Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Learning the Meerkat Way

For the past several months, I have been a part of a project team where we are designing and developing a Career Map and Self-Assessment Tool for the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR), Canada. 

When we started our work with the client, one of the team members, Nigel Llyod, suggested that we call ourselves the “MiHR CATS (Career map and self-Assessment Tool)”. That's when my tryst with meerkats began. 

If you haven't seen a meerkat before, it is a furry little animal that belongs to the mongoose family. They live in all parts of the Kalahari Desert and in South Africa and are very social animals. Just like meerkats, we are all working together in a group as a part of the project. We also have a sentry (aka our Project Manager) who keeps track of everything in our project. And like meerkats that dig burrows for food and survival and live in underground networks with multiple entrances, we are digging into the mining industry and trying to uncover various careers in mining in Canada and how these tunnels of competencies connect with each other. So, meerkats have become the symbol of our project team and our client addresses us as the MiHR CATS! 

The same evening, after we had named ourselves, I stumbled upon the television series 'Nature of Things' that profiled a meerkat family. This started my journey to discover more about meerkats. If you haven't watched the documentary series 'Meerkat Manor', you must watch it! (See here) The leading actors of this show were a part of experiments conducted by Thornton and coworker Katherine McAuliffe to see if meerkats show some form of teaching. 

On this journey, there were many fascinating things that I learned about meerkats. But as a learning experience designer, what really stood out for me was that meerkats are natural teachers. And I was curious to know how they did it. 

While most other animal pups learn by observation, meerkat pups learn by practicing and by doing in addition to observation. Meerkat adults engage in active instruction and create opportunities for pups to learn. 

So here's how they do it!

  • The most favorite food for meerkats is the venomous scorpion. Meerkats are immune to some types of poison but the stingers can still cause considerable damage. So, before they eat their prey, meerkats bite off the scorpion's stinger to disable any attack. 
  • The helper meerkat (also called the demonstrator aka the teacher), brings food to the young pups based on their begging calls. To start the foraging lesson, young pups are given dead scorpions to eat. As the young pups grow more mature, the helper meerkat brings in live scorpions with the stingers removed. Once the pups learn to bite off the scorpion's stinger, the helper meerkat brings in live scorpion with stingers and all. 
  • All learning is done in phases and the lessons vary according to the age of the pups where the prey changes from being dead, to being injured (or disabled) and finally to live scorpions. The pups are given opportunities to practice their skills and move from incompetence to becoming competent hunters. 
  • There is feedback involved. If the pups aren't able to hold on to the live prey, helpers bring it back and nudge and encourage the pups to try again. The pups learn by observation and acquire key information from the adult helper meerkat and then apply what they learn to eventually catch their own prey one day.

It may seem simple, but meerkats apply many learning principles better than we humans do!
  • Active learning: The learning is focused on solving a problem that of finding food and survival. It is a real problem and the teacher meerkat shows how it is done and creates opportunities for the pups to learn. 
  • Competency-based learning: Although not explicitly based on the 'theory of mind'; helpers respond according to the type of begging calls. The way we'd understand this as instructional designers is that tasks are tailored according to the competency level of the pups and are organized in increasing levels of difficulty. 
  • Learning by doing: The pups get opportunities to practice what they learn and apply their learning in real-life tasks.
  • Learning as a two-way process: Young meerkats 'pull' key information from the adult helper. At the right time, the helper meerkat 'pushes' feedback to help pups learn. 

So, that's how meerkats do it. And so do ants. There are possibly many other animals that 'teach' their young. As we look at identifying newer and more innovative approaches to learning, it is important that we make the connections back to how nature does it and gain more useful insights from the animal world. 

And thanks Nigel, for the big meerkat from Cambridge, England who is now a proud member of the meerkat family here in Vancouver. We are a happy family! 
The Goel Meerkat family. Hugs are always appreciated :)