Toward a Theory of SDL: A Study of Experts Without Formal Training

Monday, 03 January 2011 16:00

By: Maurice Gibbons - (c) 2008 Personal Power Press International

from The Journal of Humanistic Psychology (Spring, 1980), pp. 41-56

Maurice Gibbons, Alan Bailey, Paul Comeau Joe Schmuck, Sally Seymour, and David Wallace


The authors analyzed the biographies of twenty acknowledged experts without formal training beyond high school in search of commonalities that might suggest ways people become effectively self-directed in learning and accomplishment. Of the 154 characteristics identified, the fifty rated as most important were examined. They outline a pattern of education that is sharply focused, active, experiential, self-directed, situational, and often personally challenging. They indicate a personality that is both traditional and radical, and they suggest a life theme of gathering purpose and drive. The authors transform their analyses into fourteen hypotheses about education, about a form of schooling that would prepare students for a life of self-directed learning and attainment. 

The Problem

We usually think of learning as something that occurs in an educational institution under the direction of a teacher, within the structure of a course, based upon textbooks and evaluated by a written examination. To become expert one is usually expected to attend such an institution until some certification of expertise is granted. But this is a narrow view of learning and education, even for the development of expertise. We learn informally as well as formally, and our skill at informal, self-directed learning may in the long run of a lifetime be the more important of the two.

People spend much more time out of school than in it, even on a school day. And when school days end, even the best educated have forty or fifty years of life and learning still ahead of them. Continued growth during those out-of-school hours and years requires continued learning – learning to master new jobs, to become better lovers, to meet life-crises, to find new interests, to handle changes in society, to master new roles, to open new dimensions in ourselves and our relationships, and to make contributions worthy of our capacities. Such growth, or informal learning, is very different from formal education. The self-educator must be independent, energetic, creative, and strongly self-directed. But schools, as well as such ever-present entertainments as TV, and a growing number of institutions encourage us to be dependent, passive, conforming and, generally, willing to be directed. A way of helping students of all ages to become skilfully self-directed must be found and made a part not just of schooling, but of all forms of education, including the education parents give their children and the education that all of us give ourselves throughout our lives.

What are the basic principles of self-education and of teaching people to be self-educated? Unfortunately, self-direction is so inconsequential a part of formal schooling that we have few researched answers to that question. There are, however, several bodies of theory and opinion either on the subject of self-education or subjects closely related to it. A number of psychologists (e.g., Rogers [1969, 1977], Maslow [1954], and Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman [1951] help students or patients to gain control of their lives by helping them to make their own decisions, to actualize their own potential, and to convert their inner conflicts into inner dialogues so they can resolve them. Other psychologists (e.g., Bradford, Gibb & Benne [1964], Harris [1973], and Schmuck, Runkel, Satunen, Martell, & Derr [1972] help students and patients learn about themselves through different froms of group process: the self-directed Training-Group, the transactional group that learns to analyze and modify the interactions membes have with each other, and the group method of management that enables organizations to be productive while cultivating individual growth. On a more personal level, Schutz [1967] and others have described ways of increasing our personal awareness and responsiveness by becoming more sensitive to our inner lives, the world around us, and other people.

A number of writers have developed arguments and techniques for personalizing education, and even for teaching people to teach themselves. George Isaac Brown [1971] describes ways to make academic learning a personal experience. Alan Tough [1971, 1978], discovering that nearly all adults conduct ambitious self-directed learning projects every year, analyzes their duration, nature, and purpose. Edgar Faure, chairman of the UNESCO committee that produced the book Learning to Be [1972], concludes that education must combine practical experience with academic studies, and it must do this in a way that promotes self-education and prepares people for life-long learning.

Recent developments in both humanistic and behaviorist psychology are also potential contributions to self-education theory. Russell Hill, in “Internality: An Educational Imperative” [1978], traces the relationship between an internal locus of control over events and desirable traits of personal, educational, and social behavior. Herbert Benson [1975] and Claudio Naranjo [1971] demonstrate the broad spectrum of beneficial effects that accompany deep relaxation and meditation, pointing to the potential usefulness of zen, yoga, and other Eastern disciplines of mind to self-education and becoming expert. A number of more behavioral theorists (e.g., Watson & Tharp, 1972]; Barbara Brown, 1974; and Mahoney & Thoreson, 1974] describe ways of teaching people to plan their own programs of action, feedback, and reinforcement.

