We’ve finally arrived at part 7 of my 8 part series on the Peer-to-Peer Revolution where I will be talking about how education is being changed by the peer-to-peer system. As you may be aware, this is a space that I am fairly passionate about. And many other people are too. From my observation there are a lot of people who believe “something is wrong with our education system” and that “the system is broken” yet it’s hard to precisely pinpoint a single problem or solution. I already wrote a couple months ago about what I thought the biggest problem with our education system: choice. Students have very little choice in their education, and the same goes with their parents.
Now we can’t expect a 3 year old to make decisions for themselves but we can expect an 18 year old, hence we let them vote. So somewhere between 3 and 18 a person begins to have enough capability to make some decisions. It is, of course, a slippery slope. So for the sake of simplicity, I am focusing my attention on high school. The same policies can probably work with middle schools, and maybe even grade 5 or 6. I don’t want the focus to be on what age peer-to-peer education becomes appropriate. Maybe it is appropriate at all ages. Maybe there is a cut off. That’s not really my focus, so I’m cutting myself some slack and focusing on high school.
This week I will do my best to present what I believe is the best choice available: peer-to-peer education. I’ll start off by defining what peer-to-peer education is, who is gaining from it, who is losing, what the legal implications are, what the long-term consequence of the movement are, and who is cashing in on it.
First and foremast – what is peer-to-peer education? This is actually a lot harder to define that you’d think. Wikipedia refers to “Peer Education” as a means of spreading health-related information within a community. Peer Education involves health or community professionals training members of the community who then become the peer educators. And it’s highly effective. They don’t make much mention of other subjects or schools at all.
For our traditional education system this would be similar to having a teacher give direct instruction to a group of students who would then teach the others. When used in the healthcare setting they are usually focusing in on particular issues like HIV prevention, drug and alcohol prevention, and healthy eating. Since these are very focused issues, it is a bit easier to deliver the message because it is more “all-inclusive.” This would not work well for an entire school curriculum, but could be used in smaller bits to cover certain topics during class.
A better attempt at describing peer-to-peer education comes from a famous Harvard professor, Eric Mazur, who coined the term “Peer Instruction” for a new instructional technique he developed for his college courses. Dr. Mazur would ask the students a question and the students would first work out the answer on their own and submit it with a remote. Then, Dr. Mazur would reviews the students’ answers and have them form groups to discuss the answers and come to a group conesus and re-submit their answers. At the end, Dr. Mazur reveals the answer and goes over any lingering questions. This is interesting – but not quite as revolutionary as what I’m going for.
The Peer Instruction model promoted by Dr. Mazur has also proven to be highly effective. Firstly, the cooperative learning approach gives students an incentive to show up to class which is a big problem at the college-level. What is also great about this approach is that it is easy to implement. The approach requires to come to class prepared in advance for the classes, in a flipped-classroom approach. And then the in-class time is spent doing peer instruction based learning. All you need is a list of key questions to ask the class which will ignite conversation and debate.
The downside to the Peer Instruction model is that it is still teacher-led, still requires the professors to be present, and doesn’t reduce the bottleneck in education. It does improve understanding of concepts, and increases student engagement, but does not necessarily put the student in the driver’s seat in seeking out knowledge. The students are still awaiting the instructor to hand them the questions, topics, and concepts. And the biggest trouble with Peer Instruction, is that it requires a professor with the motivation and open-mindedness to implement it. The process still has a top-down infrastructure.
To be clear, I’m suggesting something way more dramatic than simply having classes where the students work in groups to answer questions proposed by the teacher. I am, instead, suggesting a revolution: a model which is entirely student-driven. I am promoting a model where students learn their academic subjects the same way they learn everything else in their lives: from their peers. That’s why I have been building Open Source High, the online school where students are the teachers. We are building a peer-to-peer teaching community powered by student-made video lessons. I use the term peer-to-peer teaching as opposed to peer-to-peer learning to emphasize that this is an active process. Students drive the topics, discussions, questions, activities, projects, and more.
