On August 30, 1989 I entered my new high-school. I didn’t know anyone. I sat in on class after class not saying a word and wishing that it was all a bad dream.
Then, it happened.
I met Jeff.
During a math class, the teacher called on me to solve a problem (the Socratic method was as popular as acid wash jeans in `89). I turned white as a ghost. I then felt a bump on my arm and turned to look up to face this 14 year old who said, “I’ll help you” (I looked up because Jeff was over 6 feet tall and built like a truck; I was and am not). Jeff pointed in the textbook to where we were and together we solved the problem. My blood pressure had dropped. Jeff and I reported the answer in unison.
The teacher responded with, “Good. Next!”
Jeff and I were in almost every class together throughout high-school. Often, we would study and learn together - be it math, science, Talmud, Bible. His strengths were writing and critically analyzing texts; mine were solving logic based problems and organizing ideas. We paired up in class to study Talmud or English texts (and to gossip, of course… but that’s another story). We would also provide feedback on each others’ papers. Outside of school, we would read texts and discuss them; for example, studying Shakespeare’s MacBeth with him was a treat as we would each take on roles and act out the play (somehow I ended up playing Lady MacBeth). We made a great team and helped each other out.
My experience learning with Jeff throughout high-school (and college as we both attended Brandeis), taught me the value of studying with someone. The “give and take”, second prospective, and collaboration both concretized the concepts for us and helped us to dive deeper in understanding.
When I started teaching middle school back in 1999 (my acid wash jeans and pocket walkman had been replaced with khakis and a Palm Pilot), I fostered peer learning with my students. I taught them the rules of engagement (e.g., affirming the speaker, actively listening, outcome focused). I encouraged students to branch out and experience studying with every other member of the class which provided insight “into the others” and built up the social relationships in addition to enhancing the learning.
In 2014 (now, with a Galaxy S3 and the same khakis), I had the pleasure of teaching my first online class; it was a graduate level course on classroom management for those seeking to become special educators. I wanted to bring the practice of peer learning into my virtual class.
Teaching live - be it in person or virtual - allows for peer learning to take place. Having all the students in the same place and time provides the structure to turn the learning over to the students and letting the teacher be the “guide on the side” and not the “sage on stage.” The exchange of ideas, the back and forth conversation, and the collaboration can happen with the teacher fostering such an environment.
But what about outside the classroom walls? What about the asynchronous environment of most online classes? How can peer learning take place?
One option is to pay for transportation for my students to meet up and work; with my University salary just a bit shy of making that happen, I had to find another solution.
That’s when I came across Kaizena.
As part of my course, I had 4 texts for my students to read. My goal was to create an environment of peer learning with my students, who lived in Israel, Singapore, Texas, Arizona, Florida, and Massachusetts. I uploaded each PDF. The instructions for the students were: as you read, please highlight and leave comments (written and spoken) on concepts or ideas that stand out for you with regard to behavior management. When you see others’ comments, please respond to them with a follow up or a question.
Using Kaizena, students were able to access each text and leave their feedback. They also provided feedback on others’ comments.
Throughout each text, I left guiding questions to help foster the interactions and would not comment on others’ posts; I wanted my students to have the freedom to converse, question one another, and provide thoughtful feedback without feeling that “Professor Margolis” was critiquing. I remained the guide on the side.
The results were what I had hoped for; students learned from one another by providing feedback. There were:
Why did it work? I asked my students to reflect on the process and experience. They replied that being able to both hear and see their peers’ feedback gave them better insight into the texts as well as into one another (vs. a summary or culminating reflection). They gained perspective and insight into the texts that fostered a deeper understanding. They also felt that a lack of “forced conversation or feedback” that occurs in discussion board parameters (e.g., you have to comment on 3 others’ posts). Having the text at the core and options to comment provided opportunities for each to have his/her voice be heard and learn from one another.
Peer learning empowers students to hold each other accountable for their own learning and the others. It is a form of positive peer pressure (Patrick Lencioni). Kaizena provides a safe place for students to learn, provide feedback to one another, and engage in meaningful analyses of texts all without being confined to the classroom; it can happen anywhere. Come check us out: “be more than what you were.“ (Lady MacBeth 1:7 529).
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