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From peer learning to “peeragogy”

Our mission in  this section is to explain how peeragogy builds on peer learning by bringing peers to together to teach and learn from each other. You will see some different ways in which learning and learning activities can be described and understood. And perhaps you will also get a sense of why we are writing The Peeragogy Handbook! We say this in the present tense, because the Handbook is very much a “living” document, continually enhanced and updated at regular intervals to reflect our own growing understanding of how and in what situations this learning style can be effective.

The idea that we needed a new theory (which we called called paragogy) arose out of the challenges we faced doing peer learning. Specifically, we were particularly interested in the conditions that were required for volunteer contributors to drive an learning-focused organization’s agenda, and improve things for participating learners and teachers. How could the organization itself “learn” and grow, while participants were also learning and becoming better contributors?

As this idea took form, we reflected more on how learning and organizations work. Just like it would be rare for a business to be successful if it does not take into account the needs and interests of its clients, it is unlikely for a learning project to be successful if the act of learning is not somehow relevant for the people doing it.

So, paragogy became a set of proposed principles for understanding learning (and working) together. In particular, we focused on the way in which co-learners shape their learning context together. Paragogy is not a recipe: its ideas can grow and change to suit the needs of the moment. As it has matured, it has become more of an “approach” than a set of principles set in stone. Again, we look at how people adapt by co-producing a learning context; so, for example, it would not be easy to build a “democratic” organization without shared understandings like the points expressed by Fabrizio Terzi, quoted above.

A healthy process for learning in paragogy consists in a direct evolution of the four principles of parliamentary democracy: 1) The right to speak; 2) The right to be heard; 3) The right to listen;4) The right to “co-lead” in the decision-making system. — Fabrizio Terzi

As time goes by, we hope that we can build paragogical tools that will help people share their skills, and learn while working together. It is important to learn more about how to invest one’s time and energy efficiently. At present, “learning” is often thought of as something that happens separately from the rest of life (i.e. in school or university, or perhaps in libraries and cafes). But in fact, learning and adaptation are dynamic processes which are happening all the time. The separation of learning from daily life contributes to making educational goals appear to be very “distant”.  Thus, it would not be atypical to find someone saying:

It would be better for me to be a drug dealer than to study mathematics, since it will take me years and years before the mathematics study pays off, whereas I can make money selling drugs right away.  — anonymous

If you want to use paragogy to learn how to become a better drug dealer, we wouldn’t stop you (there are certainly many interesting examples of peer learning in the organized crime world; feel free to contribute an article here about your experiences!)

The word “paragogy” itself is a fascinating multilingual play on words. In Greek, it means “production of equals.”  In Latin, it also means, roughly, the kinds of words produced by adding a given prefix or suffix to another word (so, it is in some sense a pun on its own name!). Its roots mean “alongside leading”, so we either get the sense of a sustained critical attitude – if not a subversive leading astray (as in Socrates of the Apology) – or simply of teamwork.  Defined in modern English, the basic meaning is just “peer learning,” and, for this reason, we often morph the term into “peeragogy” when we are talking about its specific, active, learning-directed aspects.

“Peeragogy” also a riff on the word “andragogy,” or learning among adults, first used by Malcolm Knowles.  He wrote:

Andragogy is simply another model of assumptions about adult learners to be used alongside the pedagogical model of assumptions, thereby providing two alternative models for testing out the assumptions as to their ‘fit’ with particular situations. Furthermore, the models are probably most useful when seen not as dichotomous but rather as two ends of a spectrum , with a realistic assumption (about learners) in a given situation falling in between the two ends.  — Knowles, 1980, p. 43.

We also tried, to be similarly non-oppositional with respect to andragogy:

The most important initial condition in andragogy seems to be that an adult educator or facilitator is part of the picture. In a peer-based setting, that may not be the case: we can easily find examples of learning environments where there is no “teacher” in the “classroom,” where, for example, the task of facilitation is shared among all participants or even encoded in the learning materials or supportive technologies. Not that one way is more desirable than another: we simply mean to highlight the fact that the most basic features of a given learning environment will influence everything else. — Corneli & Danoff, 2011.

Knowles noted many reasons to move to a theory of adult learning that took the needs of adults into account — but many of these same reasons suggest that we need a better theory of peer learning if we are going to really use it to its full potential.  Consider:

  • Many people in online learning contexts are NOT taking initiative. There is a “90/9/1 rule” that says that, online, 1% of people create content, 9% edit or modify that content, and 90% view the content without contributing. Is this rule fixed? How do we work in a world where the rule applies (or shift things, so that it doesn’t)?

  • If we want to understand human psychological development, we clearly need a social psychology component.

  • While it is generally a good idea for people to take responsibility and initiative in their own learning, this does not come cheaply, and it is rare to find a “wise person” who has all the answers about how that should work; instead, we prefer to participate in a broader “Socratic” discussion around the topic of learning.

  • The strange new world of computers is in fact very familiar to some of us, who have created some new strategies for learning in these spaces — and we aim to share them here (as well as look at “low-tech” strategies for learning that work just as well).

We will next say a few words about some related theories of learning which bear certain similarities to paragogy/peeragogy and which can help contextualize it.

So… how should we spell it?

“Paragogy” is intended to be a broad, inclusive, and purposefully ambiguous term. “Peeragogy” by contrast attempts to make the term more concrete and immediately understandable: peeragogy is about peers learning together, and teaching each other. In the end, the two words are actually synonyms. If you’re happy to go into theory-building mode, feel free to use “paragogy”. If you want to be a bit more down to earth, use “peeragogy”. In any case, we’ll look at a few other theories next — you can judge them for yourself and decide whether you think we need a new theory or not.