The tradition of the self-tutored expert, the self-made man, is recorded in the popular, very widely read self-help literature [e.g., Maltz, 1960; Peale, 1952; Smiles, 1888] which urges people to think positively, to imagine themselves already successful, and to act dynamically and with confidence. One aspect of the self-help formula, personal will, is also discussed by several pyschologists [Assagioli, 1974; May, 1969; and Frankl, 1969] as the essential ingredient of personal efficacy and accomplishment. Will, they say, is the source of the initiative, drive, and persistence necessary to energize and sustain self-directed activity. Theorists concerned with the pattern of human development, such as Erikson [1950] and Levinson [1978], also conclude that these aspects of will are important. In the form of autonomy, initiative, industry, competence, and intimacy they become the major goals of personal growth and the dimensions of maturity. Finally, there is the literature describing and analyzing life histories [Collins & Moore, 1970; Csikszentmihalyi & Beattie, 1978; and Goertzels & Goertzels, 1962]. Collins and Moore studied the lives of entrepreneurs, the Goertzels analyzed the biographies of famous and notorious people, while Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie studied the life themes of thirty ordinary subjects. A significant number of the subjects in each study were self-taught. The entrepreneurs – hard drivers primarily in pursuit of financial rewards – learn from practical experience and often suffer several failures en route to their success. Among the many commonalities shared by the Goertzels’ subjects, one prominent feature was their drive toward achievement, a feature also displayed by their parents [although the subjects and their parents also share respect for learning, three-quarters of the subjects had problems at school, especially high school.] Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie propose that the pattern of this drive is shaped by life themes whichb begin as the pursuit of solutions to specific personal problems and develop into generalized response-systems to problems in later life.

Each of these bodies of literature raises issues and ideas of importance to self-education, but they have not, as yet, been integrated into a coherent theory or practice for a form of education which will teach people to pursue excellence voluntarily in a productive field of human activfity. One useful approach, the analysis of lives, will be pursued in this study

The Procedure

One of the most promising sources of knowledge about self-education is the live sof people who became expert in a field which did not include formal training. Adapting the method employed by Collins and Moore, Goertzels and Goertzels, and Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie, we decided to study the biographies of a sample of self-educated people to find out if they shared characteristics and experiences that might help us to understand the dynamics of the self-education process. These we defined as people who became expert in any socially accepted field of human activity without formal training past high school or the equivalent [except Frank Lloyd Wright who studied one year at a university]. Although the decision eliminated self-educated people like Mendel, Michaelangelo, Spinoza, and Shakespeare, we restricted the sample to those whose contribution was made in the last hundred years.

Our sample was not randomly chosen. We simply constructed a list of subjects as broadly representative as our resources allowed. Only much later did we discover more than 450 self-educated people sufficiently expert in their fields to deserve biographies or autobiographies in print. Nevertheless, when we later developed four different groups of subjects – entertainers; inventors, explorers, and creators; people of letters, science and philosophy; and administrators, organizers and builders – we found all four well represented in the list we had assembled. A modified free-sort system was employed to gather and classify the data. We began reading the biographies to find any item of any kind which could possibly have influenced our subjects’ lives and their becoming expert in their fields. When readers found such items, they identified the book and page on the file card, then wrote a precise, one-sentence summary of the reference. After the biographies of six of our subjects had been analyzed, the several hundred cards were spread over large tables and the process of category building began. All the readers consulted in the sorting and re-sorting. Eventually, the cards were piled into 154 categories, each representing a distinctive feature of the subject’s nature, life, or times. These categories were consolidated into the following eight metacategories:

1. Background (e.g., family, community, personal history)

2. Subject’s Personal Characteristics

3. Subject’s Learning Methods

4. Subject’s Relationships with Others

5. Conditions under which the Subject Lived

6. Key Incidents in the Subject’s Life

7. Motives, Causes, Reasons behind the Subject’s Behavior

8. Subject’s Attitudes, Opinions and Philosophy

To establish and maintain clarity in the minds of the readers about the 154 categories, a definition of each was written and recorded. A rating scale which included all the categories was then developed from this dictionary of definitions. When a reader finished a book and filled out the cards, he or she then rated each item on a scale of 1 to 7 according to its apparent influence on the subjects’ becoming expert in his field. From numerical averages of these ratings on the twenty subjects, the 154 items were listed in rank order. The 40 items judged by the readers to be most influential on the subjects are listed in Table 2.

