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I Self-Taught Myself

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I am completely self-taught

Great. Well done. What does it mean? Every individual on the planet is self-taught.

It is an unfortunate expression, or use of the English language, to say that I was taught... It gives the impression that acquiring knowledge and understanding is a passive act. No one can pour knowledge into your brain. The act of teaching is to:

  • Explain things as clearly as possible
  • Provide good examples, and exercises that help to expand, and test, understanding
  • To provide guidance
  • If necessary, to explain things in a different way - with different examples, or even just more slowly.

The bottom-line, though, is that it requires effort from the student. Repetition/rote is only useful for simple ideas and facts. Anything of reasonable complexity requires effort: concentration, practice, asking questions.. exploring.. and, yes, some repetition. This is what I mean when I say that everyone is self-taught.


I learn by doing..

Do what?

We hear this a lot, particularly as an excuse not to read a book. 97% of programming books are not intended just to be read. You have to be pro-active, not passive:

  • Type ALL of the examples
  • Read them, study them, work out what they are doing, and how
  • Run them, test them, try to break them
  • Once you understand the example, create a copy of it and.. change it! Explore, Experiment.

If you don't understand the example in a book, find another example elsewhere and read other descriptions of the topic. We have the internet now - let's use it!

The other 3% of programming books are formal reference books, containing language and syntax definitions. These are not tutorials and not relevant to this discussion.


I learn best by taking existing code and making changes to it, deleting lines

If you are referring to examples in a book, and after you have studied and understood the example then, yes, this is the best way to increase your understanding. I recommend it.

But a lot of the time people mean that they grab some random code from the internet and dive into it without studying any accompanying notes or instructions. This is NOT the way to learn. You will only obtain an incomplete, inaccurate and, simply, wrong understanding of the language. You need to take, and complete, a tutorial or read a book.

This particularly tends to apply to HTML and CSS, with people even exploring someone else's complex website and hoping to make sense of it. Yeah, right! People have taken hold of the idea that "HTML and CSS are simple" and do not require study. D'oh! HTML is simple but.. it still requires study. Get hold of an introductory book, or take a tutorial. It is not a vast subject, unlike a programming language (Javascript, PHP, etc.), so it won't take you years. The book will be cheaper, and shorter, than that for a programming language. [HTML and CSS do not qualify as programming languages.]

The idea, in particular, that CSS is too simple to require any study irks me.. a lot. It is detailed, intricate, subtle. It requires study. To be honest, it is where many web-designers/developers fall short. Even in (some other..) forums I notice answers being accepted where css-rules have just been thrown at the problem until it works, without a proper understanding of what the problem actually was, and the correct solution is. The css is then unnecessarily complicated, with too many rules, and the next issue becomes harder to resolve.

To be honest, I find some css questions more challenging, and rewarding, than other more run-of-the-mill programming questions.

The only people who can learn something from a random piece of code (from a language they are less familiar with) are those who are very experienced in more than one programming language. Even for these people, this does not exempt them from formal study of the language.


Are you a genius? Maybe. Even if you are, you cannot short-circuit the learning process. You need to read a book or complete a tutorial/tutorials.

6 Comments On This Entry

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02 March 2014 - 09:15 AM


I am completely self-taught

I always thought that this means that person wasn't enrolled in the institution of learning(College, hightschool etc ... ), but that my opinion.


I learn by doing..

There may be small percentage of people who can understand how something works just by tinkering with it or in can of a programming experience do some trial and error examples, maybe debugging and they understand how it works without reading anything about subject or reading very little, but i think that experience stems from previous experience with very similar topic(s), as you called them, the genius people.


02 March 2014 - 03:56 PM
You are quite right @Michael. When people say they are self-taught they generally mean that they didn't attend a formal course. I don't have an issue with this and they often deserve praise, for overcoming obstacles and using their initiative.

It was more the notion of being taught that interested me at first. People often say "I wasn't taught this" as though knowledge comes gift-wrapped in a parcel that is simply handed to them.

I do have an issue, though, with people who think that they can teach themselves programming (or HTML/CSS) without ever picking up a book or following a tutorial. I'll concede that it may be possible to learn HTML from existing sites, because it is a simple meta-language. However, most sites either contain some malformed HTML, or use deprecated or obsolete features, and so this approach still cannot be a substitute for formal study.


02 March 2014 - 04:16 PM


People often say "I wasn't taught this" as though knowledge comes gift-wrapped in a parcel that is simply handed to them.

At first i thought like this too because i was convinced i will learn EVERYTHING i will ever need to know about software development in school, the thought about continued education after graduation never entered my mind, now i thin that the school was just the foundation to my knowledge and i have to build everything else myself.
I've seen people here whose knowledge surpasses that of my college professors.


06 March 2014 - 04:28 AM
well said


10 March 2014 - 02:11 PM
Nice article. I think most everyone who is serious about programming (or their career choice in general) fall under the "Self Taught" category. School will never spoon feed you everything you need. Actually, I'd argue it won't teach you most of what you need, but give you the building blocks to go further if you so choose.

The primary use for schooling is having a structured learning environment after which you get a piece of paper stating that you did in fact complete the basics and are competent enough to learn. Notice I didn't say anything about how good you actually are in your field of study? ;)


11 March 2014 - 12:23 PM
I think the notion to learn just by reading someone's work is specific to programming, and web development in particular. People see web pages and play computer games all the time - so it can't be that difficult :whistling:

People wouldn't attempt to learn mathematics by reading the answers to questions (I hope!), or chemistry by buying a few chemicals :online2long:
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