"Autodidact" has its roots in the Ancient Greek words autós, or "self" and didaktikos, meaning "teaching." Dacticism defines an artistic philosophy of education and autodidacticism (also autodidactism) is used to mean self-education.
Learning that is self-directed about a subject in which you have little to no formal education is hardly a new trend. Before we had any formal educational systems, everyone learned on their own. From the primitive person knocking rocks together to create a tool, to a much more privileged autodidact like Leonardo da Vinci, to the home-schooled and largely self-taught inventors like Thomas Edison, we learned on our own and through the informal teaching and example of others.
Before schooling, there were less-formal ways of being taught through craft guilds, apprenticeships, tutors and mentors. The Industrial Revolution and the accompanying creation of schools changed that.
My title,"The Return of the Autodidacts," may not be completely accurate since they never left. Schooling has made learning less self-directed, but everyone has always learned on their own to some degree. It does seem that in this young 21st century, there has been a noticeable increase in learning outside of schools. The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Maker movements, free and open online courses (MOOC) and even schools based on Self-Directed Learning (SDL), all indicate a desire to learn that is disconnected from organized classrooms and credits, certifications and degrees.
I have been writing about School 2.0 (AKA Education or University 2.0) for about six years and a lot of that touches on the idea of the individual taking the initiative and the responsibility for the learning that occurs. I heard a lot about "student-centered learning" at the end of the last century. Much of that came from the rise of online learning where the instructor has less ability to be the center of the learning.
Allowing a "student" to select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, on their own schedule opens up learning - and creates problems, especially if you are in the business of traditional education.
Lately, I hear the term "Self Directed Learning" (SDL) used more often and I see it attached to traditional schools. Some of the methods used by autodidacts have been co-opted by schools. Although it is still more likely that you would find a makerspace in a community setting or within a library, you are also seeing them as part of a school from grades K through college.
Self-directed learning also plays a role in movements such as home-schooling, experiential education, open schooling and life-long learning.
Proponents will note that the benefits extend beyond learning knowledge and skills and into a learning mindfulness for setting personal goals, planning and taking action to meet those goals with evidence of having learned. Self-improvement, personal and character development are central themes of SDL discussions. SDL involves initiating personal challenge activities and developing the personal qualities to pursue them successfully.
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) is the method of building, modifying, or repairing something without the aid of experts or professionals.
The motivations to go DIY are many. You might not have the money or the traditional tools and resources to buy or even make something. Perhaps the item just isn't available to you, or even to anyone. You may be disappointed in the quality of existing products. You may want a personally customized version of something. Maybe it is a sense of pride in creating something on your own, whether it is for your own use or for display or sale.
The term "do-it-yourself" has been associated with consumers since at least the early 20th century when it was usually connected to home improvement and maintenance (such as an automobile) activities. By the mid-century, it was in more common usage due to the emergence of a trend of people undertaking home improvement and various other small craft and construction projects as both a creative-recreational and cost-saving activity.
The maker movement grew from the DIY movement and led to communal spaces (makerspaces) that allowed access to workspace, tools and materials that many individuals could not afford. At one time that may have meant power tools, but today it includes laser cutters, 3D printers and computer-aided design tools. These spaces also can offer informal training and mentoring from other members. It brings the old models of craft guilds, apprenticeships, tutoring and mentoring back. Perhaps, it truly is a time of the return of the autodidact.