Analysis of Data

The subjects of this study were not selected as models to be emulated but as eminent, self-educated people from whose lives something of the self-education process might be learned.

The purpose of our analysis is to find clues rather than proofs, clues that will both lead us to more pointed empirical investigations of self-directed learners and guide our search for effective ways to teach self-directed learning. An overview of the list of our twenty subjects in Table 1 and the list of forty characteristics in Table 2 leads to several obvious but important conclusions about self-education which seem to differ from the assumptions underlying formal schooling. First, there is great diversity in the kinds of expertise developed by these widely admired people and in the kinds of skills they require to become experts in their fields. This contrasts with the narrow range of fields and skills emphasized in many schools. Second, their accomplishment grows directly out of their extracurricular life experiences. School seems to play a remarkably insignificant role in their becoming expert, and when it is influential, the effect is often reported as negative. Third, rather than learn a little bit about many subjects, these people tend to focus sharply upon one particular area of activity. They maintain unbroken concentration on one problem, project, or cluster of skills. This contrasts with the rapidly changing focus and concentration typical of undergraduate schooling. Many of our subjects became knowledgeable in an array of fields during the process of becoming expert in their own. Many also achieve wisdom based upon their wide experience. But it is possible for some to become expert in their fields without having the breadth of knowledge or culture usually stated as a goal of formal education. Fourth, they tend to develop their expertise through active, experiential,, self-directed, situational, often challenging means rather than the passive, abstract-theoretical, teacher-directed means which often occur in classroom situations where the challenge is predictable and controlled. Finally, these subjects seem to have unusual strength of character which enables them to pursue their purposes even against great odds, in the face of public disapproval and in spite of failures.

The most prominent group of characteristics identified in the study describes this strength of character in more detail. Several of them are related to drive: industriousness, perseverance, self-disciplined study, self-confidence, assertiveness, and ambition. Several are related to independence of thought: curiosity, single-minded pursuit, ingenuity, independent exploration, and nonconformity. Several characteristics are also related to talent: creativity, natural ability in the chosen field, ingenuity, intelligence and a well-developed memory. Several suggest a strong moral or philosophical element. Besides those characteristics usually associated with the protestant ethic (e.g. industriousness and perseverance), integrity, altruistic motives, and strong personal guiding principles are also reported regularly. The subjects in this group are also characterized by their attractive personalities and good health. They tend to have personal charisma, to be sensitive to others, to be optimistic, to be pleasing in appearance, and to have a sense of humor. In addition, they have good physical and mental health and tend to live accident-free lives, characteristics confirmed by Maslow’s study of self-actualizing people.

The homes the subjects of this study come from seem to share some characteristics, and their relationships with people outside the family also seem important. The members of the family tend to be warm in expressing feeling for each other. The parents model active lives and encourage or require their children to participate, often in challenging activities. The family tends to stay together, offering a more or less coherent base for the subjects during their early years. As Goertzels and Goertzels found in their study of eminent people generally, the mother seems to be the major parental influence in the majority of cases. Beyond the family these subjects find a few people who support them, their ideas and their efforts, no matter what difficulties arise. Sometimes a partner provides the primary relationship and even the complementary skill or knowledge to make the mutual activity successful, as Orville did for Wilbur Wright’s early efforts and Eb Iwerks did for Walt Disney’s. When people are functioning independently in unique ways in unusual fields, a social support system seems to become a vitally important aspect of maintenance and development.

