Educate yourself!

Swami Vivekananda has said many wonderful things about Education. I have been immersed in Swamiji and his ideas for quite some time now, right from my boyhood. My fascination for him keeps growing. I will quote one statement he made in his monumental book ‘Karma Yoga’ related to education. He said, “No one was ever really taught by another. Each of us has to teach himself. The external teacher offers only the suggestion which rouses the internal teacher to work to understand things.[1]” Elsewhere too, he said very similar things. For instance, he says in the course of a conversation with a disciple, “You see, no one can teach anybody. The teacher spoils everything by thinking that he is teaching. Thus Vedanta says that within man is all knowledge – even in a boy it is so – and it requires only an awakening. And that much is the work of a teacher. We have only to do so much for the boys that they may learn to apply their own intellect to the proper use of their hands, legs, ears, eyes, etc. and finally everything will become easy[2].” Consider again what he said in the course of a lecture, “You cannot make a plant grow in soil unsuited to it. A child teaches itself. But you can help it go forward in its own way. What you do is not of the positive nature, but of the negative. You can take away the obstacles, but knowledge comes out of the child’s own nature. Loosen the soil a little, so that it may come easily. Put a hedge around it. See that it is not killed by anything. There your work stops. You cannot do anything else. The rest is a manifestation from within its own nature. So with the education of a child; a child educates itself.[3]

As I have often pointed out, there is nothing much that has happened in our country based on Swamiji’s ideas of education. But the trends in education in the world show that the entire world is moving towards realizing his conception of education! I will choose just one such trending idea called ‘Autodidactism’, which is in fact an avant-garde concept today, especially in the US and Europe. Although this alternate scheme of education is recently being accorded some attention, the conception is something that has all along been around in this world.

Swamiji’s entire scheme of work was designed to mass-produce excellence in the people in this world. In a lecture called ‘Methods & Purpose of Religion’, he very specifically says: “The time is to come when prophets will walk through every street in every city in the world. In olden times, particular, peculiar persons were, so to speak, selected by the operations of the laws of society to become prophets. The time is coming when we shall understand that to become religious means to become a prophet; that none can become religious until he or she becomes a prophet. We shall come to understand that the secret of religion is not being able to think and say all these thoughts; but, as the Vedas teach, to realize them, to realize newer and higher one than have ever been realized, to discover them, bring them to society; and the study of religion should be the training to make prophets. The schools and colleges should be training grounds for prophets. The whole universe must become prophets[4].”

I propose to show that Swamiji’s ideas on education have tremendous relevance in the years to come, although right now, hardly any of his ideas on education have taken a concrete shape[5].

I will begin my lecture by giving you a list of people who were considered as geniuses and made tremendous achievements in their own particular fields of human interest. There is a reason why I am giving a fairly long list of persons. Please listen to each name and his achievement with attention.

  • Leonardo da Vinci: was an Italian polymath. He was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, botanist and a writer. Note that I am not mentioning da Vinci as an artist, because he was a fully trained artist, having obtained rigorous training through the Guild System that existed during the Renaissance period in Europe. But his contributions in the remaining respects are none the less significant in history.


  • Jose Saramago: began the study of mechanics in order to become a car repair mechanic. He then worked as a locksmith for a metal company. Nobody remembers him as an exceptional mechanic or locksmith. The world remembers him today as the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1998!


  • Rabindranath Tagore: was a Bengali polymath who shaped Bengal’s literature and music. His contributions to the field of education too were very far-reaching. He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for his seminal work ‘Gitanjali’.


  • William Blake: His mother enrolled him in a school that taught drawing, but no other formal subjects. He however read widely on subjects of his own choice. He is remembered today as one of the greatest poets of English.


  • Maxim Gorky: was so poor from birth that he was not able to attend school at any point in his life. His writings are however world famous today, having been translated to over 100 languages! He was a much acclaimed writer & dramatist, whose writings influenced the political upheavals in Tsarist Russia. He is also considered the founder of the Socialist Realism Literature.


  • George Bernard Shaw: could never complete his schooling since he had to start earning right in his teens. He worked as a clerk in an Estate firm. He is today known as the greatest English Playwright and Dramatist since Shakespeare. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. He is the only person to have been awarded both the Nobel Prize and the Oscar!


  • Ernest Hemingway: did finish his school, but did not enter college. He instead took up a job as a reporter for the Kansas City Star Newspaper. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 for his novels and short stories.


  • Louis L’Amour: is a best-selling author of novels of a wide variety of genres including wild western, science fiction & short stories, which are avidly read even today. Many of his wild western novels have been made into blockbuster movies. He couldn’t complete his schooling since he ran away from home when he was 15. He took up a large number of jobs in order to educate himself.


  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: is considered as the National Poet of Germany. His poems were so mellifluous that they were set to music by innumerable musical giants including  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Charles Gounod, Richard Wagner, Hugo Wolf, and Gustav Mahler. He was too poor to attend school when he was young!


  • Kishore Kumar: was one of the most famous playback singers in India. He never received any formal training in classical Indian music or any other genre of music!


  • Extremely famous and successful Hollywood actors, movie directors who became iconic figures like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderberg, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Russel Crowe[6] were all self-made persons. They were most of them educated in the same school and college system that is present now, but none of them ever received any sort of systematic training in the fields in which they actually excelled.


