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Peering into Learning

The aim of the Peeragogy Handbook is to establish effective peer-learning techniques that you can implement “on the ground.” We suggest that you look through the Handbook, try a few of these suggestions, and see how they work for you. Then we invite you share your experiences, ask for feedback, and work with us to improve the Handbook and the field we affectionately call “Peeragogy.”

In this part of the Peeragogy Handbook, we “peeragogues” have summarised the most important and applicable research and insights from two years of inquiry and discussion. Although there’s been no shortage of experimentation and formal research into collaborative, connective, and shared learning systems in the past, there is a new rumbling among education thinkers that suggests that when combined with new platforms and technologies, peer-learning strategies as described here could have a huge impact on the way educational institutions evolve in the future. We’ve also seen for ourselves how peer-learning techniques can help anyone who’s interested to become a more effective informal educator.

The interplay of individual and group

“Personal” supports “peer”. We can consciously cultivate living, growing, responsive webs of information, support, and inspiration that help us be more effective learners. This is known as a personal learning network. We’ll offer tips on how to build these networks — and we’ll also explain how strong personal learning networks can contribute to and evolve into even stronger peer learning networks.

“Peer” supports “personal”. As we work together to develop shared plans for our collective efforts in group projects, we usually can find places where we have something to learn. Furthermore, if we are willing to ask for help and offer our help to others, everybody’s learning escalates. Being mindful of effective interpersonal learning patterns is an important part of building an effective personal learning plan.

Peer learning through the ages

As you will have guessed, our new term, peeragogy, is a riff on the word pedagogy — the art, science, or profession of teaching. Pedagogy has a somewhat problematic origin: it comes from the ancient Greek tradition of having a child (paidos) be supervised (agogos) by a slave. Greek philosophers seem to have disagreed about to the best way for individuals to gain knowledge (and even more so, wisdom). Socrates, who insisted that he was not wise, also insisted that his interlocutors join him in investigating truth claims, as peers. And yet, Plato, the most famous of these interlocutors and the best-known author of Socratic dialogs, in his most famous allegory of the cave, has Socrates say, with a modest but clearly pedagogical bent:

Socrates: This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed—whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

In more recent centuries, various education theorists and reformers have challenged the effectiveness of what had become the traditional teacher-led model. Most famous of the early education reformers in the United States was John Dewey, who advocated new experiential learning techniques. In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education [1], Dewey wrote, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.” Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who developed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, was another proponent of “constructivist” learning. His book, Thought and Language [2] also gives evidence to support collaborative, socially meaningful, problem-solving activities as opposed to isolated exercises.

Within the last few decades, things have begun to change very rapidly. In “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age,” George Siemens argues that technology has changed the way we learn, explaining how it tends to complicate or expose the limitations of the learning theories of the past [3]. The crucial point of connectivism is that the connections that make it possible for us to learn in the future are more relevant than the  knowledge we hold individually in the present. Technology can, to some degree and in certain contexts, replace “know how” with “know where to look.”

Platon Cave Sanraedam (1604). By Jan Saenredam [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From peer learning to peeragogy

The idea that we needed a new theory (which we initially gave the name “paragogy” [4]) arose out of the challenges we faced doing peer learning. Our aim was to understand how groups and organizations can become better at serving participants’ interests, while participants also learn and become better contributors.

Paragogy began as a set of proposed principles that describe peer produced peer learning — we’ll say what these principles are just below. We designed them to contrast with a set guidelines for adult educators advanced by Malcolm Knowles [5]. The paragogy principles focus on the way in which co-learners shape their learning context together. Very likely, there will be no educator anywhere in sight. And just for this reason, peer produced peer learning is something for “innovative educators” everywhere. You don’t need to have the word teacher, trainer, or educator in your job title. It’s enough to ask good questions.

The paragogy principles aim to make that more explicit.  They advocate for an approach to peer learning in which:

  1. Changing context is a decentered center.
  2. Meta-learning is a font of knowledge.
  3. Peers provide feedback that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
  4. Learning is distributed and nonlinear.
  5. You realize the dream if you can, then wake up!

If some of these principles seem a bit ephemeral, it may help to think of in a more unified manner, as a set of dimensions that describe possible changes that can take place in peer produced peer learning [6]:

  1. Changing the nature of the space
  2. Changing what I know about myself
  3. Changing my perspective
  4. Changing content or connectivity
  5. Changing objectives

Now that we’ve connecting the idea of paragogy to a perspective focused on the kinds of change that can take place in peer produced peer learning, it’s time to reveal that our secret for success is hidden in plain view: the word “paragogy” means “production” in Greek. We’re particularly interested in how the powerful blend of peer learning and collaborative work drives open source software development, and helps to build resources like Wikipedia. But in fact it works equally well in offline settings, from official hacker/maker spaces to garages and treehouses. Projects like StoryCorps show how contemporary media can add a powerful new layer to ancient strategies for teaching, learning, and sharing.

The word “peeragogy” attempts to make these ideas immediately understandable to everyone, including non-geeks. Peeragogy is about peers learning together, and teaching each other. In the end, the two words are actually synonyms. If you want to go into theory-building mode, you can spell it “paragogy”. If you want to be a bit more down to earth, stick with “peeragogy.”


  1. Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Dover Publications.
  2. Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and language. MIT press.
  3. Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), 3-10.
  4. Corneli, J. and Danoff, C. J. (2011), Paragogy: Synergizing individual and organizational learning. (Published on Wikiversity.)
  5. Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Chicago: Follett.
  6. Corneli, J. and Mikroyannidis, A. (2011). Personalised Peer-Supported Learning: The Peer-to-Peer Learning Environment (P2PLE). Digital Education Review 20, 14-23.

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