Among our 20 self-educated subjects, most developed an interest in their fields during their youth. Some key experience either incited their interest in the activity or consolidated it. As a result of their interest, they launched a single-minded pursuit of excellence in which the main method they employed was self-disciplined and self-directed study. This they accomplished by independent exploration of the field through their own investigations or experiments by observing experts working in the field, and by reading everything they could relating to the problems and issues that concerned them. Accidents or coincidence seem to play an important part. Chance occurrences often led to a new perspective that enabled them to solve problems and make breakthroughs in understanding.

It seems inevitable that people who take an independent position or pursue a valuable goal come into conflict or competition with others. This usually motivates the self-educating subject to even greater learning or effort. The economic environment seems to work both ways: sometimes people seem successful because they struggle to overcome poverty, and others seem successful because their economic independence – or disregard for wealth – left them free to pursue their work. From another point of view, they seem determined or destined to become expert and successful, and neither being poor and abused nor rich and spoiled seems able to deflect their course. One of the strongest motivators seems to be personal accomplishments that have the desired effect on the world. Whether they are cartoons, buildings, novels, paintings, athletic victories, the success of labor in combating management, the development of new industrial processes, or the formulation of satisfying philosophical statements, simply doing the activity seems rewarding. Working toward an ambitious goal gives the subjects’ efforts order, direction, and purpose: The promise of such recognition and reward makes the goal even more important.

Analysis of these twenty subjects’ biographies resulted in a list of component parts. Is there any way of reassembling these representative parts into a pure personality called the self-educated person? If we cannot design the prototypical model, we can sketch an experimental design of a life theme that seems common among those who become expert without formal training. Although greatly different from each other in many other aspects of personal history, they do seem to share the following narrative plot:

Some primary experience, usually during youth, focuses their attention and interest on a particular field of expertise. This is followed by a single-minded pursuit of excellence in the field largely through self-disciplined study and activity. Early on, they place themselves, or are placed, in a demanding position which forces them to learn fast and perform skillfully under pressure. Their achievements and the resulting recognition from others consolidates their interest and encourages them to go on. The activity becomes a way of life. Their previous experience seems to open them to unusual opportunities, on the one hand, and intense conflict and opposition on the other. In retrospect, both seem to have somehow contributed to their expertise and success. Throughout this period they are helped by a primary relationship with a colleague, a friend or a lover who provides support or the missing ingredient to make the subject successful. Development continues through a pattern of incidents which cast new light on the field and by challenges which lead to new insights.

While this pattern may be limited to the lives of talented people, it seems equally likely that it may be the pattern by which any person can discover and develop the unique potential for talented behavior which each of us possesses. These people have stumbled upon life themes that give expression to their interest, ability, past experiences, and present opportunities. They learn early to focus on the field of activity they find compelling and to relate all their random experience to it. In this way, they tap into the process that leads to accomplishment, expertise, self-education and their recognition as talented people. Talent may be the retrospective acknowledgement that a person has identified and intensively pursued his or her work. Talent may be a product people create, rather than a gift they receive. In this regard, most schools seem to cultivate and reward a narrow segment of the spectrum of talent for expertise, and they seem designed to ensure that no one is able to focus his attention and effort on any life theme. This study suggests a number of changes that might lead to more people finding their work and learning how to develop challenging and satisfying themes of activity throughout their lives.


These descriptions of informally educated experts suggest a number of interesting alternatives to traditional practices in schooling, but our analysis must be tempered by recognition of some fundamental weaknesses in the procedures we used. The most important is that a biography is a questionable data base open to many forms of bias. An autobiography is even more vulnerable. Important facts may be withheld or distorted by the subject or the author. Events, motives, and causal relationships without any basis in fact may be added intentionally or unconsciously. Even the mores and fashions of the times may leave their imprint on life stories so that when industriousness and perseverance, for instance, are respected virtues, they tend to appear in portraits of admired people written at that time. In autobiographies we may be reading the authors’ advertisements for themselves, often describing what they wished had been rather than what actually was. The free-sort technique and the rating-scale used in this study also lend themselves to human error. The categories created by the raters may be slanted by their nature and training, just as differences in their viewpoints may lead to widespread differences in ratings, even of the same book.