  • So too did neither of these musicians receive any sort of systematic training in the various fields of music that each of these iconic figures excelled in. most of these persons were so influential with their particular genre of music that they have inspired entire generations of musicians! – Keith Moon[7], David Bowie[8], Jimi Hendrix[9].


  • Architects such as Gustave Eiffel, Frank Lloyd Wright & Le Corbusier were all self-taught people. One would expect that a person like Eiffel who designed and erected the famous Eiffel Tower, the landmark of Paris, would be a trained Engineer. He wasn’t! Neither was Frank Lloyd who designed over 1000 projects, nor Le Corbusier whose designs led to the creation of the Modernist Architecture!


  • Scientists and Inventors like James Watt, Thomas Alva Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Michael Faraday[10], Benjamin Franklin, Buckminster Fuller[11], Oliver Heaviside, Thomas Huxley and Antoine van Leeuwenhoek never completed formal education. Yet each one of them made everlasting contributions to the fund of human knowledge! Many among them made contributions to more than one field of human interest, and all that without any formal education!


  • Famous mathematicians like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz[12] , Srinivas Ramanujam and John Forbes Nash[13] were not able to complete their schooling!


  • Karl Marx[14]: the Father of Communism was self-taught in economics! He taught himself economics in the British Library, during his study in London.


  • Statesmen and Heads of State like Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler[15] and Paul Keating[16] were all self-taught persons!

All of these persons never received any formal education or training in the fields in which they excelled! They are all self-taught persons. They are all what is termed today as ‘Autodidacts’.

I have given a fairly long list for just one reason. The concept of Self-Education is not entirely new nor does Swamiji claim to have discovered it. What Swamiji has done with respect to this concept of education is this:

  1. He discerned that most of the glowing examples of human excellence were a product of not a systematic ‘factory-model’ education. Rather most were the products of self-education or in other words, they were autodidacts.
  2. He questioned the objective of this ‘factory-model education and found that it was meant to serve a very particular, short-term goal of the society. He said, “Getting by heart the thoughts of others in a foreign language, and stuffing your brain with them and taking some university degrees, you consider yourself educated! Fie upon you! Is this education? What is the goal of your education? Either a clerkship, or being a roguish lawyer, or at the most a Deputy Magistracy, which is another form of clerkship – isn’t that all? What good will it do you or the country at large? Open your eyes and see…”
  3. He then claimed that the style of education that has produced so many original persons, whose contributions have opened up entire new horizons of human knowledge and led to incredible human achievements, could indeed be brought to the ken of everyone on society. As a result, there could be a possibility of mass-producing human excellence, [if we may be allowed to use the clichéd term ‘mass-production’ in this context.]
  4. He studied the life of his own master Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and found that he was himself an Autodidact. If a style of education, that had produced an end-result such as his own master, could be looped inside a system and opened out to the masses, imagine the immense good it would do to mankind! Such was his conception.

Now, I will present before you some experiments in alternate styles of education that have been done in various parts of the world – alternate styles of education, which can indeed be systematized into institutions, thereby approximating to a materialization of Swamiji’s revolutionary conception of education. Please listen to these ideas with patience. I am sure you will leave this hall with the conclusion that Swamiji’s ideas of education are actually ideas which are as yet biding their time in the world.

I will begin by presenting to you case study of three important persons – Newton, Darwin and Einstein. We will draw some conclusions from this case study. Then we shall look at some of the attempts made at systematizing alternate models of education that could approximate to a model that would emerge if Swamiji’s ideas on education were to materialize.

Genius & Critical Thinking: Three case-studies[17]

Most people think that genius is the primary determinant of intellectual achievement. Yet three of the all-time greatest thinkers had in common, not inexplicable genius, but a questioning mind. Their intellectual skills and inquisitive drive embodied the essence of critical thinking. Through skilled deep and persistent questioning, they redesigned our view of the physical world and the universe.

Consider Newton. Uninterested in the set curriculum at Cambridge, Newton at 19 drew up a list of questions under 45 heads. His title ‘Quaestiones’ signaled his goal: constantly to question the nature of matter, place, time, and motion. His style was to slog his way to knowledge. For example, he “bought Descartes’s Geometry and read it by himself. When he got over 2 or 3 pages he could understand no farther, then he began again and advanced farther and continued so doing till he made himself master of the whole.” When asked how he had discovered the law of universal gravitation, he said: “By thinking on it continually! I keep the subject constantly before me and wait till the first dawning opens slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.” This pattern of consistent, almost relentless questioning, led him to the depth of understanding and reconstruction of previous theories about the universe.

Darwin’s experience and approach to learning were similar to Newton’s. First, he found traditional instruction discouraging. “During my second year at Edinburgh I attended lectures on Geology and Zoology, but they were incredibly dull. The sole effect they produced in me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the science.” His experience at Cambridge was similar: “During the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted. The work was repugnant to me, chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in it!” Like Newton and Einstein, Darwin had a careful mind rather than a quick one: “I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time, but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others.” In pursuing intellectual questions, Darwin relied upon perseverance and continual reflection, rather than memory and quick reflexes. “I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or line of poetry.”  Instead, he had “the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. At no time am I a quick thinker or writer. Whatever I have done in science has solely been by long pondering, patience, and industry.”

