The Secret Educational Power Behind Peer Learning Groups

There is something special about committing to a group of people with a shared goal or purpose. In this age of personal learning networks, social media and connected learning; intimate gatherings of people are still powerful and transformational. There need not be an official leader or coordinating organization. It just takes one person reaching out to others and inviting them to join you in creating a group, a community, a peer exchange. In fact, these peer learning groups play a far-reaching role in the lives of successful people of the past and present, and they are available to you, sometimes even for free.

While often not public or widely known, such groups have existed for millennia. They are forces behind great writers, scholars, entrepreneurs, inventors, politicians, social activists, and leader from across society. Some of the most influential people in history relied upon these as sources of support, inspiration, and even accountability. In fact, if you talk such people, it is not uncommon for them to speak about how the group transformed their lives.

Scan the biographies of some of your greatest heroes and inspirations throughout history. Chances are that you will discover many of them were part of such a group (or several). These groups are so prevalent among such influential people that it begins to point you to the conclusion that participating in such groups is a potential cause for their impact or, at minimum, a means of amplifying or extending their success or impact in the world.

These are not formal learning communities like what we think of in classrooms or schools. Members have no interest in credentials, but these are groups of incredible learning and important networking. They are not usually led by a teacher but have rich purpose and can result high expectations and accountability. They are frequently focused on trust, support, comradery, deep thinking, discussion, learning and impact that far exceeds what you might see in some of the top schools in the world. Yet, these are peer-managed and organized.

While diverse, these groups tend to have common traits. They include regular gatherings (virtual or in-person) and people are expected to commit to the group and these gatherings. Some gather weekly, but many others do so monthly, quarterly, twice a year, or maybe annually in some sort of intensive retreat. While there are sometimes coordinators, these are largely peer groups. Think of the Knights of the Round Table. They gather as equals to learn, share, and grow from the exchange with one another. In addition, the most successful groups are not necessarily secretive, but they might be private, respecting and valuing the role of confidentiality in promoting a place of trust and safety, two important features of such groups that flourish.

They come to exist in countless ways. Some start with a single person or small group committing to the idea, recruiting others, and making it happen. Others have long histories, ones that are sometimes difficult to trace, but they remain vibrant to this day. Still others might have formed from a professional organization; a think tank; a group of colleagues or past classmates; or a group that met through a shared interest, profession, set of convictions, life experience, passion, or desired impact in the world.

For those who have never participated in such groups, it might be hard to imagine the imapct that they can have upon a person, and the impact the group can collectively have upon a community, a domain in society, or sometimes the entire world. These are high-impact communities for members and that impact expands through the member’s work and collaboration beyond the group. You are likely familiar with Margaret Mead’s related quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This is shown true in the types of groups that I am describing.

The reason we usually do not know about these groups is because they don’t exist for self-promotion. Most people don’t go around talking about all the times and ways in which they gathered with their family members or a group of close friends either. The same is true for many, but not all, of these groups. These are valued groups, but they are also intimate, more about learning and peer exchange, and less about improving one’s resume or flaunting membership. In this sense, these are true communities of learning.

What is most interesting and exciting about them is that anyone can start such a group, there is no concern for external oversight, and you can learn as much or more from such a group than what you might experience in a robust and rigorous formal credential or degree program at a school. It is freely accessible means of learning, accountability, mutual encouragement, and networking.  If you are reading this, you can start a group like this today. Just decide the purpose of the group, identify and recruit a group of people, commit, gather, and learn from one another. It doesn’t require paying tuition, creating a formal organization or association, or even coming up with a name (although some enjoy having something to call it). Yet, it is a powerful force for learning and agency in society.

Does Our World Need More Leather Apron Clubs?

I used to read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography once a year. Now I get to it every two or three years. Each time I read it, something new captures my attention. This time it was an excerpt where Franklin describes the formation and purpose of a learning community called Junto (or the Leather Apron club) in 1727. From this group emerged the idea of a shared library, later the subscription library, as well as the American Philosophical Society. Rather than getting it secondhand, I’ll let Franklin explain Junto to you, and follow it up with a few observations about the implications for life in a digital and increasingly networked world.

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which was called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The first members were Joseph Breintnal, a copyer of deeds for the scriveners, a good-natur’d, friendly middle-ag’d man, a great lover of poetry, reading all he could meet with, and writing some that was tolerable; very ingenious in many little Nicknackeries, and of sensible conversation.

Thomas Godfrey, a self-taught mathematician, great in his way, and afterward inventor of what is now called Hadley’s Quadrant. But he knew little out of his way, and was not a pleasing companion; as, like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision in everything said, or was forever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation. He soon left us.

Nicholas Scull, a surveyor, afterwards surveyor-general, who lov’d books, and sometimes made a few verses.

William Parsons, bred a shoemaker, but, loving reading, had acquir’d a considerable share of mathematics, which he first studied with a view to astrology, that he afterwards laught [laughed] at it. He also became surveyor-general.

William Maugridge, a joiner, a most exquisite mechanic, and a solid, sensible man.

