In a formal educational setting, longer, multiple-year, ordered courses of study are traditional at every level. A curriculum is established leading from the basic, introductory course to more advanced courses, dealing usually with more complex ideas. Standards for accomplishment at the completion of each stage of the curriculum are also set. But, over time changes may be made to reflect advances in overall knowledge in the field as well as new views on how the advanced courses ought to be ordered.
In a self-study program you are both teacher and student. As teacher you not only reflect on how to best teach yourself certain key ideas, but also when or in what order those ideas should be considered. Thus, you are not only your own teacher, but you are also responsible for ordering to learning and setting your own personal version of a proper curriculum.
Initially, in any field of study that is new to you, it will be difficult to set up a long term coordinated program of study. It may be a program that is not traditionally followed in any formal program of which you are aware. You are, in fact, both student and teacher; and, in addition, you are program or curriculum coordinator. Getting past beginning ideas, that are traditionally part of a beginning course in any formal educational program, is important. As long as your knowledge remains at the beginning level, it is hard to proceed. This makes early and reasonably comprehensive reading, writing and thinking the keys to long term progress. It is important to decide what learning is fundamental or introductory and what should be deferred until later.
Once you have read widely and thought through the basics, you have effectively thought through your first course. The rest of your curriculum can now be put into place. However, the teacher side of your program is evolving, and is likely to change as you begin to master the separate areas you have decided should be part of your advanced curriculum. Perhaps you have focused on 5-6 advanced areas. You may have tried to order them in a logical way, but once you go through them, you may see that you have not necessarily gone through them in what is the best order; that if you had to do it again, you would change the order in which you would have learned the advanced ideas.
It’s important to remember that had you been a teacher in a formal curriculum set up at a major university and not by you in a self-teaching program, then the curriculum might change as well. Indeed, once you go through the self-learning curriculum you have set up for the first time, you need not feel that you have failed in any way just because you see that if you had to do it over again, you might do it differently. University teachers of even very well-established curricula at major universities are constantly changing the order or courses or learning experiences — these change even more rapidly when new knowledge or perspectives on the field are changing. University teachers expect this to happen as part of a continuing evolution of their fields. In principle, if you are thorough and honest with yourself in your approach, then any way you do your curriculum the first time is the right way. You will never go through the program again for the first time — no more first times for you. Still, refection on how you might change the order in which advanced ideas come up is valuable.
If you were not alone in setting up a program of self study, but were part of a group with one or two others or more, then you may well have come up with a better ordering of advanced ideas from the start. Curricular decisions always seem to benefit when several “teachers” are involved in a discussion about what is the best arrangement of advanced courses or ideas. Several heads are usually better than one in these matters. If you are alone, it is always harder to find another voice within you to argue against your ideas — ideas you are pretty happy with.
In the group process, perhaps you and several others have decided to put together a program for yourselves on the subject of digital photography. You are all interested in photography and you practice it for fun, but occasionally one of you may sell a photo to a magazine or journal. You are not complete novices. Some of you may have been trying to make the transition into digital photography, and you’ve quickly decided you all know a little something and you can help each other by deciding on a self-education program that focuses on reviewing the best equipment available and on the best computer programs or other digitizing equipment available for assessing and improving photo quality, and so forth.
Thus, the three of you start a camera club and for a while you just get together and talk to each other about your individual experiences. You make a list of what at least one of you knows something about, but you keep reading with the idea of also making a list of ideas, processes and techniques that are important, but that none you may know much about. One of you agrees to further research one or more of those ideas and talk about it at a future meeting. Some of those ideas turn out to be very important, while others are interesting but not so important.
Over time new people come into the club, but the founders who have been there from the start are, after 7-8 meetings, by far the most knowledgeable. For a while, the charter members become the key contributors. Later they may even set up a beginning course which novices, who know nothing at all about digital photography, can take to get acquainted with the subject. This will be useful for them to get started with practicing digital photography. Maybe the course is free and held at a local library rather than a university, but it is now a formal educational experience that has evolved from a boot-strapped self-education concept. Also, the rather quick evolution of the program described suggests what we know; namely, that in self-education, it is often best to form a group. People make more rapid progress in self-education, and often learn better in groups. Interest and passion for the subject are also helped. It is always a challenge for the single learner to carry all the water associated with self-education.