[This is a draft. I appreciate comments or feedback, in the comments below, on twitter or by email]
A lot of people wonder if peer learning really works. Don’t we need experts to learn from? Can the (proverbially) blind really lead the blind? Those are good questions, but there is another set of questions about peer learning that doesn’t get asked very much. How do we manage to scale learning and education for a growing global population, and how can peer learning help with that?
The first question. Peer learning works, because knowledge is not poured into our heads by an expert, but constructed by ourselves. We do that 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 on our works in progress, they can support us when we run low on motivation or struggle with a particularly hard problem, and they can hold up a useful mirror in which we can observe ourselves. Secondly, peers are likely to be closer to our own situation - they can emphasize with the problems we encounter, and explain their solution in ways that make sense to us - better than an expert who often can’t remember asking the (mundane) questions that we may ask.
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 gates. Some hope that technology will scale education, so that every student can be guided by smart devices, through personalized learning pathways towards a perfect score on a standardized test. In that world, we (who this “we” is, isn’t entirely clear) know exactly what everyone should learn, and we can improve efficiency of how we 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. 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 great learning that happens between people.
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 image, 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 emphasize 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 engrained. 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 are pretty different from your. There is one special case worth mentioning here. Great teachers are often quite far ahead, but in their teaching 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 a 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 join 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 10B people, squeezed together on a pretty small planet, getting along with each other, and working together will not be an option, but a necessity.