Peer Education Reflections

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Wishing I had saved my first draft which Squarespace deleted for me when I clicked “post,” but I would also like to have a nice hot glass of that Moroccan tea – green, with a lot of mint, and tons of sugar, too hot to hold, served in tiny glasses. It’s the way I started every day this past week, just arriving home yesterday. A bit jet lagged, but ready to teach and work this week back in New York.

This past week in Rabat, Morocco I led my mostly-annual workshop with the students of ILCS Rabat on public speaking, argumentation, debating, and the art of getting your opinion and ideas out to an audience of others. I really like thinking about it and have been slowly making it better over time. This week was particularly good and I think I know some reasons why. This post is a reflection on peer learning – something that gets a lot of flak. Never really seems to go well, and it seems like amateur hour when you do it in a classroom. These tips might help incorporate it better in other teaching situations.

What we did this time was I had my students who were teaching prepare lessons with partners in order to teach 90 minute(ish) lessons on different things that we set as the subjects that need to be taught. We shared all these documents and then talked about them a bit. The students mostly worked together on it and there was very little intervention on my part with the lessons.

This post is going to get confusing because I have my students from my Debate program teaching, and there are students from ILCS in Rabat who are learning. I prefer the Friere nomenclature of “student/teacher, teacher/student” but don’t want to sacrifice clarity on what it was that we were doing and why I think it worked well. I’ll try to be as clear as I can about who I am discussing without doing any disservice to the idea that everyone is in a position to teach and learn, simultaneously, in the classroom, until some authoritarian professor comes in and screws it all up.

Here are the reasons in no particular order why I think this time worked well:

Lots of Time to Plan

We set up what we would teach and who would be responsible for planning it out pretty early. I’d like to do it even earlier next time, and maybe set up a loop with the Debate Society here to test out our material. There should be little difference in what we teach as good argumentation, debate, and speaking between our society and others who could benefit from such teaching. The focus on competitive success makes a big cleave between what one would teach to real debaters and what one would do for outreach. I thought the students who would be teaching needed time to put together what they might want to teach, and that was essential. There needs to be time for reflection and planning in any teaching, and consideration by those who would be in the role of teacher as to what they would like to do. I think most debate workshops skip over this, and feel their role is mere description of the steps to success as opposed to setting up a site of inquiry and practice.

Teaching in Partners, Not Alone or in Groups

A lot of peer education puts the student who is teaching as a solo figure before a classroom. This invites the class to use their well-worn comfortable techniques of judgement as to whether the knowledge is valuable. It invites thinking that knowledge comes from a sujet suppose savoir, some person who is also knowledgeable, and transmits it. This usually winds up making peer teaching ineffective since the signs of value from the students’ cobbled together rubric doesn’t work – here’s someone rhetorically performing as a peer, not as someone who is a professor. The rubric will score them low. Partnering them up with another peer though throws this ideology a curve ball: The traditional site of knowledge is no longer easy to determine. Knowledge exists somewhere in between these peer educators, and perhaps it is a bit harder to evaluate. The thinking that the class does about what is worth knowing and what is not also helps the content achieve a new level of interaction. I think that teaching in groups is not going to catch this benefit either, as more than two is read as a presentation, which is not as interactive as teaching. People can participate or not in the presentation, which is a very stable and stagnant form of address. But two peers trying to communicate the ideas of debate or argument to a class used to either group presentations or professors lecturing will be more engaged precisely because there is no comfortable place from which to draw a straight line from the knowledge to the subject of that knowledge (or vice versa).

Active learning is not Extra but Central

Debate is always active learning, but we never really talk about it. Pretty weird. It’s a shining example of what active learning can and should look like. I think we don’t talk about it because debate remains colonized by the sportifiers, who see the only role for learning in debate is to learn how to be better at winning tournament debates in a very particular format of debating. Although students who regularly participate (or have regularly participated) in tournament competition often slip to tournament norms in their teaching, this can be prevented by having most of the lesson oriented around the students actively doing stuff – speaking, working together, and presenting. The ultimate active learning class would be arranged around re-iteration – there would be work, presentations, evaluation, then rework. I think we had a great peer learning environment because we punted most of the class time to the class to speak and engage with one another while the students who were teaching provided prompts, group and individual guidance, and critique and evaluation at the end. In the classroom, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student, until the authoritarian who loves to discipline shows up under the title of “professor.”

Actively Create Regular Space for Reflection

Every night at dinner I tried to make sure to ask, “What’s going on that we all need to know about?” or “Are there any issues going on that we need to address in the classroom?” The group was open to critique and also understood teaching to be a cooperative art, as opposed to the mastery of transmitting material to others who don’t want it (a popular interpretation of teaching I hear regularly). This was part of the long preparation of course, but at these meetings students felt empowered and comfortable enough to speak up and say what bugged them. A universal concern was that we speak too fast for people learning in a third language, and we need to give them more time to translate and prepare for their presentations. One student expressed concern about exercising authority over a class that was distracted – there was a need to return to the group to cover something else or deal with a question. I was able to bring up Freire’s famous quote that the democratic teacher gives up authoritarianism not authority in the classroom, because it would be unethical to let students choose what to attend to or not without experiencing, or hearing it, first. Another issue was ethos in the classroom, which we discussed a bit as well. But for the most part, it went great. Such space is essential to identify the potential problems in the classes for sure, but on another level it identifies teaching as a fungible art, something that is fluid and more a practice than a certainty. Such an identification is essential for getting teaching right.

Remove the Teaching Authority from the Classroom

The temptation to watch all this play out in the classroom after thinking about it for weeks and anticipating how well your students will do is a real struggle. But when peer teaching is going on under the gaze of the professor, everyone contorts their behavior to please the professor instead of themselves. I stayed out of the classroom as much as possible. Grading and planning other events helped a lot with that for sure – there are a lot of things I must do all the time, but I could have easily justified putting them off to watch the students teach. The presence of a teaching authority in the class, even if you are there for critical/assessment reasons, means everything will act for you in the way they think will please you. Eye contact of everyone is on the authorized teacher. Every small move you make is read as containing answers to what must happen next. Instead, leaving the classroom creates a situation where the students (all of them) must decide how to identify and judge the activities and interaction as valuable in the service of figuring out what is to be known and how to know it. Furthermore, who says being present in the class is the best way to assess what goes on in there? I could have the students who were the class speak with me or perform for me to assess how well things went. I could ask the students who taught for their reflection. There is also the risk of simplistic journalism, where being present and observing reveals what’s really going on. Proximity to an event doesn’t make you a better subject of knowledge, just a different one. Discussing the value of that difference is much more vital than simplistic presence, the root of up to 30% of some students’ grades at the university these says. How easy is it to construct an epistemically powerful alternative?

That’s all I have so far – there’s a lot more to say but now that I’ve spent twice as much time on this post as I needed to it’s time to catch up on the rest of the day! I just wish I had some Moroccan pancakes.