In Search of the Curious Doer

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William's windmill | for image attribution please see bottom of this postWhat is the profile of the type of student who we hope will emerge from our schools?  Many have argued that our schools are stuck in a 19th century mindset and education for the knowledge age requires a complete rethink of teaching and learning for a globalized, connected, and rapidly changing world.  Educators around the world have been debating and working to define these skills and what has emerged is a set of “21st century skills” – the types of skills deemed essential to work creatively; problem solve; communicate; identify and analyze existing information; and create new knowledge.   

The partnership for 21st Century skills has defined a framework for these skills which focuses on:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Information, Media, and ICT Literacy
  • Ability to be a flexible learner; a self-starter; and someone who understands other cultures and societies.


The profile that emerges from this work is a student who is curious about his world; has a thirst for knowledge; is acutely in tune with the world around him; identifies challenges and problems; thinks creatively about solutions; is a self-starter driven by a hunger to learn; is someone who applies his knowledge to real world problems; takes action; tinkers, fails, learns and tries again – perseveres. 

He is in two words, a curious doer. 

So who is this curious doer?  One of the best examples that I’ve come across is a young man in rural Malawi.  You may have heard his story.  His name is William Kamkwamba.  William is from a small remote Malawian village with no electricity.  After seeing a picture of a windmill in a textbook, he decided to build one himself to power his family’s home.  He learned as much as he could from the book, then he started into the job, tinkering and hacking together his first windmill.  It worked.  The power generated from the windmill was enough to power a radio in the house to play reggae music.   His story spread across the internet on You Tube; it is captured in a book – The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind; and highlighted at international conferences such as TED. 

William however is not a product of a formal education system – he is a drop out who could not afford school fees. 

So what about the other side of the educational spectrum -- higher education institutions such as MIT?  In thinking about William and his success in taking knowledge and applying it in the real world, I was reminded of a documentary called “Minds of Our Own” in which MIT and Harvard engineering graduates are asked to light a bulb with a battery and a wire – a principle taught in many primary school class rooms.  The video is shot at the MIT graduation – students still in caps and gowns.  The documentarian approaches individuals and asks them if they could light the bulb with the three materials.  Most say yes.  But when given the materials they obviously can’t.  One of the students hands back the battery, wire and bulb and says “I’m a mechanical engineer, not an electrical engineer”. 

While extreme examples, what motivates a rural teenage drop out from rural Malawi to learn about and build and windmill while MIT graduates are not able to turn on a light? What are the issues at the root of this inability to apply knoweldge – too much memorization without understanding?; learning devoid of practical real world applications?;  Too much focus on learning for the test?; An overcrowded disjointed curriculum?; etc. 

Obviously these are specific anecdotal examples meant to be provocative.  But if we want to affect change in our educational systems from primary schools in Malawi to MIT, what changes are needed and how do we go about implementing these changes?

The 21st century schools site provides a good synopsis of the reforms and changes that many schools are seeking to make to create an enabling environment for development of 21st century skills.  I summarize some of them here:

Old Paradigm

New Paradigm

Passive Learning

Active Learning

Memorization of discrete facts

Focus on what students know, can do, and are like after facts are forgotten

Textbook driven – single source

Research driven – multiple sources

Emphasis on knowledge, comprehension, and application

Also, emphasis on synthesis, analysis, and evaluation

Fragmented curriculum

Integrated; interdisciplinary curriculum

Teacher – centered pedagogy

Student-centered pedagogy

Isolated Learning

Globally connected collaborative learning

Teacher assessment based on averages

Multiple assessments – peer; self; others based on what is learned


Needless to say, these reforms are not easy nor straight forward.  I hope to spend some time in upcoming blog entries to try to unpack how different countries are thinking about these reforms and more importantly implementing them.  I look forward to sharing perspective and experiences on what is being done and what is working with this community.  And hopefully discovering more William Kamkwamba's along the way.

Please note: The image used at the top of this blog post from one of William Kamwamba's first windmills was shot by Tom Rielly and comes courtesy of whiteafrican via Flickr and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. You may also wish to visit William Kamkwamba's blog.


Robert Hawkins

Sr. Education Specialist

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