Einstein, for his part, did so poorly in school that when his father asked his son’s headmaster what profession his son should adopt, the answer was simply, “It doesn’t matter; he’ll never make a success of anything.” In high school, the regimentation “created in him a deep suspicion of authority. This feeling lasted all his life, without qualification.” Einstein commented that his schooling required “the obedience of a corpse.” The effect of the regimented school was a clear-cut reaction by Einstein; he learned “to question and doubt.” He concluded: “Youth is intentionally being deceived by the State through lies.” He showed no signs of being a genius, and as an adult denied that his mind was extraordinary: “I have no particular talent. I am merely extremely inquisitive.” He failed his entrance examination to the Zurich Polytechnic. When he finally passed, “the examinations so constrained his mind that, when he had graduated, he did not want to think about scientific problems for a year.” His final exam was so non-distinguished that afterward he was refused a post as an assistant (the lowest grade of postgraduate job). Exam-taking, then, was not his forte. Questioning deeply and thinking critically was! Einstein had the basic critical thinking ability to cut problems down to size: “one of his greatest intellectual gifts, in small matters as well as great, was to strip off the irrelevant frills from a problem.”

When we consider the work of these three thinkers, Einstein, Darwin, and Newton, we find, not the unfathomable, genius mind. Rather we find thinkers who placed deep and fundamental questions at the heart of their work and pursued them passionately!

Tangential Learning[18]:

This is the process by which people will self-educate if a topic is exposed to them in a context that they already enjoy. For example, after playing a music-based video game, some people may be motivated to learn how to play a real instrument. Or after watching a TV show that references Bernard Shaw and Tagore, some people may be inspired to read the original works. Self-education can be improved with systematization. According to experts in natural learning, self-oriented learning training has proven to be an effective tool for assisting independent learners with the natural phases of learning.

Active learning[19]:

This is the learning that occurs when a person takes control of their learning experience. Since understanding information is the key aspect of learning, it is important for learners to recognize what they understand and what they do not. By doing so, they can monitor their own mastery of subjects. Active learning encourages learners to have an internal dialogue in which they are verbalizing their understandings. This and other meta-cognitive strategies can be taught to a child over time. Studies within metacognition have proven the value in active learning, claiming that the learning is usually at a stronger level as a result. In addition, learners have more incentive to learn when they have control over not only how they learn but also what they learn.

Autonomous learning:

Autonomous learning is a school of education which sees learners as individuals who can and should be autonomous i.e. be responsible for their own learning climate. Autonomous education helps students develop their self-consciousness, vision, practicality and freedom of discussion. These attributes serve to aid the student in his/her independent learning. Autonomous learning is very popular with those who home educate their children. The child usually gets to decide what projects they wish to tackle or what interests to pursue. In home education this can be instead of or in addition to regular subjects like doing math or English. According to a paper on Home Education by the Dept of Education, United Kingdom, the autonomous education philosophy emerged from the epistemology of Karl Popper in The Myth of the Framework: In Defense of Science and Rationality.


Homeschooling or home-school (also called home-education or home-based-learning) is the education of children at home, typically by parents or by tutors, rather than in other formal settings of public or private school. Although prior to the introduction of compulsory school attendance laws, most childhood education occurred within the family or community, homeschooling in the modern sense is an alternative in developed countries to attending public or private schools. Homeschooling is a legal option for parents in many countries, allowing them to provide their children with a learning environment as an alternative to public or private schools outside the individual’s home.

Parents cite numerous reasons as motivations to homeschool their children. The three reasons that are selected by the majority of homeschooling parents in the United States are concern about the school environment, to provide religious or moral instruction, and dissatisfaction with academic instruction at public and private schools. Homeschooling may also be a factor in the choice of parenting style. Homeschooling can be an option for families living in isolated rural locations, living temporarily abroad, to allow for more traveling, while many young athletes and actors are taught at home. Homeschooling can be about mentorship and apprenticeship, where a tutor or teacher is with the child for many years and then knows the child very well. Recently, homeschooling has increased in popularity in the United States, with the percentage of children 5-17 who are homeschooled increasing from 1.7% in 1999 to 2.9% in 2007.

Homeschooling can be used as a form of supplementary education, a way of helping children learn, in specific circumstances. Homeschooling may also refer to instruction in the home under the supervision of correspondence schools or umbrella schools. In some places, an approved curriculum is legally required if children are to be home-schooled. A curriculum-free philosophy of homeschooling may be called Unschooling, a term coined in 1977 by American educator and author John Holt in his magazine ‘Growing without Schooling’. In some cases, a liberal arts education is provided using the trivium and quadrivium[20], or the Four Arts of China[21] as the main model.

Homeschooling is legal in some countries. Countries with the most prevalent home education movements include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Some countries have highly regulated home education programs as an extension of the compulsory school system; others, such as Sweden and Germany, have outlawed it entirely. Brazil has a law project in process. In other countries, while not restricted by law, homeschooling is not socially acceptable or considered desirable and is virtually non-existent.

