Friday, April 9, 2010

William Kamkwamba: A case study in deep learning

William Kamkamba's story is not new (he started his work in 2002 and started getting heavier press coverage in 2008), but I heard it for the first time this week.  Aside from being very moving, there seem to be some lessons here for educators and the way we engage students in good learning.  One of the things that impressed me with William's story was the fact that he seemed to be doing the sort of learning we all hope students will do, but it happened outside the formal confines of a school or university and with no real external support.  As I write this, it occurs to me that good learning like this might result because of those factors (i.e. the best type of learning happens outside of school).  

So, my first question is whether it is realistic to expect learning like this to occur within a formal setting.  The cynic in me wants to say no, but the pragmatist part of me that enjoys having a roof to sleep under, food to eat, the possibility of providing for my daughther make me want to say "yes, we can do it."  So, here are some key principles I see at work in William's story that seem to be instructive for instructional designers, teachers, and anyone that cares about learning.  

1.  Help the learner identify a real problem or opportunity.  William's story started because he saw an opportunity (the winds in Malawi) and wanted to find a way to leverage that opportunity.  Because it was a learning opportunity that he had identified and that he cared about personally, he was willing to engage in the hard work of deep learning.  William's learning was also motivated by a humanitarian desire to help people in his village, which seems to be important in some way.

2.  Allow the learning to be self-directed.  William didn't have a curriculum or syllabus he was following.  He identified gaps in his knowledge--things he needed to know in order to solve the problem at hand (and related sub-problems that likely emerged along the way)--and then garnered resources to help him learn what he needed to know.  Not only does this sort of experience shift the responsibility for learning onto the learner, but it also prepares them to engage in meaningful learning once they leave an institution and don't have a formal system nudging them along the path.

3.  Forum for sharing/testing ideas.  William's learning was incredibly public.  If the windmill didn't work, looked stupid, or in any other way failed to meet expectations he was likely to hear about it from those in his village.  Consequently, he was more motivated to really understand the principles of windmill design, electricity, etc. and to produce something that wouldn't get laughed at or mocked.  Additionally, because the learning was public he was likely receiving feedback all along the way regarding how to improve his work.  That combination of experience and feedback led to much better learning than would have otherwise resulted.

4.  Connections to a number of disciplines.  While much of what William was learning was focused in a physical science or technology domain, he likely had to learn things from other fields--writing skills, oral communication skills, business principles, etc.--in order to really make his windmill project a success.  It was the sort of integrated general education experience that liberal arts folks dream of.  The key was that he had selected a problem whose successful solution depended on a broad set of knowledge and skills.

5.  A connection to future plans/goals.  It's obvious from listening to William's story that he doesn't plan on stopping with a rough-looking windmill outside his family's Malawian farm.  What he learned in these initial projects has raised new questions for him, provided access to new sources of learning, provided additional motivation, and helped him develop a vision of what he wants to do and become as he moves forward.  This is in striking contrast to the term project or other course assignment that dies quickly once final grades are posted.

This sort of learning requires a paradigm shift for educators.  They become designers, facilitators, mentors, and coaches rather than information disseminators and evaluators.  So, for something like this to work it would take individuals that understand (1) what good learning looks like and (2) what sorts of mentoring leads to this learning.

We see these things at work in Capstone courses and in abundance in graduate school, but how can these principles be applied at the undergraduate level (or even within secondary and elementary education)?  Could an entire education be built around capstone-esque learning like this?