Hugh Meredith, Stephen Potts, and George Webb I have characteriz’d before.

Robert Grace, a young gentleman of some fortune, generous, lively, and witty; a lover of punning and of his friends.

– The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Notice the attributes of this group.

  1. It existed for “mutual improvement.”
  2. It included people from diverse occupations and experiences.
  3. Participation was not limited to people with formal education or credentials (notice the self-taught member).
  4. Each member was required to come with questions (from “any point of view”) on almost any subject (although they focused on “morality, politics, and natural philosophy”).
  5. These discussions were diverse and not limited to the official professions of the participants.
  6. The focus was a search for truth, not to win the argument.
  7. Each person was required to write an essay on a topic of personal choice and interest every three months, and read it to the group for discussion.

As I look at this list, I’m intrigued by many elements.

  • It is question-driven instead of book driven (even though books were an important part of the learning in this group). Notice how that is qualitatively distinct from most schools and classrooms.
  • This was not for a degree or credential. It is for self-improvement, with an eye toward that which also benefits society.
  • This is not about looking good, winning a debate, or earning accolades. It is about the pursuit of truth.
  • This is not driven by writings or lectures. Instead it is truly peer-to-peer learning. With that in mind, every member is expected to contribute in substantive ways.
  • It is not teacher-driven.
  • It is not about getting professional development so you are eligible for a raise or promotion.
  • It is about growth and the pursuit of truth.
  • This community empowered members to be active and engaged citizens.
  • This is a vibrant learning community.

I can’t help but think that our world and societies would be better off if they were seasoned with more learners and groups like this. Similarly, I have to think that we can leverage the connections of the digital world to build and nurture such communities.

21st Century Skill: Accomplish Tasks that are Impossible Alone

At a recent conference, I was asked to speak on “21st Century Education 101,” a primer for those who might still be new the concept.  People started talking about 21st century education already twenty years ago, but since 2000 there are countless books and articles that use this phrase to talk about what students need to know to thrive in a 21st century world.  Others use it to think about what a school of the 21st century should look like, often comparing industrial and post-industrial age schooling.  Still others use the phrase to discuss the changing “how” of teaching in an increasingly digital world, leveraging current and emerging technology for teaching and learning.

I started my talk with a five-minute highlight of such ideas, listing seven or eight of the often-referenced books on this subject.  Then I decided to do something different.  Taking the advice of a professor years ago (He said, “We learn too late that our convictions matter.”), I decided to create and share my own list for 21st century learning. In this list, I focused on the types of learning environments and experiences that I consider valuable for learners of all ages, the types of learning challenges that stretch us, inspire us, and equip us to flourish, create, inspire, and live with a deep sense of meaning and purpose.

Number seven on my list was, “Accomplish tasks that are impossible alone.” I suggested that many group projects in schools miss the mark because the group members don’t really need a group to accomplish the tasks.  In that sense, they are not authentic.  The assignment or challenge is set up in a way that one person can do most or all the work for the rest of the group. Or, perhaps led by a teacher who studied cooperative learning, the assignment requires that all students play a certain role to get full credit, but it is still not authentic.  The only thing that requires that the team work together is the list of rules made up by the teacher.

Instead, what if we provided learners with more authentic group challenges, the kind that actually requires a group to accomplish the task or face the challenge? In my job, I can’t possibly carry out my work without other people.  I depend upon others.  Not only that, my work would not have a point without them.  I need them, and sometimes they need me or someone who can do what I do.  Some people don’t like such arrangements and they try to design a life that avoids them as much as possible. This is a persistent value, especially in the United States.  It is likely why we like to elevate leaders with special titles and sometimes enormous salaries. As noted by Edgar Shein in Humble Inquiry, even when we do teamwork, we often seem to think that the success is truly a result of a single strong leader, because that is rooted in the work and character of an individual. Or, if we recognize the interdependent work of the team, we are inclined to celebrate or highlight the work of the highest performers on the team or someone who was especially important in the project. The American mind tends to resonate with Igor Sikorsky when he states, “The work of the individual still remains the spark that moves mankind ahead even more than teamwork.” Of course, regardless of what we emphasize or how we try to arrange our lives, we still need other people.

While I respect and value different types of people, some energized by time alone and others by spending time with a group, learning about leaning on others is a life skill, especially in our increasingly specialized world of the 21st century.  We see this throughout nature and society. Teams sports give this experience for some people.  It isn’t possible to play such games without others, and it is unlikely that one will be successful in the game without a team of walking, running, jumping, thinking, breathing others.

Why not create or pursue group challenges in learning communities that mirror this? Carry an object too heavy for the strongest kid.  Write a 20 page essay with a two-hour deadline (think of how Wikipedia articles are written).  Host an event. Publish and disseminate a journal or e-newsletter. Make a documentary on an important social issue. Plan and take part in a flash mob. Engage in a complex community service project. Play music together. Participate in games and simulations that replicate the sort of interdependence common in many workplaces and communities outside of school. Learn something that only another person knows (think jigsaw problem solving). Another way of getting at this is using the approach described by Spencer Kagan called positive interdependence. These represent authentic projects where people depend upon one another to get the job done and to do it well.