Constructivism and friends

Constructivism is an umbrella term describing several learning theories. The main idea of constructivism is that learners actively construc t— grow, make, create, build — their own understanding. Social constructivism focuses on interactions among learners. One of its main themes is the growth of shared collective knowledge in groups and networks. For example, social constructivism underlies the theory of communities of practice. While the ground work can be traced to Vygotsky (1930s), the ideas started to gain momentum in the 1970s. Radical constructivism (also referred to as Piagetian constructivism) focuses on how individuals construct knowledge. The term “radical” (von Glasersfeld, 1970s) comes from the claim that no knowledge is ever “perceived through senses” but all knowledge is built by the learner.

Enactivism emphasizes interaction of learners with the environment. It builds bridges across divides between different learning theories. In particular, it resolves seeming contradictions between social and radical constructivism. It is a more recent branch of constructivism, with publications beginning in the 1990s.

Constructionism focuses on learning via designing and making artefacts. While the theory is not restricted by the type of artefacts, many of the original constructionists in the late 1970s and early 1980s worked with computer software. Therefore, much of constructionism research focuses on software design as a learning task. In 2000s, the Maker and DIY movements gained momentum and connected with constructionist ideas. Constructionism also connects with social media ideas, such as co-production.

Connectivism is another more recent variant, especially suited to an online context. In short, connectivism situates learning in the networks of connections made among individuals, texts, and each other. We have an article about the practicalities of a MOOC here.

Pæragogy would tend to prefer a blend of the “constructionist” and “enactivist” approaches, which would position learners as both designing and re-constructing their environment, their language, etc.. Neither technology nor environment is trancendental in this approach. Rather, learning is a form of adaptation, which also includes a “terraforming” component — and the question of what to “affirm” through practice becomes very concrete. We continue with this theme below.

Different ways to engage

Since we are interested in how students (and others) can collaborate in learning, bringing to their own particular experiences, strengths, and weaknesses to bear, we ask: “How can each participant contribute to a group in their own way? Which kind of activities can we design to foster “multi-modal” collaborative learning, and how do we assess the outcomes?”

One approach is to look at the “multiple different social roles” which people take on in educational contexts:

[W]e use [Ken] Wilber’s terms to describe a given social role in terms of its constituent actions. So for example, the role of “being a student” might be described as follows: “I go to class, we do a class project, the objects of concern (“Its”) are things I can add to my portfolio or work-record; and fundamentally, it is all about gaining a skill.” This simple background story gives us a notion of role, persona, or identity: a role that is defined by its constituent actions, relative a given social context. And here, context is conceived of, after Nishida, as a “shared context in motion.” (Corneli and Mikroyannidis 2012)

By looking at different roles, we begin to get at “different paths and modalities of contribution”. In addition, the I/We/Its/It framework can be used to decouple learning (and learning design) from any fixed cycle or set of “stages” (e.g. Guidance & Support, Communication & Collaboration, Reflection & Demonstration, Content & Activities from Gráinne Conole, or the Forming, Norming, Storming, Performing framework from Tuckman). This is not to say that those frameworks are not useful — but they should not overdetermine our approach to learning design (see comments by Lisewski and Joyce on another “staged” model, namely Salmon’s “five-stage e-moderating model”). This “decoupled” or “lightly coupled” frame of analysis is likely to be a useful move if learning is happening on an ongoing basis among peers, with the learning context being reshaped and redefined as we go.

Whatever the “outer” framework, learning activities can be sorted into categories like: AssimilativeInformation ProcessingCommunicativeProductiveExperientialAdaptive (Oliver and Conole, (etc.) — or in terms of the “multiples intelligences” that apply (per Howard Gardner).

Indeed, much as we would seek to decouple our “outer” frame of analysis from a cycle, the different “types” of activities may be very subject-, activity-, or person-specific. For example, we might ask participants to code activities in terms of their associated “mental state” (after Csíkszentmihályi), rather than their associated “intelligence”:

Challenge vs. Skill. By w:User:Oliverbeatson (w:File:Challenge vs skill.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We could also describe ourselves (or our roles within a learning process, as above) in terms of various attributes, e.g. using the proposed framework of Learning Power, with its seven dimensions: changing and learning vs. being stuck and static, making meaning vs. accumulating data, critical curiosity vs. passivity, creativity vs. being rule-bound, learning relationships vs. isolation and/or dependence, strategic awareness vs. being robotic, resilience vs. fragility (Deakin-Crick, Broadfoot, and Claxton).

Similar ideas are summed up in Claxton’s four-dimensional framework based on: resilienceresourcefulnessreciprocity and reflection. Whatever framework we use, it is important to remember that, rather than seeing a person’s learning power in a given situation as an essential attribute of who they are, one would rather see a person’s overall disposition to learning as part of an (at least) two-way relationship (Wacquant, 2006). Peers might use this framework to both better understand how learning could work in a given situation, and to work together to devise effective individual or system-level interventions.

We have shown some different ways in which learning and learning activities can be described. Rather than reproducing any given system, learners cann use this open-ended descriptive-design process to identify the topics and ideas of concern to them, then build their own language and roles to use as tools for addressing issues of concern.

Reading and relating to the research context as a contact zone, then, necessitates working with and through issues of voice, agency, power, and desire alongside all participants in the process.” - Askins and Pain

What is true of the contact zones in collaborative inquiry research is if anything even more true for the zones of proximal development we co-create in peeragogy! The move from engaging “peer learning” to “practicing peeragogy” can be a big step. But of course — it is a natural one that we take together.


Tableau vivant (interpersonal – linguistic – kinesthetic)

Ask participants to create, in groups, a tableau vivant of a given sequence/scene from a film. Have each person capture a particular essence/character/situation of the scene. Ask them to freeze their tableau while the rest of the group observes and identifies the scene, asking questions, and offering comments and critiques.


Post Revisions:

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