for students in different states and their contents sometimes diverge in ways that reflect the nation’s deepest partisan divides.”

Here are a few differences the Times found between the textbook versions. In Texas’s textbook, the importance of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment (the right of citizens to bear arms) is stressed, where in California’s version, it is not. In Texas’s textbook, 19th century attacks on white people by Native Americans are referred to as “slaughters,” where in California’s textbooks, they are not. In the Texas textbook, references to gay, lesbian, transgender and gender-nonconforming people are restricted to those of recent decades (such as the recent fights to legalize gay marriage). The California verision of the same textbook include many more (and older) references to LGBT+ people (like the existence of same-sex families prior to the US Civil War). These are just a few of the differences between the two states’ textbooks out of what the study calls “hundreds of differences – some subtle, others extensive.”

So, perhaps we shouldn’t be so confident that kids in conventional schools are simply more likely to be learning the correct stuff in the correct way.

When it comes to subjects like history – and some argue, even science – any source is going to have some sort of bias that speaks from a particular angle. (As another example, a recent meta-study found that a sizable number of “known” findings in the social sciences that we surely base school instruction on fail to replicate when put to the test; that means that they are less firm than we thought.)

Take an issue as rife with conviction and certitude (on all sides) like global climate change. Whether we like it or not, this is an area of great public controversy, each side equally convinced of its position and able to cite sources that they believe to be authoritative. Each side, of course, dismisses the other’s position by arguing that the other side is cherry-picking what voices they listen to and dismiss and/or are dishonest in their reporting.

Is human-made global climate change happening? Surely, there is an answer. The problem is that what you think the answer is (even if you arrived at that answer through critical thought) will depend largely on what voices you listen to and trust as authoritative. Yet, as Professor Stanley Fish notes, even deciding what experts to trust (in the “final word” sense) is quite tricky:

The testimony of experts is [always able to be] waved away either because the expert’s credentials aren’t good enough (“Look, he went to Podunk U”) or because they are too good (“Ivy League professors are part of the establishment and their research will always mirror establishment views”). Photos are declared to be doctored; confessions are said to be coerced; documents are judged to be either fake or dispositive; backup documents are found to suffer from the same deficiency; there is never that “aha” moment when the evidence is conclusive and there is no comeback.

My point is not to throw readers into a state of existential peril. Instead, I wish only to point out that, for various reasons including ever-present human biases, finding out whether we know the right versions of the right things is really tricky. And if this New York Times study shows us anything, it is as tricky for curriculum experts as it is for all of us other humans. Being taught a formal curriculum planned by experts in a conventional school does not assure learners that they are learning the right versions of the right things.

Given all of that, here is why I think self-directed learners might actually have an advantage in this area. First, conventional school students are not only taught whatever biases exist in their formal curricula and textbooks. They receive the message (implicitly or explicitly) that the things they’ve been taught are the true things. They are often penalized if they deviate on tests and assignments from what they’ve been taught.

Self-Directed Education, in its truest sense, allows learners the freedom to choose what sources to pay attention to. Each source, of course, may proclaim its own authority, and those around the learner may influence her choices of what sources to trust. But she is arguably more likely than her conventionally-schooled peer to be able to choose from a variety of sources, and notice that not all sources speak with the same voice.

Secondly, the conventionally-schooled person is told what sources he must take up. (He can seek out other sources that school authorities do not approve, but will have to do it on his own time.) Because of this, it is easy for that person to get the impression that the sources he was exposed to are the ones he should trust.

On the other hand, Self-Directed Education involves not telling learners (in any “end of discussion!” way) what sources are and aren’t authoritative. Peers and adults can suggest or try to persuade a learner to consult other sources. (“Hey, here’s why I think that source is wrong.”) But they cannot do what schools do: force learners to learn and repeat – on tests and assignments – what these, but not those, sources have to offer.

How can we ensure that learners learn the right things in the right ways?” Maybe we can’t. Maybe all sources are biased (or at least could be without our knowing it, which is just as bad.) What we can do, however, is leave learners free to learn from different authorities and voices. Doing this will mean that they are more likely than conventionally-schooled peers to realize the variety of sources and perspectives, and be best equipped to choose between them.

As a postscript, here’s how I answered the question in my first paragraph, about the self-directed learner who decided to learn “creation science” rather than biology. Okay, let’s imagine that. First, if they don’t plan on going into a science field, they’re likely no worse off than the learner who learned “real biology.” If they do want to go into a science field, they’ll quickly discover that they need to learn “real biology” and they can learn it. (I suspect that learners who DID learn “real biology” in school will also have to relearn a lot of the subject.) On the rare possibility that the learner does want to go into science and remains convinced of “creation science,” that is valuable too... because science progresses only because people are willing – no matter how wrong we might think they are – to challenge the status quo beliefs.

[1] The New York Times article is behind a paywall. Here’s a freely available description of the article.