Numerous studies may suggest that homeschooled students on average outperform their peers on standardized tests[22]. Homeschooling Achievement, a compilation of studies published by the Home School Legal Defense Association, supported the academic integrity of homeschooling. This booklet summarized a 1997 study by Ray and the 1999 Rudner study. The Rudner study noted two limitations of its own research: it is not necessarily representative of all homeschoolers and it is not a comparison with other schooling methods. Among the homeschooled students who took the tests, the average homeschooled student outperformed his public school peers by 30 to 37 percentile points across all subjects. The study also indicates that public school performance gaps between minorities and genders were virtually non-existent among the homeschooled students who took the tests.

A study conducted in 2008 found that 11,739 homeschooled students, on average, scored 37 percentile points above public school students on standardized achievement tests[23]. This is consistent with the Rudner study (1999). However, Rudner has said that these same students in public school may have scored just as well because of the dedicated parents they had. The Ray study also found that homeschooled students who a certified teacher as a parent had scored one percentile lower than homeschooled students who did not have a certified teacher as a parent.


There was an Educationist by the name of John Holt in the 1970s. He popularized an educational method and philosophy that rejects compulsory school as a primary means for learning. Unschoolers learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interest and curiosity, work experience, travel, books, family, mentors and social interactions. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. Unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in maximizing the education of each unique child.

While this seems quite similar to homeschooling, Unschooling is philosophically different from homeschooling because the proponents of homeschooling are advocates of conventional schooling. Popular critics of Unschooling have voiced concerns that unschooled children may lack social skills, structure and motivation of their peers, especially in the job market. Proponents of Unschooling however hold that that exactly the opposite is true; self-directed education in a natural environment makes a child more equipped to handle the ‘real world’.

A fundamental premise of Unschooling is that curiosity is innate and that children want to learn. From this an argument can be made that institutionalizing children in a so-called ‘one size fits all’ or ‘factory model’ school is an inefficient use of the children’s time. For, this latter scheme demands that each child learn a specific subject matter in a particular manner, at a particular pace, and at a particular time regardless of that individual’s present or future needs, interests, goals, or any pre-existing knowledge the child might have about the topic.

Holt says that learning any specific subject is less important than learning how to learn. His own words are: ‘Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever must be learned.’ Holt asserts that this ability to learn on their own makes it more likely that later, when these children are adults, they can continue to learn what they need to know to meet newly emerging needs, interests and goals. They can return to any subject that they feel was not sufficiently covered or learn a completely new subject.

Unschoolers disagree that there is a particular body of knowledge that every person, regardless of the life they lead, needs to possess. Holt argues, ‘If children are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than anyone else could make for them.’

Unschooling’s interest-based nature does not mean that it is a ‘hands off’ approach to education. Parents will involve themselves, especially with younger children. Older children, unless new to Unschooling, often need less help finding resources and making and carrying out plans. Common parental activities include sharing interesting books, articles, and activities with their children, helping them find knowledgeable people to explore an interest with [anyone from physics professors to automobile mechanics], and helping them set goals and figure out what they need to do to meet their goals.

John Holt points out, ‘The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember. This constant anxiety drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know. Individualized, child-led learning is more efficient and respectful of children’s time, takes advantage of their interests, and allows deeper exploration of subjects than what is possible in conventional education.’

Unschoolers question the school environment as one that is optimal for daily learning. According to Brain Rules by John Medina, ‘If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would create something like a classroom.’

Success and schooling have very little correlation, according to some studies. The present system of education often takes a well-rounded approach that may attempt to compensate for students’ weaknesses rather than building upon individual strengths and skills that they will eventually utilize professionally. I presented a list of autodidacts in the beginning of my lecture to highlight this very fact that many highly successful people, including Heads of States, scientists, writers, actors, inventors and educators were home-schooled or dropped out of school. Doesn’t this suggest clearly that education is a matter of curiosity and desire rather than academic achievement?

Self-regulation of learning[25]:

For Self-education to be fruitful, the child must possess self-discipline and reflective capability. Some research suggests that being able to regulate one’s own learning is something which must be modeled to students, for it is not a natural human tendency for the population at large[26]. Thus, focused attention has been given on imparting self-regulation techniques and Metacognition techniques to children. While schools and colleges are thriving, so are the new institutions like Udacity and Khan Academy, which are web-based learning centers allowing innumerable people to be autodidacts in the present age. We shall look briefly at these two ideas of Self-Regulated Learning and Metacognition.

A learner needs to actively give meaning to what he learns. It is learning that is important and not instruction. There is a particular set of skills, which has been called ‘Learning to Learn Skills’, possessing which, one will be able to learn more effectively. It is crucial to transfer as much responsibility for learning to the students themselves. Students at any age are capable of taking charge of their own learning. That’s what babies do when they play in their cribs.

There is a set of clearly defined tasks that all self-regulated learners do when faced with a learning task. They are:

  • They begin by analyzing the task and interpreting task requirements in terms of their current knowledge and beliefs.
  • They set task-specific goals, which they use as a basis for selecting, adapting, and possibly inventing strategies that will help them accomplish their objectives.
  • After implementing strategies, they monitor their progress towards goals, thereby generating internal feedback about the success of their efforts.
  • They adjust their strategies and efforts based on their perception of ongoing progress.
  • They use motivational strategies to keep themselves on task when they become discouraged or encounter difficulties.

Self-regulated learners are flexible. They don’t do these tasks just once. Rather, they go through the above list recursively, looping back to make adjustments as necessary.

