Tag Archives: Pedagogy

Learning from One Another

16 Sep

“When children teach other, they learn better”. I remember hearing this from a teacher in a simple school in a small town. Then I heard the same last year from Vicky Colbert WISE Laureate – indeed this is what transformed education in Colombia via the Escola Neuva system. Through difficult terrain, poor communities, scarce resources – here was a power to be harnessed – the peer.

Learning from each other is a natural way of picking up knowledge and skills. As children and as adults we learn by watching each other, even more so by copying each other’s actions. The next stage is trying it out – learning by doing. There is an old saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” But there is one more step. A recent study of retention in learning marked out a pyramid where ‘learning by teaching’ showed a retention rate of 90%, compared to a 5% retention rate for a lecture or a 30% retention rate for a demonstration.

What does that look like in a classroom? A class full of teachers will be chaotic surely? If all the students are teaching each other, then what is the role of the teacher? The role of the teacher evolves to being so much more than a passive fount of knowledge. A peer learning class needs to be arranged differently. They are given challenges, tasks and resources. They share their learning journey, nudged and directed by the teacher till all the students have reached basic competence in that learning module. This means that the style of teaching must be very different. Not only is it more participative but also engages the teacher in different ways. The learning resources became important but what is most important is the question asked by the teacher that sets the children off on the adventure. Too wide, and there is chaos. Too narrow and they are merely parroting lines to each other, even copying from each other mindlessly. This is a trap the teacher must avoid – the point of peer learning in classrooms is to encourage students to think and engage with the learning. Not just copy from each other or the board.  Designing the question, organising the class, managing the range, channelling energy constructively – the teacher’s focus moves to these in peer learning classes. And learning levels go up more – not only has each child been engaged, each child has received personal attention from the teacher and has been taught using a pedagogy that improves retention levels.

Changing pedagogies midstream is always a bit daunting for most teachers. Only few would have been trained in peer learning, others will have to figure it out on their own. Unless, they have a peer learning group. What is applied to the classroom can, and does work for teachers too. Teaching and learning is enhanced with peers (or why would schools exist!) and the best teachers keep learning new techniques and sharing them with their peers. Not just colleagues.

There was a time when peer learning was restricted to one’s circle of colleagues and the only peer learning network that was active was in the staffroom. Occasional training sessions extended it for a while to peers across other schools or in the same district. Technology has now removed these barriers. Peer learning groups are being supported by tech companies such as google, by newspaper groups such as the Times (UK based, working in India) and others. Facebook groups are a great way of creating peer learning networks across the country and even the globe. Look up a group to join, or even create one of your own. It doesn’t have to be all serious and theoretical for learning to happen. For example, we used to share little stories of what happened in class with the Facebook group. Sometimes we would share laughter and often it would get responses that were very supportive and helpful. Teaching tips can be shared. Another great tool to create a peer learning network is twitter. Teachers and educators come together and discuss ways to improve their teaching practice or other issues in education. The Indian education chat is called #EduIn where one can meet a community of educators. Others are more global and include groups for new teachers, teachers learning to incorporate technology in their classes, mathematics teachers etc. Shared blogs with multiple contributors work as peer learning for both teachers and students, as do whatsapp groups. Both the flipped classroom model as well as peer learning pedagogies can use these tools extensively.

Whether peer learning is technology driven or not, there is a great deal of value in peer learning groups. In Punjab, STIR and NISA are working in the Rajpura district of Punjab to bring teachers together regularly to speak about in class innovations, teaching practices, solutions and experiences. The teaching community meet at one of the schools in the district on a regular basis and worked together to share and learn. They were able to improve many outcomes in the school district in a short while, but of course there is a lot more to be done. Similar efforts have been in place for decades in Rajasthan and other places.