What are the first steps for an interested teacher? I will conclude with five suggested starting points.

  1. Identify and Use Student Gifts and Abilities – Learning about the distinct gifts and abilities of learners in a class can help a thoughtful teacher devise any number of authentic challenges that highlight these gifts, allowing students to discover the joy of accomplishing a task that is impossible alone while also coming to appreciate the uniqueness and valuable contributions that others make to the group.
  2. Choose an Authentic Group Project -Work with the class/group to find one or more authentic projects that can’t be accomplished alone.
  3. Teach About It – Plan time to teach about interdependence and find times during and after the project to debrief it.
  4. Model It – Model interdependence by refusing to be the lone ranger teacher who closes the door and does his/her own thing in a class. Instead, aspire to work with parents, students, teachers and administrators to do tasks that you could never do for yourself.  Then, in appropriate ways, share your excitement about these experiences with your students.
  5. Find, Tell and Discuss Stories – Read up on interdependence, including examples from history about how groups of people came together to carry out great things, things impossible for any one person to do along. Use these as case studies, discussion starters, and sources of inspiration with the class group projects.





Improving Peer Feedback in Online Courses

In many online courses, the discussion forum remains a central place for student-instructor and student-student interaction.  While is does not have the affordance of immediacy and spontaneity, it does have other benefits.  In a discussion forum, learners can re-read one another’s posts as much as they want, paying more attention to the details of arguments.  After carefully considering the argument, a learner can construct a detailed response, taking as much time and doing as much research as is possible given their time restraints (restraints within the course and the restraints that come for other life commitments). These are powerful affordances when it comes to peer feedback.  However, the fact that these affordandances are possible does not means that learners will leverage them in a way that promotes increased learning.

For an online text-based discussion to be a place of significant peer-to-peer learning that improves personal understanding and future performance, we need to look at certain attributes of these exchanges, considering the types of peer feedback that improve learning.  For the sake of this article, I’m thinking specifically about online discussions where learners post rough draft papers, projects, or products; and then they are supposed to gain peer feedback that helps them improve that draft.  For that to happen, it typically requires training students on how to give this sort of feedback.  Consider the following three tips.

1. Move Beyond “Right or Wrong” Feedback

Help students move beyond right or wrong, correct or incorrect, agree or disagree comments.  Instead, they want to give specifics.  What works especially well is to start with posting a specific comment about an issue in the peer’s work, and then following up with a question or two that can lead them in the right direction on how to address it.  Suppose, for example, that a student posted a paper about how iPads can improve student learning in math, but they didn’t cite any rigorous studies to support that claim.  The best feedback would not simply be, “I think you need more support for your arguments.”  Instead, consider this feedback.  “You note that iPads can improve student learning, but I don’t see any support from scholarly journals to support that claim.  Can you find any studies that deal specifically with how iPad usage improved student performance in math and use those studies to better support your claim?”  Notice that this second piece of feedback is more specific and it points the peer in the right direction on how to address a current weakness in the paper.

2. Check for Understanding & Proceed with Appreciation and Concerns

In David Perkins’s Making Learning Whole, he describes three types of feedback: corrective (right or wrong), conciliatory (encouragements and affirmations), and communicative (“structured to ensure good communication”).  This last type, communicative, is divided into three parts.  The first is clarification.  This is when a peer’s feedback starts with a question that is intended to ensure proper understanding before proceeding.  The goal is to make sure that you understand the paper before you start critiquing it.  While this is difficult in a time-sensitive online threaded discussion (like one that lasts only a week), it is still possible and it is very effective.  Without this step, a peer can unknowingly provide irrelevant or unhelpful feedback. Once clarification is complete, then it is time to move on to appreciation (affirming specific positive attributes of the work) and concerns/suggestions (focusing upon specific ways to improve the next version of this work).  As noted by Perkins, the goal of clarification and affirmation is to be informative, not just encouraging friendly.

3. Provide Feedback Using a Set of Specific Criteria or a Rubric

This is effective in helping students learn how to give specific and targeted feedback.  Learners are typically newer to the content of the course, hence the reason that they are taking it (yes, there are exceptions to this).  So, to give good feedback, some sort of guide will help them to give the type of detailed feedback that can be used to improve a paper or project.  In the example above, one of the items on the rubric might have been, “The paper supports each argument with scholarly research reports that relate directly to that argument.”  Another item might be, “The author is explicit about how any cited research supports one or more arguments in the paper.”  While such comments may seem intuitive to the expert, they are not to the novice, and a checklist or rubric with such items helps all the learners develop the ability to analyze their own work and the work of others in view of specific criteria.  Keep in mind that it is not enough for students to place yes or no check marks beside items in a rubric or checklist, not if the goal is to help them improve their work.  Instead, as noted in suggestion 1, they should follow up with specific comments and questions that guide one another in the right direction.

Training students to use these three steps goes a long way in improving the quality of peer feedback in an online discussion forum.  Of course, these same strategies work in other contexts as well.