Where the real friends are the textbook

Chiara Bockstahler

If you think about all the things you have learned with your friends and family without pressure, without competition, without a school teacher, what comes to your mind? I could think of a million examples which range from the most abstract things like communication techniques to very practical things like cooking. For example, I used to play a lot on the streets of my village in Germany when I was young. One day a girl showed up with a beautiful unicycle. Although none of the kids was able to ride it, we started to discover the new vehicle together. From learning how to ride the unicycle, we started to practice acrobatics and juggling. After some time, we were proud to have self-organized our own little village circus.

Though these examples seem fairly obvious and simple, the technical term for this is peer-to-peer learning. However, despite its natural occurrence, modern schooling is not designed to support this kind of learning. This article explores whether it is possible to create genuine spaces in a government school where peer to peer learning is encouraged? How exactly does learning take place there? And what kind of environment is needed for that?

To understand these questions and to challenge the common perception of the society which connects learning only to schools and teachers, we might try to see learning from a different perspective in which we exchange ‘teachers’ with guides/challengers, the notion of ‘cheating’ with support and care for each other, a one-way flow of centralized pre-given information with parallel mutual flows, ‘competition’ with cooperation and motivation based on external rewards and punishments to intrinsic motivation. Kids are constantly involved in this kind of learning, even in school, but it is rarely recognized and supported by the school.

Manoj explaining the function of solar lights to his older friends
I came across one such space working on the peer-to-peer learning approach in a government school (class 6–12) in New Delhi called the Creativity Adda. It was initiated by Shikshantar Andolan, DS Group and the local MLA Pankaj Pushkar at the Mukherjee Nagar Boys Senior Secondary Government School in north Delhi in June, 2017. The objective of this place is to give a space for kids in which they can self-design their own learning journeys. This means that each student – based on his/her intrinsic motivation, curiosity and creativity – can explore his/her talents and dreams and their possible meaning and roles for themselves.

In Creativity Adda, approximately 100 children from different classes and across ages come together every day to explore the five existing hubs. A hub is a physical space dedicated to a specific learning area. The students can decide in which hub they want to spend their time to learn a specific skill such as dancing, cooking, playing music, skating, electronics, carpentry, upcycling, photography, filmmaking and creating or working with computers. In each hub, a learning guide is present to support the kids in their learning process and to co-create different learning challenges with them. Most of the learning guides are in their early 20s. Their academic qualifications are not important. What really matters is their love and passion for one of the hub areas and their willingness to patiently explore with the children. Sometimes they function as role models or mentors for the children and sometimes they disappear to create space for the children to lead things. The Creativity Adda project, in this sense, is challenging the common perceptions on “who we learn from, how we learn, where we learn, when we learn and what we learn” (Ashish Tiwari, co-founder of Creativity Adda).

How is ‘learning’ happening there? During the weeks I spent with the children from Creativity Adda, I observed five different ways in which kids were learning from each other.

Learning by explaining to each other

Faiz with his self-made skateboard
The learners deepen their own learning process by explaining something they know to other kids. This requires a restructuring of hierarchies. Different from schools, the knowledge of the learning guides is as valuable as the knowledge of the kids. When this mindset is established, learners sense more freedom and gain confidence to share their knowledge with their peers. Sharing knowledge can have two effects. It not only benefits the one who learns but it also helps the one who explains to manifest and develop his knowledge and to gain self-confidence. Faiz (class 7) is an interesting example to illustrate this. Faiz came up with the idea to reuse the wheels of old skates to build his own, self-designed skateboard. Other kids were impressed by this idea and they asked Faiz to hold a workshop on “how to make your own skateboard.” Faiz felt honoured by this request. Explaining to the others how it worked also helped him to further evolve his design.

In another example, these kids show that age does not matter in peer-to-peer learning. In their space, older children teach and support younger children and younger children even teach and support older children. For example, Manoj (Class 7) was explaining the functioning of solar lights to all his older friends. Manoj was exploring how solar lights work completely on his own, just by experimenting with it. Several students got interested in it and asked him to share.

Just watching/observing each others’ skills

Vineet making a stunt while his friends watching with amazement
The second type of peer-to-peer learning is an outcome of observing each other and copying this behaviour. Vineet from the Arts Academy hub and Sajid (class 8) from the Slow Food Chef’s Academy hub are two examples that made this form of learning visible for me. For the past four months, Vineet has been dedicating most of his time to dancing. Inspired by Prakash, the learning guide of the dancing hub, he practices hard to control his body and master his movements. With the encouragement of the learning guide, he is making his own choreographies and sharing them with the other kids. He even takes over and leads the dance classes when Prakash is absent. Vineet is a walkout from the mainstream education system. Two months ago his mother was complaining about his disrespectful behaviour towards other people. His mother told me that since he has joined the Creativity Adda, her son is very dedicated to dance and he has also positively changed his behaviour towards his family and community. During this time, he became a “master of dancing” for the other kids. I noticed this because both inside and outside the dancing hub other kids are observing how he moves and acts. When they see Vineet doing breathtaking stunts you can see them watching carefully. After that they start trying it themselves.

Like Vineet, Sajid has become a good chef in the Slow Food Chef’s Academy. He contributes to the development of the kitchen hub. First, he comes up with interesting recipes they can learn together. Second, he is dedicated and loves to explore and experiment with the ingredients. Third, he involves himself in the management of the cooking process. Because Sajid actively takes initiatives in the kitchen, he is modelling a different kind of exploration for his team. Other kitchen team members keenly observe him. Like the learning guides, Vineet and Sajid have become a source of inspiration and motivation for other children just by their actions.

