Constructing Your Education Through Peer Learning

One of the most basic problems with education in K-12 schools is the idea that teachers tell and students learn. This one dimensional way of understanding how learning works is easy to remember and makes sense on its surface. However, research for the last twenty years has slowly been unpacking how much more complicated the learning process is and to what degree we still don’t understand it very well. The student-centered approach to learning puts the emphasis on helping students develop life-long learning skills. Teachers have a very important role to play in helping develop these life-long learning skills. As we un-do the teacher-centered paradigm and build a new student-centered paradigm for teaching and learning, peer learning begins to take center stage, for both teachers and learners.

Constructivist Theory

If Dewey is right—that knowledge is created through experience, than constructivist learning will be very important:

In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education, John Dewey wrote, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.” In a later essay, entitled “Experience and Education”,[3] Dewey went into greater detail about the science of child development and developed the basic Constructivist theory that knowledge is created through experience, rather than passed down from teacher to student through rote memorization. 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, provides evidence that students learn better through collaborative, meaningful problem-solving activities than through solo exercises.

Three Features of Contructivist Theory

The three distinguishing features of constructivist theory are claims that:[4]

  • Learning occurs within a context that is itself part of what is learned
  • Knowing and doing cannot be separated
  • Learning is a process that is extended over time

These are clearly meaningful propositions in a social context with sustained relationships, where people work on projects or tasks that are collaborative or otherwise shared.(

Peer Learning

This is why peer learning steps into the center of the new paradigm for student-centered learning: Students have to do the heavy lifting themselves, including sorting out what problems to address, what questions to ask and what collaborative processes need to be employed in order to learn.

Educational Psychology Professor Alison King explains in “Promoting Thinking Through Peer Learning”[5] that peer learning exercises as simple as having students explain concepts to one another are proof of social constructivism theory at work; the act of teaching another individual demands that students “clarify, elaborate on, and otherwise reconceptualize material.” Joss Winn, Senior Lecturer in Educational Research at University of Lincoln, proposes that schools radically redefine the teacher-student relationship to fit this constructivist theory of knowledge in his December 2011 paper, “Student as Producer”.[6]Carl Rogers‘ “Personal Thoughts on Learning”[7] focus on the individual’s experience of effective learning, and eventually conclude that nearly the entire traditional educational structure is at odds with this experience. Self-discovered learning in a group that designates a facilitator is the “new approach” Rogers recommends for education (

So peer learning is the process of discovery, self-discovery, reflection, and re-discovery. It cannot be wrapped up in a package or easily stuffed into a bottle and sold as snake oil. It has to involve the student in a process of discovery through an experiential educational setting.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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