02 February 2013

Peer Instruction

Well that was serendipitous.  Just yesterday I linked to an old post of mine called The Myth Of Groupwork.  My argument against groupwork was that students don't know how to teach each other, and that even if they did, the nature of the task doesn't present teaching as the goal, so instead of working together to learn, the students work together to fill in the gaps on the sheet.  A "task-focused" approach or, as I compared it to in that post, a "pub-quiz" approach to a question sheet.

But today I sat down to watch some videos from a Coursera MOOC on online education, provided by Georgia Tech (Georgia the US state, not Georgia the country).  Now I'm not too impressed with the course in a lot of respects so far, but it is full of very good information that I will definitely learn from.  (A fuller review may come later, when I've made a bigger dent in my workload here.)

I've just paused a video midflow to write this because the course instructor has just started talking about an idea called Peer Instruction.  Apparently it was "discovered" in 1990 by a guy who "discovered" that lecturers "didn't work".  Peer-led learning is nothing new really, and everybody knows that lectures alone don't work.  But leaving that aside...

Eric Mazur, the man credited in the video with this "discovery" did make a useful observation, even if others probably did before him.  Students who had learned a new concept in class successfully were often better able to explain it to a peer (that had been in the same lesson but hadn't understood) than the teacher, because the student has just gone through the process of reasoning out the problem.

There is one intrinsic flaw in this reasoning: a good teacher should be capable of giving a better explanation than a non-expert peer; Mazur's discovery was in effect nothing more than discovering he wasn't a particularly good teacher.  Which is a pretty good explanation, for why this teaching idea was "discovered" by one of the leading lights in optical physics (>groan<... sorry) rather than a pedagogy or education professional.

This is OK... that's how universities work, and that's why learner independence is so important in a traditional university: lecturers are subject experts, not education experts.

But it's when I compare this idea of Peer Instruction to my observations of groupwork that things start to get interesting, because the incident refered to in my previous post wasn't something that we'd just learned.  It was a grammar class with a mixture of natives, long-term learners and recent learners, so re-evaluating it from the perspective of Peer Instruction, an essential element was missing: the people who understood the concepts we were being tested on had already known them a long time before the class started, so they didn't have the recent experience of having recently worked out the answer that successful peer instruction is based on.

One of my philosophies (and a frequent undercurrent in my posts here) is that it's safer to assume a teaching technique is bad than good until you understand how it works and when, where and why it's appropriate.  Most groupwork is justified by the overly simplistic notion of "learning from your peers", but the idea of "learning from peers who have recently learned the concept" is massively more useful.

Now that I better understand the why and when of groupwork, I'm far less negative about it, but that doesn't mean I'll suddenly take it up wholeheartedly.  In my situation, this is entirely academic: my classes are at such a mixed level that I the central idea of peer instruction fails: the students who understand the concept generally understood the concept (at least in part) before the lesson -- they do not have the recent experience of working out how the language point works....

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