Peer-to-peer education is, essentially, the same education that we experience after college. The day we finish our formal education, we enter into the peer-to-peer education sector. Where do we get our inspiration? Our questions? Our answers? From life experience, family, friends, the internet, anyone and anywhere. We learn from websites like Wikipedia (an open source platform), we visit websites made by people who we deem experts, we call upon friends and family for answers, sometimes call tech support at a company, we use any and all resources that are available to us. And all of these sources of information were created by people: our peers. And, just for emphasis, hello… WIKIPEDIA!!! Can I give any better example of a peer-to-peer educational model???
As you can tell, the peer-to-peer education model is not just a new method of learning. It’s not just a new way of transmitting information from a teacher to a student. It is a new method of determining which topics students should learn, what questions they should ask, what projects and activities students will take part in… it is an organic way of learning, not a pre-packaged system that is designed with an outcome in mind.
I’m afraid I’m coming off as too vague and loose. Of course, this is a vision, not necessarily a perfect solution. So let me gives some examples where this is being tried already. And in most cases, by my observation, it is working.
I’d like to introduce you to “unschoolers.” What are unschoolers? Well… technically, on paper, for legal reasons, they are often considered home schoolers. But the unschoolers are a special breed. So before I can give you the scoop on unschoolers, I’ll first share what I’ve learned about home schoolers, because they’re not what you expect.
Most people’s idea of homeschooling involves mom sitting at a dinner table with a math textbook drilling their child. In fact, if you Google “what is homeschooling” it tells you, “the education of children at home by their parents.” This is rarely the case. Many home schoolers have home schooling groups and clubs that they attend. These groups take classes together, go on field trips, interact, explore, play, and discover.
And as students grow older, things begin to shift and the parents are not in the driver’s seat as much. This is for two reasons: 1) the material the student is learning is now beyond the parents’ comprehension (especially in math and science) and 2) the student has a greater urge to engage with others and experience some freedom and unmoderated socialization. So the “driver’s seat” I mentioned is often literal, students eventually are able to drive themselves around.
As a result, one of two things frequently happens as a home schooler reaches high school, either the student chooses to go to traditional high school or they begin taking college level courses at local community colleges.
Home schoolers are an example of students going outside of the system, but they’re learning is still driven by a top-down model. The parents are providing a curriculum and structure. And, alright, I can’t write this article without mentioning that some home schooling parents are a pain in the ass. I had to say it. They’re not all like this, but shit, imagine a helicopter parent… and now pretend that they have control over their kid 24/7. Yeah… I have to mention that, but I also must emphasize that this is a small percentage of the community.
Now, finally, let’s talk about unschoolers. Unschooling is a term coined by John Holt in his book Growing Without Schooling. You can read a bunch about it here. His philosophy is that students, by the very nature which makes them human, are naturally curious and capable of learning without formal instruction. The premise is a strong one, which requires a certain amount of faith in the student. Maybe faith is a bullshit term here. Maybe the better thing is to say it requires a certain amount of understanding of the student. Faith implies a lack of grounding to stand on. Understanding implies that we truly believe in our students, not because it’s trendy to say it, but because we believe it.
Unschooling does not imply uneducated. Or even unintelligent. It simple means learning without school. The language and terminology itself is something that the adults tend to fight over, while the students simply do their thing. Many home schoolers cross over into being unschoolers, whether they actively use this term or not.
Much like homeschool clubs and groups, there are organizations supporting unschooling. Some unschooling organizations, like the Liberated Learners, despise the term school. School represents structure, rules, and guidelines which inhibit the students’ ability to learn on their own. While they have buildings students can come to, they do not use the term “school.” At their facilities, students are allowed to take different classes about different topics that interest them. They can sit around talking with their friends. The can play video games. They can form their own independent studies based on their own interests. They can explore their curiosities. And damn do they learn a lot.
Many unschoolers considered themselves (or their parents consider them) to be self-guided. Being truly self-guided suggests you are in a vacuum with no resources. Even if one is only given the internet, their learning experience is hardly self-guided. They interact with people in forums, the content is made by other people, they find links on Google which rise to the top of the search results through an algorithm based on human behavior and interest, the links they find on other websites are generated by others… their interests are already guided by outside forces.
One of biggest gripes with school is the fact that everything is all laid out in advance for you, the classes you’ll take, the assignments, the chapters in the book, the next step is always planned. This does little to prepare one for the “real world” where things are not handed to you – you must seek out your opportunities. You must find the important questions first, and then figure out how to find the answers.
