Learning on the same bench

My interest in peer to peer models really began with my work as a teacher in a secondary school several years ago. It was a school where there were many ‘at-risk’ youths, clustered together in classes so as not to ‘impede other youths who have better academic abilities’.

I hated the sound of that. But reality bites. Teaching youths in the ‘at-risk’ classes did prove to be challenging. To go into those classes you’d have to first deal with students’ perceptions that teachers were not interested in them anyway, because they have inferior academic abilities. It was especially difficult trying to get them interested in learning, because many of them think that teachers were not interested in them. It struck me then, that we’ve been dehumanizing our curriculum – into tasks – so much that we have forgotten the point of learning. Why were we trying to get youths to learn, to complete tasks, all for the purpose of a better life and becoming a better person, yet we try to fulfill this goal in such mechanical ways?

I set out to do a study involving two classes I was teaching back then. At the start of the year I asked the kids to form peer groups with people they were most comfortable with. Not just for study, I told them – as I believe that personal development was all part of peer learning. After the first peer groups were formed, I brought them out on a picnic and that’s when those isolated got included in certain groups. Peer groups became bigger, and they became peer networks of support, with ‘at-risk’ youths diffusing into other groups. Six months down the road, I used a video camera to record the outcomes. The recorded sessions were based on groups gathered to prepare for upcoming exams. Here are some of the findings:

  • Emotional interactions were necessary as part of learning. Youths were able to express themselves with their peers. Where face-to-face interactions were absent, communication devices were used, such as mobile phones and online messengers.
  • Learning resources had to be held in common for peer learning to be effective.
  • Peer learning groups develop their own vocabularies over time, making up interpretive schemes to refer to resources and events that were of significance to them.
  • Boundaries were necessary, especially in the initial formation of the peer group, and in the ways work spaces were bounded: in common with members of the group.
  • There were direct and indirect motivations for being in the peer group. Some were there with the goal to pursue learning, others were there simply because they wanted to belong. Regardless of the motivations, there was usually a common goal when they come together to cooperate – which ultimately led to learning.
  • Peer learning seem to warrant less formal roles – there is higher interdependence on one another which implied higher levels of involvement. Still, some facilitation was necessary, even if informal.
  • Interestingly, gender was a factor shaping the nature of interactions in peer learning groups.

My short contract stint at the school made me realise that richer contextual models by which we provide perspectives on learning were necessary. Even if well-established, traditional teaching methods have to be re-examined, and if necessary, discarded. The use of peer learning worked for me back then, when giving up on the ‘at-risk’ and isolated youths (who perceived themselves as academically incompetent) was not an option. The greatest benefit I found was how this model could bring together a community, with resources held together in common, so effectively. When this was clear to the youths, they participated.

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