Not much can be done to eliminate the biases inherent in biography and autobiography except to be aware of them. Authoritative biographies can be searched out, or several biographies of the same person can be used wherever possible or necessary. The free-sort was polished in a number of ways. To improve the recognition of items for each category and the reader’s ability to rate their importance, the category definitions were sharpened and examples were added. By conducting regular reviews of the cue-cards on which the items concerning each subject were summarized, we were able to monitor the quality of the entries. For further clarification, all the readers read and rated the same biography. The interrater reliability, when analyzed, was well within an acceptable range, but more important, when we examined specific differences in the ratings, they proved to arise from different interpretations of the categories among the readers. These categories were subsequently debated and redefined.

Several reviewers of the study complained that analyzing people whose success could be attributed to their native talent proves nothing except that exceptional people do exceptionally well at what they do. Others complained that no failures were examined so the sample is loaded. Failures, they argue, tell us as much about what works and why as success does. Another group argued that our references to self-education were meaningless because all people are self-educated. and still another group argued that very few of our subjects can be called educated by any of the normally accepted criteria we expect can educated person to meet.

These are serious criticisms and deserve response. First, studies have shown that such measures of talent as IQ are not reliable predictors of success in fields of activity outside of educational institutions. Many people identified in school as potential failures become life successes, and many identified as potential successes become failures, even in school. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that talent requires such additional features as character, strategy, interest, energy, encouragement, and opportunity. It also seems possible to hypothesize that if the right combination of ability, experience, interest, opportunity, and encouragement can be found, every person can be expert, excellent, and therefore judged in retrospect to be talented. Next, studying failures may be helpful. Unfortunately, not many have biographies written about their lives. Samuel Smiles (1888), the author of the 19th Century best-seller Self-Help , when criticized for studying only success, answered,

...there is reason to doubt whether (failure) is an object to be set before youth...Indeed, “how not to do it” is of all things the easiest learnt: it needs neither teaching, effort, self-denial, industry, patience, perseverance, nor judgment. Besides, readers do not care to know about the general who lost his battles (or) the engineer whose engines blew up...It is true the best of men may fail, in the best of causes. But even these best men did not try to fail, or regard their failure as meritorious [pp.iv-v].

All education is self-education in the same way that all jumping is high-jumping. Just as sure as you can distinguish a high jump from an ordinary jump, you can distinguish self-directed education from teacher-directed education, even though the individual ends up doing the learning-or the jumping-in both instances. In self-directed education, the individual masters all the activities usually conducted by the teacher: selecting goals, selecting content, selecting and organizing learning experiences, managing one’s time and effort, evaluating progress and redesigning one’s strategies for greater effect. In addition, the student of self-directed learning, must have the initiative to launch these processes as well as the personal motivation to continue learning, even when there is no pressure, guidance, or extrinsic reward. In self-directed education the student has the major responsibility for the purposes and methods of learning as well as the achievement of learning involved.

Finally, the question of the educated person. Is Ali an educated man? Was Picasso, when he could neither read nor write? What about Hemingway, a tinkerer like Thomas Edison, a rough union man like John L. Lewis, or even Jesus for that matter? It may be argued that a study of experts can only help us to understand how people became self-trained and not how they became self-educated. Education, the argument continues, requires the development of a range of knowledge, a refinement of taste, a strength of character, and a concern for issues that transcends self-interest. Education in this sense is not guaranteed by schooling, nor is it denied to the self-educated. Self-educated people approach this more refined, more profound state of learning by a different route, but many apparently do attain it, as an examination of the list of names in Table I will show. George Bernard Shaw, H.L. Mencken, and Virginia Woolf were educated people by anyone’s standards. The opposite argument may also be made, that a person is not educated if he or she has knowledge and refinement, but is incompetent in dealing with real-life issues, even in his or her own field. An ideal learning system will lead both to expertise and to the broader characteristics of an educated person; it will be a system for teaching oneself everything about something as well as something about everything; and it will be a system that may begin with teacher-directed learning, but always concludes with the power and skill to direct learning securely in the hands of the students. Nevertheless, the subjects were chosen as examples from which we can learn about self-education, not as examples of self-education to be emulated.