One major downside to unschooling (and home schooling) is that it still tends to be a lonely road. There are some groups and organizations that gather students together where students certainly learn social skills. But it is still lonely.
This is a point where I should really point out. I am not in any way at all implying that the loneliness leads to lack of social skills. This is totally separate ideas. One can develop social skills in a small community, in fact, their skills often surpass those of students in public school systems filled with students. Social skills is not really the issue. Social opportunities may be a better word. Students in the home schooling / unschooling world are limited to the diversity of people they are around because the groups are not the large. And I don’t mean diversity in the way people often think (skin color or socioeconomic standing) but diversity in terms of interests, abilities, and personalities. These are amazing students, and it would be great if we could connect more of them together!
This is where the internet brings a great value. Having the power to connect people is something we often take for granted. But for students, most of whom don’t even have the ability to drive a car yet, the world can be quite restricting physically due to the limitations of transportation and being in distant regions. These are things we often take for granted. We think of the internet as being a way to connect us with friends and relatives who we don’t see often enough, but who we could see “if we just had more time.” We often feel that our communication channels are cheapened by the internet because there are other modes of more personal communication and interaction we could have, “if we just had more time.” For most students, time is not the issue. The issue is the physical limitation of their geography. Some students are home schooled for the sole reason that they are too far away from a school for it to be feasible to attend. And some are able to get together with a dozen or so other home schoolers in a community, but are hours away from the next closest homeschool group.
The internet offers the opportunity to connect more of these students. I have seen them learn from one another in small groups. We need to expand their network, which will allow for more students in traditional settings to join them. Right now home school and unschooling are only chosen by a small percentage of students. The latest numbers show 3.4% have opted for home schooling, and this number drops off when students reach high school. There are many more students who are seeking alternatives to traditional schooling: students diagnoses with ADD/ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and those with substandard schools in poor neighborhoods where they have little chance of success.
This system can work. In fact, it already works. Peer-to-peer education is the normal path to learning once one leaves formal education behind. Einstein once said, “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” But who are the peers I am referring to. Specifically, they are classmates. But in a more general sense, a peer can be anyone and everyone. We lump them together by age in classrooms because it is convenient. Solomon Khan (founder of Khan Academy) has made many remarks about how we can fix one major issue in schools by treating it more like karate: you advance to the next stage when you are ready, not when your age dictates it. When you look outside of academia, there are people of all ages coming together to learn new things. Take a painting class. Take a class on a foreign language. Learn web development. You will see people of different ages coming together with the common goal of learning. All have different backgrounds and different knowledge and perspective to offer. But their age is often irrelevant.
So we’re already a couple thousand words in and I think I’ve described a bunch of different things. These are all different forms of schooling and different philosophies. And different approaches. At this point, maybe you have bought into the idea that students can learn from their peers. Everyone always asks me: so what is your solution? Have them go running around willy nilly without any guidance? They’ll all end up illiterate, they tell me.
The best I can do is lay out a vision which I have. It is not perfect. It has gaps. But it is a goal. And let’s focus on high school and things can maybe be extended down to middle school. I’m not sure elementary is in the mix. But don’t dismiss my ideas simply because they don’t scale down to kindergarten. Let’s take some small steps in our revolution.
And just to point out, I know that at first glance, Open Source High appears as if all the focus is on the internet. Admittedly, the current goal has been to build a database of video lessons made by students. The next goal is to add more peer-to-peer features to allow students to engage online. And then phase three is to empower them to move their connections beyond the web and connect in person.
In my peer-to-peer education system, students are given an allowance, or credits if you will. They get to spend these credits on classes, just like cash. This is already done in San Diego in the form of “enrichment units”, so I’m sure it exists elsewhere. (example). Parents who homeschool get to use these credits to pay for their classes or the students can use them. Teachers do not disappear, they can offer whatever classes they want and also provide mentoring, something that is much-needed nowadays. Students can take classes if they choose. Maybe a student does not need to take any classes from a teacher. They can use the credits to take a class from a peer – because anyone can qualify as a teacher. Set your rates as you want. Websites already exist to review teachers, such as ratemyprofessor.com and ratemyteacher.com. This is the same approach that Airbnb, Uber, and others take to vet their drivers and home renters. One of the key aspects of the peer-to-peer revolution is to have a means of reviewing what others think of the teacher, driver, or host. The students drive the courses, drive the questions, they are the payer.