Thus, self-regulated learning refers to taking charge of our own learning by coordinating the thinking skills that we all have. Self-regulated learning essentially has the following three components:

  1. Self-observation: Deliberate attention to specific aspects of one’s own behaviors.
  2. Self-adjustment: Comparing one’s current progress towards a goal with a standard.
  3. Self-Reaction: Making evaluative responses to judgments of one’s own performance.

This means, these learners regulate their own learning by observing what they are able to do, then comparing what they have observed to a standard of some kind and making judgments about the quality of this performance, and finally making plans regarding what to do next.

Learning-to-Learn” Skills[27]:

These include the following:

  1. Attention-Control: This set of skills involves the students’ awareness of when they are and when they are not attending to a task. If learners develop conscious control of this process, learning improves. While you are reading a book, your attention may occasionally be diverted to something else. If you cannot catch yourself and get back on task, you are not likely to learn much from that book.
  2. Goal-Setting: Successful students set goals that challenge their capabilities. Students will learn more if they can set both long-term and short-term goals and know the difference between them. If you see a way to gain something from listening to my lecture, you are going to learn more from it than if you see no point in this lecture. Good learners see a purpose in what they are doing. Weak learners often do things purely because they are told to do so.
  3. Cognitive-Restructuring: involves verbal mediation and affirmation. When we talk to ourselves about a task, our thoughts become more salient and more manageable. An affirmation is the statement of a positive self-belief regarding a task. Learners who make positive affirmations and who talk to themselves clearly about tasks learn more effectively than those who do not do so.

This term therefore means that the learner uses intellectual processes to restructure the information that he or she is trying to process. This intellectual re-statement makes it more likely that the information will be the focus of attention in the working memory, that it will be transferred effectively from working memory to long-term memory, and that it will be retrieved when it is needed for subsequent use.

Cognitive-restructuring could be a paraphrase, or it can also be any type of self-talk about the information. For instance, ‘Oh, This is like what I read yesterday…’ or ‘This contradicts the principle of…..’ or even, ‘If this is true, then….’

One of the difficulties of this process is that it may be done incorrectly. That is, the learner may restructure the information inaccurately, but not realize this error. When this happens, learning takes place, but it is incorrect learning! The really good learner finds a way to verify the re-statement is accurate. This is one of the reasons why individualized and peer tutoring is so effective.

Children need to develop the ability to talk to themselves constructively.

  1. Self-evaluation: This set of skills focuses on monitoring progress towards a goal. At this point, we are verifying whether we are on track to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves. We often notice that weak students are astonished when they perform inadequately on a test. Good students often know where their strengths and weaknesses are. When they fail, extremely weak students often have no idea what their problem is. On the other hand, good students are able to use failure as a foundation for a plan to do better.

These ideas bring us to a newly-developed, but closely related, topic called Metacognition. Let us look at this topic briefly.


There is an entire school of thought that has come up now that deals with thinking & learning how to think. To be more precise, this field deals with critical thinking.

Critical thinking[28] is the disciplined art of ensuring that you use the best thinking you are capable of in any set of circumstances. The general goal of thinking is to ‘figure out the lay of the land’ in any situation we are in. we all have multiple choices to make. We need the best information to make the best choices. In order to maximize the quality of your thinking, you must learn how to become an effective ‘critic’ of your own thinking. And to become an effective critic of your thinking, you have to make learning about thinking a priority.

Ask yourself these rather unusual questions:

  • What have you learned about how you think?
  • Did you ever study your own thinking?
  • What do you know about how the mind processes information?
  • What do you really know about how to analyze, evaluate, or reconstruct your thinking?
  • Where does your thinking come from?
  • How much of it is of ‘good’ quality?
  • How much of it is of ‘poor’ quality?
  • How much of your thinking is vague, muddled, inconsistent, inaccurate, illogical or superficial?
  • Are you, in any real sense, in control of your thinking?
  • Do you know how to test it?
  • Do you have any conscious standards for determining when you are thinking well and when you are thinking poorly?
  • Have you ever discovered a significant problem in your thinking and then changed it by a conscious act of will?
  • If anyone asked you to teach them what you have learned, thus far in your life, about thinking, would you really have any idea what that was or how you learned it?

If you are like most, the only honest answers to these questions run along the lines of “Well, I suppose I really don’t know much about my thinking or about thinking in general. I suppose in my life I have more or less taken my thinking for granted. I don’t really know how it works. I have never really studies it. I don’t know how I test it, or even if I do test it. It just happens in my mind automatically.”

It is important to realize that serious study of thinking, serious thinking about thinking, is rare. It is not a subject in most schools and colleges. It is seldom found in the thinking of our modern culture. But if you focus your attention for a moment on the role that thinking is playing in your life, you may come to recognize that, in fact, everything you do, or want, or feel is influenced by your thinking. And if you become persuaded of that, you will be surprised that humans show so little interest in thinking.

To make significant gains in the quality of your thinking, you will have to engage in a kind of work that most humans find unpleasant, if not painful – Intellectual work. Yet once this thinking is done and we move our thinking to a higher level of quality, it is not hard to keep it at that level. Still, there is the price you have to pay to step up to the next level. One doesn’t become a skillful critic of thinking over night, any more than one becomes a skilful basketball player or musician over night. To become better at thinking, you must be willing to put the work into thinking that skilled improvement always requires.