On the basis of this limited study we could call for the examination of a larger sample of self-educated subjects by different readers. That is being done. More important, we could call for empirical investigation of some of the principles of self-directed learning that emerged from this study. That, hopefully, will be done by some scholars interested in this subject. We have chosen to develop our knowledge about self-education by trial and error with programs in the field rather than tests in a laboratory. That is, we have chosen to formulate some tentative principles about self-education, to translate these theoretical principles into strategies we can teach to people, and then to modify both strategies and principles interactively as we find successful combinations and eliminate unsuccessful ones during practice.

The following principles of self-education, and their implications for teaching, have been extrapolated from this study for that purpose:

1. In self-education the locus of control is in the self-educator whereas in formal education the locus of control is in institutions, their representatives, or their prescriptions. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to internalize control over their own learning.

2. Self-education is usually a concentrated effort in one field rather than a general study of many. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to identify and become expert at the activity or activities that may become central in their lives

3. Self-education is usually applied education – learning for immediate application to a task, and from the practical experience involved in executing it. Teaching for self-education involves integrating theoretical studies with technical training and practical application. It means learning for specific use now rather than learning for possible use years later.

4. Self-educators are self-motivated, that is, they are committed to achievement in the field of their choice, even when faced with difficulties. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to generate their own drive toward their own goals rather than stimulating them to pursue goals set for them by others.

5. Self-education is usually guided by a vision of accomplishment, recognition or rewards valued highly by the individual. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to see themselves successfully experiencing very desirable attainments. It involves learning to plan an effective way of making that vision a reality.

6. Self-educators tend to settle on the particular field in which their interests, talents, past experiences, and opportunities are combined. Teaching for self-education involves patterns of exploration which enable students to try out a wide range of fields of activity.

7. Self-educators tend to settle on the unique pattern of formal, informal and casual methods by which they learn best – drawing from such possibilities as study, observation, experience, courses, training, conversation, practice, trial and error, apprenticeship, productive activity, group interaction, events and projects. Teaching involves helping each student to develop a personal learning style.

8. Self-education involves the development of attributes traditionally associated with people of character: integrity, self-discipline, perseverance, industriousness, altruism, sensitivity to others, and strong guiding principles. Teaching for self-education should promote, model, and reward the development of personal integrity rather than the opportunistic pursuit of offered rewards, of self-discipline rather than obedience, of inner drive rather than the avoidance of punishment or the pursuit of artificial rewards, of caring rather than sustained competition and of strong internalized principles rather than externally imposed rules.

9. Self-education involves the development of attributes usually associated with self-directed and unique, even radical, people: drive, independence of thought, nonconformity, originality, and talent. Teaching for self-education involves promoting drive rather than passivity, independence rather than dependence, originality rather than conformity, and the talents that make individuals unique rather than the tasks that make them all act the same

10. Self-educators use reading and other process skills to gain access to the information and guidance they need for their projects. Teaching for self-education involves training in the process skills, such as reading and remembering, especially at the moment students urgently need to gain access to information.

11. Self-education emerges as a theme that runs through a number of important experiences in the person’s youth; later experiences maintain and develop the theme until it becomes a conscious focus of choices in the person’s life. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to identify themes emerging in their lives, to build on those they choose, and to create new themes they desire.

12. Self-education is best cultivated in a warm, supportive, coherent environment in which people generally are active and there is a close relationship with at least one other person. Teaching for self-education involves creating an active environment in which a student’s self-directed activities are warmly supported and there are many opportunities to form close working relationships.

13. Self-educated people seem to like others and to be liked or admired by them; they seem to be healthy in attitude, body, and mind. Teaching for self-education involves promoting a holistic approach to learning so that students not only master some knowledge or skill, but they also develop a healthy attitude toward themselves, others, the world and their activities.

14. In addition to cultivating expertise, the characteristics described above outline a process of education suitable for the development of a mature personality, for achieving self-actualization and for the process of learning. Teaching for self-education involves helping each student to become an expert, a participant, and a person. These principles will become the basis for programs developed by the self-education study team at Simon Fraser University. We have already designed and field-tested a challenge program based upon individually negotiated learning contracts. That program is now in its third generation. The systematic implementation, evaluation, and modification of self-directed learning programs will continue until we have a set of principles which generate practices that enable people to become expert without formal training.


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