Peer Learning Networks do not have to be an overly formal construct – each of us can create a PLN where we identify and nurture our sources of learning. While many of us do so naturally it is more of a conscious effort for others. A PLN gives better results if there is a semi-formal structure around it not the least because it ensures that we put in the time and resources required to make it work. A semi-formal or formal PLN will also set its goals, monitor progress and have a community of care that helps it course correct as required. For example, subject based peer learning networks of teachers could be very useful where they share teaching tools, resolve classroom hurdles, share worksheets and quizzes and even create intra-school events. Sometimes only a peer learning network can help – or even understand what the problem is and how to find your way through the maze.

Peer Learning is not a magic wand that resolves all problems but it does form the basis of sustainable solutions. This is where we tap into all parts of learning – previous knowledge, relevant experience and the adventure of sharing to grow our skills together. The PLN grows together as it encourages and supports the whole group to improve themselves.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer and advisor on education. She designs institutional interventions to improve learning outcomes and bring a sense of fun and movement in classrooms. She can be contacted at meetasengupta@gmail.com or on twitter at the handle @meetasengupta


Questioning as a Pedagogic Tool

6 Dec

A couple of blog posts ago, the discussion turned to using questioning as a tool for learning, which found many supporters. To be honest, I know no other way to learn. Questioning is the most basic of tools that probe and provoke – both essential to stimulate learning nodes.

Even in pure lecture mode it is possible to include the class in a two way process using this simplest of tools. Strategic questioning is a pedagogy that is used extensively in teaching and learning at the nursery and kindergarten levels. A classic methodology of using questioning in the classroom of course is Socratic questioning, a method that teaches critical thinking skills and strengthens the ability of students to build stronger arguments and discussions.

The Socratic questioning methodology identifies six types of questions: clarification, assumptions, evidence, viewpoints, consequences and of course- questions about the question.

Questions of clarification ask the learner to explain themselves, to provide examples or to rephrase. This technique is often used in classrooms to check for understanding of the issues and concepts being discussed.  Questions that probe assumptions seek out weak foundations of arguments. Many ‘facts’ that are handed down to us, or even stated in textbooks are built on embedded assumptions.

A true guide would show their learners how to unpeel these assumptions and be aware of prejudices, stereotypes and choices made when making statements. Others are questions that probe reasons and evidence that ask the learner “How Do you know?” The evidence is questioned, even going so far as to seek alternatives that may change the conclusion at hand. The adequacy of data, its validity and reliability are taught to be questioned.

This is in contrast to Questions about viewpoints or perspectives – where the effects or implications of statements are questioned. This  is a technique commonly seen in primary school textbooks for the current generation where they are encouraged to think up alternative endings, or answer “what could have happened” type of questions. Questions that probe implications and consequences are the mainstay of most classic teaching and assessing tools.

Of course, the question itself is subject to questioning and the last category does just that. The reasons for asking the question and the importance of that particular question.

All the way through schools and higher education, various questioning techniques have supported the learning process – including sessions where it is key to impart knowledge, teach an analytical process or induce reflection on an idea or concept.

Questioning, however, is a skill, honed over years of practice. Like other skills, it is possible to fall into certain patterns after years of practice and re-skilling one-self out of a particular groove takes effort. All the more so, since there are no professional certification or refresher courses in this art. Each teacher uses questions to support different parts of the learning process.

It is a very lazy teacher who does not pause ask probing questions to test understanding as they teach. Without these it is very difficult to receive feedback from the class to ensure that learning is on track. Some types of questions are reserved for the assessment process – questions that test for depth of knowledge and understanding.

Then there are other questions that are used to encourage independent thinking – scaffolding up from the gentle ‘What do you think’ type of question to  more rigourous and provocative questioning. In more confident classes, provocative questioning is a strong technique with a class often becoming a sparring ground and the discussion spilling out of the classroom as learning continues long after that class is over.

Questions are far more powerful than lectures or books, for they unleash the forces of learning. Once a question has crashed through traditional barriers in a learner’s mind the journey of discovering more and more begins. And there is true joy in learning.

This post was published on November 2, 2011 here :