This means you must be willing to practice special ‘acts’ of thinking that are initially at least uncomfortable, and sometimes challenging and difficult. You have to learn to do with your mind ‘moves’ that are analogous to what accomplished athletes learn to do with their bodies, based on practice and feedback. Improvement in thinking, in other words, is similar to improvement in other domains of performance where progress is a product of sound theory, commitment, hard work and practice.

I shall enumerate some key ideas, which, when applied, result in a mind practicing skilled thinking.

  1. Clarify your thinking: Our own thinking usually seems clear to us, even when it is not. But vague, ambiguous, muddled, deceptive or misleading thinking are significant problems in human life. If we are to develop as thinkers, we must learn the art of clarifying thinking, of pinning it down, spelling it out, and giving it a specific meaning. When people explain things to you, summarize in your own words what you think they said. When you cannot do this to their satisfaction, you don’t really understand what they said. When they cannot summarize what you have said to your satisfaction, they don’t really understand what you said. Try it. See what happens. Be on the lookout for vague, fuzzy, formless, blurred thinking. Try to figure out the real meaning of what people are saying. Look on the surface. Look beneath the surface.
  2. Stick to the point: When thinking is relevant, it is focused on the main task at hand. It selects what is germane, pertinent and related. It is on the alert for everything that connects to the issue. It sets aside what is immaterial, inappropriate, extraneous, and beside the point. What is relevant directly bears upon the problem you are trying to solve. When thinking drifts away from what is relevant, it needs to be brought back to what truly makes a difference. Undisciplined thinking is often guided by associations [this reminds me of that, that reminds of this other thing, etc.], rather than what is logically connected [if ‘a’ and ‘b’ are true, then ‘c’ must also be true.]
  3. Question questions: Most people are not skilled questioners. Most people accept the world as it is presented to them. And when they do question, their questions are often superficial or ‘loaded’. Their questions do not help them solve their problems or make better decisions. Good thinkers routinely ask questions in order to understand and effectively deal with the world around them. They question the status quo. They know that things are often different from the way they are presented. Their questions penetrate images, masks, fronts and propaganda. Their questions make real problems explicit and discipline their thinking through those problems.
  4. Be reasonable: One of the hallmarks of a critical thinker is the disposition to change one’s mind when given good reason to change. Good thinkers want to change their thinking when they discover better thinking. They can be moved by reason. Yet, few are willing to change their minds once set. Few are willing to suspend their beliefs to fully hear the views of those with which they disagree.

Before I go further, let me remind you that the best thinkers are those who understand the development of thinking as a process occurring throughout many years of practice in thinking. They recognize the importance of learning about the mind, about thoughts, feelings and desires and how these functions of the mind interrelate. They are adepts at taking thinking apart, and then assessing the parts when analyzed. In short, they study the mind, and they apply what they learn about the mind to their own thinking in their own lives.

The extent to which any of us develops as a thinker is directly determined by the amount of time we dedicate to our development, the quality of the intellectual practice we engage in, and the depth, or lack thereof, of our commitment to becoming more reasonable, rational, successful persons.

As I mentioned a little while ago, Metacognition is a new idea, a new line of thought that deals with two related issues – thinking & learning to think.

I shall now try to tell you something about Metacognition proper.

Metacognition is ‘cognition about cognition’, or ‘knowing about knowing’. It can take many forms; it includes knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving. There are generally two components of metacognition: knowledge about cognition, and regulation of cognition.

Metacognition thinks about one’s own thinking process such as study skills, memory capabilities and the ability to monitor learning. This concept needs to be explicitly taught along with content instruction as per studies conducted by Jacobs & Paris[29]. Metacognitive knowledge would include understanding ones’ own capabilities, how one perceives the difficulty of a learning task such as content, length and the type of assignment, one’s own capability for using strategies to learn information. Studies by Jacobs & Paris have shown that young children are not particularly good at this. It is not until 12 – 15 years that students start to develop the understanding of strategies that will be effective.

Many schools of thought have already developed regarding metacognition, the germs of which can be found even in the writings of Aristotle. Today, metacognition variously refers to the study of memory-monitoring and self-regulation, meta-reasoning, consciousness or awareness and auto-consciousness or self-awareness. In practice, these capacities are used to regulate one’s own cognition, to maximize one’s potential to think, learn and to the evaluation of proper ethical and moral values.

Metacognitive regulation or regulation of cognition contains essential skills such as planning, monitoring, evaluation, maintaining motivation to see a task to its completion and the ability to become aware of distracting stimuli – both internal and external – and sustain effort over time.

Students who demonstrate a wide range of metacognitive skills perform better on exams and complete tasks more efficiently. They are self-regulated learners who utilize the ‘right tool for the job’ and modify learning strategies and skills based on their awareness of effectiveness. Individuals with a high level of metacognitive knowledge and skills identity blocks to learning as early as possible and change ‘tools’ or strategies to ensure goal attainment. Studies by Swanson found that metacognitive knowledge can compensate for IQ and lack of prior knowledge[30].

It is important to note that there is no distinction between domain-general and domain-specific metacognitive skills. This means that metacognitive skills are domain-general in nature and there are no specific skills for individual subject areas[31]. The metacognitive skills that are used to compose an essay are the same as those used to learn Calculus or learn an appreciation of western classical music!

