March 10, 2014

The Great Peer Learning Pyramid Scheme

Category: Educational Practice
2 students working on tablet and computer designing project together

I often get asked questions like these: Does peer learning really work? Don’t we need experts to learn from? Can the (proverbially) blind really lead the blind? Those are good questions and I will get back to them in a second. Then, there is another question about peer learning that doesn’t get asked very much, which I would like to talk about in this post: Could peer learning be the (only) answer to scale meaningful learning and education for a growing global population?

Let’s briefly talk about the first set of questions. Peer learning works because knowledge is not poured into our heads by an expert, but constructed by ourselves. We learn by tinkering with new ideas, trying them out, practicing their application, and observing ourselves in the process. All of these steps benefit from collaboration with others. Peers can give us feedback along the way, they can support us when we run low on motivation, help us when we struggle with a particularly hard problem, and they can hold up a useful mirror in which we can observe ourselves. In fact, peers might be better at doing all those things than the experts. Peers are likely to be more similar to us than the experts. They can empathize with the problems we encounter and explain solutions they found in ways that make sense to us. They are better than an expert who often can’t remember asking the (mundane) questions that we may ask.

If you are still not convinced that peer learning works, please have a look at the Harvard Assessment Study that showed the most reliable indicator of success for a Harvard college student is her/his ability to form or join a study group. Harvard!

Recently, I have been more interested in the second question. As our global population grows, more people need access to education. We know that the traditional model of building schools and universities, and lecturing, doesn’t scale to accommodate the billions about to arrive in front of the ivory towers. Many hope that technology is the magic bullet to scaling education. Smart devices will guide every student through personalized learning pathways toward a perfect score on a standardized test. In this scenario, we (who this “we” is isn’t entirely clear) know exactly what everyone should learn, and we can improve efficiency of how they learn it. The emphasis is on efficiency. Not on learning.

Peer learning, enabled by technology, offers a more compelling alternative. To be clear, I am not at all against technology. But I am for a particular type of technology, technology that brings together people, and ideas, and that makes it easier to collaborate and connect. In other words, I hope technology can help us scale the great learning that happens naturally when people get together to work on things they find interesting.

This is where the pyramid comes in. Imagine expertise as a pyramid for a moment. The person at the top knows the most about something, and everyone below knows a little bit less, and so on, until the bottom of the pyramid, where you find those who are just starting out. (Side note: I don’t like the top-down association, but let’s come back to that at some other point.)

In order to learn, you need access to a few people around you. Some who are just above your position will know a little bit more than you, but because they are not that different from you, they can empathize with your questions or problems. Likewise, it doesn’t hurt to be in touch with a few people just below you. As you help them answer the questions you recently answered for yourself, your own knowledge and strategies will become more practiced. Teaching others is one of the best ways of learning.

Having access to the person at the top of the pyramid can be useful occasionally, but the problems and questions they care about will typically be pretty different from ours. There is one special case worth mentioning here. Great teachers are often quite far ahead, but when they teach, they essentially “impersonate” someone who is closer to you. And great teachers don’t scale, because they can’t talk to everyone in the pyramid below.

The nice thing about this model is that at any location in the pyramid, you have access to the right group of people around you. In other words, the support system needed to learn, is available. To everyone. Peer learning works, and it scales.

Peer learning also helps us learn others things: engaging with others, communicating our ideas, and trying to understand theirs, negotiating different interests and perspectives, and collaborating on joint projects. These are the types of non-cognitive skills that may be more important for finding a job and living successful lives. And, as the global population rises to somewhere around 10 billion people, squeezed together on a pretty small planet, getting along with each other, and working together will not be an option, but a necessity.

Banner image credit: Barry Joseph