Who is a person of authority? In simple terms, a person with authority has the right to ask others to do something or behave in a certain way. In our formative years, our parents, teachers and other school leaders take the role of authority. The rationale for authority in early years is to help guide kids and save them from falling over, literally. 

The essence of authority comes from a place of safety and care, both at home and in school systems. However the reality of authority has evolved over the years. Schools became less exploratory and more controlling

We added three unnecessary elements to authority:

  1. Lack of clarity: Any authority without boundaries creates dominance. In learning, an authority helps as long as it aids learning and reflection. A teacher who guides the discussion and plays the role of a facilitator is arguably better than one who dictates
  2. Expertise: Authority got equalized with expertise, without much due diligence. An expert, or a person who has acquired knowledge over years is a great resource. However, from a learners perspective, an expert minus authority is an ideal teacher. A figure of authority instills fear, an expert instills confidence through trial, error and experimentation
  3. Uni-directional: A person of authority has blind followers, not collaborators. In schools, the role of teachers was designed to be oneway. The content moved to one-way and so did the relationship

Why did this happen? To focus on curriculum, learning outcomes and milestones. We shifted focus from the individual learner and the experience and prioritized content and timelines.  

My most memorable moments in school were with teachers who operated from the lens of growth. They nurtured their role of authority to encourage, push and create a safety net. 

What happens when authority takes over the learning experience?

  1. Lack of control: When we have an authoritative figure to lead learning, we dilute our reason for learning and let the authority take over. We look at external reasons for learning and let go of our intrinsic motivation to learn. 
  2. Barriers to learning: When we trust an authority to lead learning, we reduce our need to explore as individual learners and wait for permission
  3. External rewards: External rewards created by an authority lack purpose. They celebrate one behavior change or accomplishment. External rewards leave the learner with a short term dopamine hit and negates the opportunity for autonomous learning

How do we design self-directed learning experiences without authority? 

1. The advantages of authority

In school, having authority helped create a schedule, stick to a schedule and follow patterns. I believe we can build this ourselves. These are three things that help me:

  • Learn with a purpose: Know why you are learning – for fun, for career growth, to help make a side income and create a schedule based on the purpose. 
  • Learn with accountability: You learn when you teach. If you can’t teach, explain what you learn. Find an accountability partner to help. A peer is a better alternative to authority
  • Learn to create: Learn, showcase skills, get feedback and reiterate. A learner who tests frequently is able to continue learning and growing. For example, if you are learning to build a video game, learn the content, build version 1, test it and keep building. 

2. Create a personal reward system

As a self directed learner, it is easy to wander. It helps to create reward systems that are personal and scheduled. I use rewards to help pour into my intrinsic motivation bucket. Two things to remember about personal reward systems:

  • Rewards should increase creativity – Rewards are personal to the learner. Rewards can look like playing video games, baking or building a garden. There is no formula for rewards. Keep it personal and attainable. 
  • Rewards should be flexible – It’s vital to build rewards that aid learning. External circumstances change our intrinsic motivation and rewards can help bring us back on track. 

3. Create a progress chart

An authority helps measure and manage progress. Without authority, we are independently responsible for progress. Build a progress system that will help calculate streaks and visualize

I read about Seinfield’s Calendar Framework on Sahil Bloom’s Curiosity Chronicle newsletter. I follow the same for Unlearning Labs, exercise and it works wonders. 

Unlearning Thought

To be a lifelong learner, be your own authority, peer, collaborator and more. You are your best bet!