How do we do an IQP in South Africa?

The dominant underlying conceptualization of a project at WPI comes out of its engineering background and is a rather linear progression that starts with defining the objectives of the project, moves into doing background research, then defines a methodology, executes the methods, and analyzes the results. There are often adjustments along the way, but the underlying conception is based in an idea of doing a project for a sponsor and generally involves doing research on or about people. This works well enough when projects can be well defined and are carried out in relatively stable environments and there is certainly a tremendous amount of learning for students in the process. However, we have found that an alternative conceptualization of a project that is based in ideas of action research that are fundamentally about doing projects with people (Reason & Bradbury, 2001) are needed for complex and less stable environments such as the historically disadvantaged communities we work with at the Cape Town Project Centre. We call this conceptualization of project based learning, Shared Action Learning (SAL).

Shared Action Learning: Conceptual Overview

The starting philosophic distinction is that rather than doing a project for a sponsor or doing research on a problem, we are learning with others. As you would expect within the WPI tradition of theory and practice (lehr und kunst), this learning is both conceptual and practical. Shared Action Learning starts from the idea that you start to learn about a social system when you act within that system (Lewin, 1947). Every action is also an inquiry (Torbert & Associates, 2004) and offers the potential for learning.

We can think about this process of shared action learning as a series of cycles of action. Each cycle starts with connecting with the context, then moves on to planning, then to enacting the plan, then to observing the results, and finally reporting what happened. The reporting then sets the stage to start another cycle. Throughout each cycle, you are reflecting on events, sharing your thinking with each other, and learning. Although this sounds fairly straight forward, in reality it is rather complex as each cycle may be anywhere in length from a few minutes to several days, to several weeks long. And there may be several cycles happening at the same time. So the SAL cycle and the elements of the SA cycle might best be understood as a heuristic for making sense of what you’re doing. It is meant to help you think about your project work in an orderly and structured manner (which is a hallmark of good reflection and good learning) and to guide your actions, to help you think about what to do next.

SAL Overview Table