Won’t the just sit around getting high playing video games? I doubt it. Most students want to learn. They want to make a living. They all want to earn money. That’s something I’ve seen consistently across the board. When I had my freshman at Chicopee Comprehensive take a survey on the first day of school, one question I asked was “if you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?” and nearly 80% said they would give the money to their parents to help at home. Students see money as an issue in the adult world and are eager to help and participate. And, many are aware, that education is a path to earning an income. Some do not believe they can achieve it, but most are aware the route exists. We need to lower the barrier to entry for students to make education more achievable.
So is that it? Students just pay for their classes? They earn credits? What about the unschooling and peer-to-peer revolution? Well it starts with this foundation that students are the driving force and that they can be empowered to teach one another. Teachers benefit too because they are no longer stuck in the traditional structure. They can teach classes they choose assuming that students also choose to learn them. No standards, no structure, just intellectual liberation. Teachers don’t need to be full-time teachers either, they can work a different job and also teach. This increases the number of people teaching who also have work experience, and, in general, increases the talent pool of teachers. Many more people would teach if it didn’t mean having to give up other aspects of their career. The life of a college professor follows this – teach a class or two and do your research and maybe be involved in a startup or a nonprofit. This model should be replicated at the high school level. The best teaching takes place when the lessons can be connected to real-world examples. This is lost when the teachers are career-teachers without having things to connect to.
What are the legal repercussions? From a legal standpoint, a few things go on. Firstly, students usually need to classify themselves as a homeschooler to unplug from the system. Very few places let you openly admit to being “unschooled.” Being “peerschooled” would likely be a similar situation (at first). If you are going to homeschool, some districts require you to submit a curriculum and proof the student did work. Some require you simply to have a parent sign a letter assuring the school they are now responsible for their child’s learning. It is certainly a challenge that it appears one needs to have involved parents to participate in this model. Again, it’s not perfect, and we need a system which allows students to sign themselves out of school without a parent. Wow, did I just say that? Yes – we need a system which allows a student to sign themselves out without a parents’ permission. You may think I’m stupid because I am saying we should make it easier for students to drop out. What I am saying is we need to make it easier for students to opt-out. I look at it that we shouldn’t have such a high barrier to keep students locked into a system that everyone collectively believes is failing. “The school system sucks” we all say – but we still force kids to go.
To go to the extreme, what are the legal repercussions of having a large percentage of students dropping/opting out? Nothing. Nothing can stop all these students from opting out of the system. They are held there against their will with really nothing holding them in place. Truancy is a crime, sure. But it really is just a system based on the idea students will go along with it. This can’t last for too long. Eventually students will get fed up with being held back. I think you could call this a form of civil disobedience on a massive level. It has worked before when students have wanted improvements to their conditions, and it can work again.
I think I’ve already mentioned who is winning from this system: students and teachers. Who is losing? I’m not sure. Maybe some pharmaceutical companies will lose out when they see far fewer students being diagnosed with ADD and treated with pharmaceuticals. Maybe some administrators will lose up as things become more decentralized. But all will benefit from having a more educated population, which is the ultimate goal of our K-12 system. As Thomas Jefferson said, “there is no safer depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
And who is cashing in on this system? I’d like to think I could find a way. But I don’t think that’s the case. In our other peer-to-peer systems, the company that connects and vets the participants make money through either transactional or advertising models (Uber, Airbnb, Reddit, YouTube). I don’t like the idea of charging for people to use Open Source High, so possibly advertising will be an acceptable model. But even then, there feels like something inhumane about bringing advertising to the site. Wikipedia has succeeded for as long as it has without the need for advertisements, I like to think Open Source High can as well.
Again – I am not suggesting that we privatize education. That’s not the goal. I’m saying the government should still be paying, but where the money goes should be directed by the students, not the top-down paradigm we currently have. If we can build an alternative system with demonstrated success, we can empower students to take their education into their own hands. And that is what the peer-to-peer revolution is all about: bringing power back into the hands of the people.