All of these alternate systems of education that I have enumerated till now are, as yet, fringe movements in education. None of them are, as yet, considered as mainstream ideas. Yet, I have enumerated them to show you that society is nonetheless thinking along certain lines that are indeed off-beat. What I am more interested in is trying to discern why such off-beat ideas arise in the first place. If society has no need for any idea, the idea doesn’t arise, and even if it does, it doesn’t survive. These alternate ideas aren’t dying, but are rather gaining strength with each passing day. This is mainly because society is at a crossroads today. It is undergoing a major transition and is trying to reinvent an education system that will supply it with suitable people to populate itself.

I have presented all these ideas to bolster my main argument which is as follows:

  • A tremendous change is indeed coming in the world, as a result of which the composition of human society will change very greatly.
  • In that society, information will no longer be a monopoly of the experts, but will be freely available to anyone who cares to access it. Such a society will essentially be a democratic society.
  • The future society will therefore need great number of people who don’t develop as specialists in particular fields, but rather as flexible personalities who can access and use information and skills as the demand on them requires.
  • In order to run such a society, the present education system will no longer be meaningful. We will need an education system that will produce, not experts in particular fields, but rather plastic souls who have self-discipline skills and who can delve into any field that requires their attention. In other words, the future will need people who can play multiple roles. This trend has already started. We no longer need merely good engineers. We need people who can be good engineers; the same person may need to be a good administrator also; again the same person may need to have good economic sense; yet again, the very same person may have to be a good organizer or a salesman!
  • Of course, even in the future we will not be able to completely do away without experts, but the majority of people required in the future will have to be a new breed of human beings who can mould themselves into multiple roles, rather than get pigeon-holed into experts into a particular field.
  • Will there be no schools and colleges in the future, like we have now? Of course, I can safely say that schools and colleges are indeed here to stay, but their roles would have changed beyond recognition. Whereas now they impart huge chunks of information in the main fields of human interest to children and teenagers, in the future, these very schools and colleges will concentrate on imparting self-disciplining skills to children and teenagers. They will teach their students vital skills about how to deal with their own minds, about how to think, about how to ask the right questions. Whereas now, we believe that every child must know a certain common fund of information before he/she becomes an adult, in the future, every child will learn how to learn, and that alone will be the common fund of information that every child will be expected to possess – ‘how to manage oneself’.
  • When society takes such a shape and when the education system will face a crisis for reinventing itself to meet such a demand, then it is that Swami Vivekananda’s ideas on Education will become meaningful and operative.

I firmly believe that such a time is coming quite soon, maybe within the next five decades, if my reading of the social trends is right. I hope and pray that we won’t be found lacking in our efforts and endeavor when such a demand is placed on our generation.


Quotes on Self Education:

  • Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school. – Einstein.
  • I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. – Mark Twain.
  • Real education must ultimately be limited to men who insist on knowing. The rest is merely sheep-herding. – Ezra Loomis Pound.
  • Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune. – Jim Rohn.
  • Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is. – Isaac Asimov.
  • Education is not a product – marks, diploma, job, money – in that order. Education is a process, a never-ending one. – Bel Kaufman.
  • Travelling is my form of self-education. – Yvon Chouinard.
  • All I have learned, I have learned on my own from books. – Abraham Lincoln.
  • Taking the free will out of education turns it into schooling! – John Taylor Gatto.


[1] Cf: Swami Vivekananda’s lecture ‘Non-attachment is complete self-abnegation’ in his book ‘Karma Yoga’; page No. 95; Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata; 2004 Edition.

[2] Cf: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol-5; Advaita Ashrama, Web Edition; Conversations with Sri Priyanath Sinha.

[3] Cf: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol-4; Advaita Ashrama, Web Edition; Addresses on Bhakti Yoga; Lecture on The Ishta.

[4] Cf: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol-6; Advaita Ashrama, Web Edition; The method & purpose of Religion.

[5] You may also refer to my article ‘Swami Vivekananda & Education’ on

[6] Russel Crowe saved up money to go to acting school at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney. He earned this money by working as an small-time actor in gigs. By the time he had saved enough money to take up formal training in NIDA, he was told he was already practicing what would be taught in NIDA, and that by going there, he would only develop bad habits of work!

[7] Moon was a drummer for the iconic band called ‘The Who’. He is considered as the greatest drummer of all time. The only training he ever received was at 16 years old when he had 3 or 4 drum lessons with Carlo Little of ‘Rolling Stones’, who himself was a self-taught drummer!

 [8] David Bowie is a singer, musician, multi-instrumentalist, actor and painter. He never received any formal training in any of the fields mentioned. As a teenager, he did receive some lessons on saxophone from Ronnie Ross. All other instruments including piano, keyboard, synths, electric & acoustic guitars, harmonica, koto, limited bass and percussion he taught himself. His paintings and sculptures were created and exhibited without any formal art school training. He also trained himself to be a popular mime!

 [9] Jimi Hendrix was a guitarist and song-writer, considered by many as the greatest electric guitarist in music history. He learned to play the guitar all by himself. He received a guitar as a gift when he was a teenager. Unfortunately, he was a left-handed boy and the guitar he got as a gift was meant for a right-handed player. He himself altered it to suit his left-handedness and rigged it up to an amplifier and thus got himself an electric guitar! He learned to play it all by himself!

 [10] Faraday received almost no formal education and was ignorant of higher mathematics including Calculus all his life. Yet he was one of the most influential scientists in history. He is acclaimed as the best experimentalist in the history of science!

[11] Fuller was expelled twice from Harvard! He then attempted suicide and survived. He claimed to have had a life-altering experience at that time. From then onwards, he dedicated his life to working in service of humanity and ‘thinking for himself’!

 [12] Leibnitz created a whole new field of higher mathematics called ‘Calculus’. Can you believe that he never received any regular education in mathematics all his life? And yet he went on to open up a whole new vista of mathematics, which enabled the fruition of science and modern inventions!

 [13] Nash is said to have taught himself mathematics without use of any textbooks or courses but rather through his own inventive mind, when he was in Princeton! He was known to have attended classes only on days of tests and finals!

 [14] Karl Marx: It is needless to point out the contributions of Marx in the field of Economics, which brought about a revolution in Europe and Asia, providing an alternate lifestyle for millions of people, under the banner of ‘Communism’!

 [15] Hitler was self-educated beyond early schooling through libraries primarily in Vienna and parts of Austria.

 [16] Keating was Prime Minister of Australia. He left school when he was 15 years old. He was elected to parliament when he was 25 years old. He is credited with opening up Australia’s economy by bringing in various microeconomic reforms.

[17] This section has been adapted from the three books: Newton: The Life of Isaac Newton by Richard Westfall, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1993; The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by Francis Darwin, NY: Dover Publication; 1958; A. Einstein: The life and times by Ronald Clark, NY: Avon Books, 1984.

[18] This section adapted from J. Scott Armstrong (1979): “The natural learning project”; Journal of Experiential learning & Simulation; Vol-1, pg 5 – 12.

[19] This section adapted from Bransford, Brown & Cocking (2000): How people learn: Brain, Mind, Experience & School; pg 15 – 20.

[20] Trivium & Quadrivium: In medieval universities, the trivium comprised the three subjects that were taught first: grammar, logic and rhetoric, which formed the foundation of a medieval liberal arts education. This study was preparatory for the quadrivium, which consists of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. The combining of the trivium and quadrivium results in the seven liberal arts of classical study. Logic, grammar, and rhetoric were very important for a classical education, as clearly explained in Plato’s dialogues. Grammar is the mechanics of a language (always Latin, at the time); logic (or dialectic) is the “mechanics” of thought and analysis; rhetoric is the use of language to instruct and persuade.

The study of grammar, logic and rhetoric was considered preparatory for the quadrivium, which was made up of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium was the beginning of the liberal arts. At many medieval universities this would have been the principal undergraduate course. However, the contrast between the simpler trivium and more difficult quadrivium gave rise to the word “trivial”.

Just as the trivium is designed to precede the quadrivium, the three sectors that make up trivium are listed in a specifically indicated order. The transition from grammar to logic to rhetoric reflects the development of students as their education progresses. Hence, grammar comes first, indicating the fundamental studies of many different basic disciplines. Grammar provides the simplistic symbols necessary to communicate. Logic pertains to the more detailed stage when analytic questions begin to be pondered. Logic pieces together the symbols learned in the grammar stage. Lastly, rhetoric addresses the final culminating stage where the previous knowledge is brought to fruition. Rhetoric takes the comprehensive knowledge attained in the logic stage and manipulates it as a means to an end. The stages interact as they progress, but form a basic timeline of education.

The quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These followed the preparatory work of the trivium made up of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In turn, the quadrivium was considered preparatory work for the serious study of philosophy (sometimes called the “liberal art par excellence”) and theology.

[21] The Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar were the four main accomplishments required of the Chinese scholar gentleman. They are qin (the guqin, a stringed instrument.), qi (the strategy game of Go), shu (Chinese calligraphy) and hua (Chinese painting).

[22] HSLDA: Academic Statistics on Homeschooling.

[23] Ray, Brian (2008); ‘Progress Report 2009: Homeschool academic achievement & demographics – Survey’; National Home Education Research Institute, Salem, USA.

[24] This section has been adapted from the various books authored by John C Holt, including How children fail (1982); Growing without Schooling (1977); Teach your own (1981)

[25] This section has been adapted from

[26] Cf: Iran-Nejad, Asghar, Brad Chissom (1992): ‘Contributions of Active & Dynamic Self-Regulation to Learning’; Innovative Higher Education 17(2): Pg-125.

[27] This section has been adapted from

[28] This section on Critical Thinking has been adapted from the book Critical Thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning & your life by Richard Paul and Linda Elder.

[29] Jacobs J E & Paris S G; (1987); ‘Children’s metacognition about reading: Issues in definition, measurement and instruction’; Educational Psychologist: Vol-22; pg: 255 – 278.

[30] Swanson H L; (1990); ‘Influence of metacognitive knowledge and aptitude on problem-solving’; Journal of Educational Psychology; Vol-82; pg: 306 – 314.

[31] Gourgey A F (1998); ‘Metacognition in basic skills instruction’; Instructional Science; Vol-26; pg: 81 – 96.


Author: Swami Vedatitananda

Monk of the Ramakrishna Order

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