Sajid (middle) makes chutney while others observing

Manoj (front) and Abishek (behind) and their remote-controlled car
Just figuring it out together
The third type of peer-to-peer learning is when the kids are figuring out how to do things together without either of them knowing how to do it. To foster this type of learning, children need the freedom to experiment and an encouragement (instead of punishment) to make mistakes and learn from them. For example, Abhishek and Manoj (students from class 9) in the DesignStudio/MakerSpace hub learned about the basics of electric circuits. Based on that, they decided to construct a remote-controlled car out of the material they found in the hub. After overcoming some challenges, they built their own functioning remote-controlled car.

Working together across domains and hubs
However, peer to peer learning is not happening only within the hubs. There is also a lot of cross-pollination between different hubs. Students like to share their projects and knowledge with kids in other hubs. They break boundaries and like to explore how the hubs are interconnected. This is visible when the children put on skates while cleaning the kitchen, when they repair speakers of the dancing hub and even use photoshop to design posters for upcoming events like the Adda Café or dance performances. They discover new domains for the application of their skills. And make new friends along the way.

Community Media Hub students making posters for kitchen hub. Chirag (right) explaining to his friends how to use photoshop
This form of peer to peer learning also helps children to come out of the idea of what they think they are good at or their specific interest area. For example, Chirag (class 10) first joined the DesignStudio/MakerSpace hub. He said, “Although I really enjoyed repairing items and designing new products, due to a common project with the Community Media hub, I realized that I was very curious to learn more about photography. I also wanted to combine it with my computer knowledge by editing pictures on Photoshop.”

Many kids are also venturing into other spaces like private schools, unconferences, parks, cafe and festivals to share their skills with other kids, while breaking from their own comfort zones.

Through common contagious energy field-excitement in the air spreads everywhere

Excited dance students showing their routine to other children. Can you sit still?
The fifth form of peer-to-peer learning is less obvious than the first four. However, spending a few days in Creativity Adda would be enough to grasp what is meant by a common contagious energy field. This describes an atmosphere that stimulates others to start discovering unknown things or work on their own talents. For example, when you enter the arts hub, you see all these children putting so much energy and excitement into rehearsing dance. They radiate joy by mastering every single movement, from the expressions in their eyes to their little toes, that others are inspired by it. This creates a willingness among everyone to try out new things and to come out of self-limits without being scared of making mistakes or failing in something.

How does it work?
I asked five students from different age groups as to what makes this space different from their schools. One of the kids shared, “The situation in school is more formal. The teachers don’t ask us what we want to do. Instead we have to respect them a lot and only listen to them. In school, they do not trust us. Not like in Creativity Adda where we can easily use all the facilities and tools.” Another boy said, “I was so confused when I first entered the DesignStudio/MakerSpace of Creativity Adda. The learning guide asked me what I would like to make. He told me that I can use all the tools that are there and if I need anything else I should ask him. He trusted me directly, even though he did not even know me.” All of them mentioned that they like to come to this space because they can learn relevant things which help them at home and in their communities. The kids get to also mix freely with each other across classes 6 to 12.

The observations of the children correspond with what Ashish Tiwari, the co-founder of this project, emphasizes, “We trust the kids and we think that it is crucial that we ask them what they want to learn and which hubs they want to explore. Freedom, flexibility and trust are fundamental values of our project. We believe in the power of free play.” He adds, “It is important that the children understand that they are the creators and owners of this space, they don’t need teachers and adults to always organize things for them.” One of the ways a sense of ownership is created is through democratic community meetings where the children are invited to discuss and design solutions for common challenges they face in the adda. For example, to prevent dirty plates after lunch, the children came up with a strategy. They created kitchen identity cards for every kid which they need to hand in during food distribution. After cleaning the utensils, the kitchen ID is given back.

Democratic Hub meeting of Creativity Adda, to design creative solutions for challenges
Ashish Tiwari shares, “The peer to peer learning culture in this space is not something that can be created by conducting a workshop once a week. Instead the time commitment of the project is also creating the difference. Creativity Adda runs for four hours every day throughout the year. Kids know we are giving a serious commitment to them.” Even when the children have a day off from school, they come to the Adda with dedication and enthusiasm. Ashish adds, “The project has only been going on for 10 months in this school, but one can already feel a different learning culture emerging among the students.”

Creativity Adda shows that not only the direction of one-way knowledge flows in modern schooling needs to be altered to encourage peer-to-peer learning but also the appreciation of different kind of knowledge is an important condition. Unlike school, the practical life experiences they bring from their neighborhoods and families are valued here. The kids are invited to bring in their rich community knowledge and experiences and share it with their peers. Valuing the knowledge of one’s peers also opens up a space in which ‘real life’ situations offer powerful learning challenges and opportunities. “The real world becomes our textbook,” one of the boys told me. He went on to add, “I am joining the Design Studio/Maker Space because here I can learn many useful things for me and my community. Last week, my brother and I repaired the mixer of my mother.”

Real life learning in Creativity Adda
Creativity Adda also sees creativity and imagination not as individual isolated processes but rather they emerge from social interactions and moments of cooperation. Ashish shares, “When people appreciate each other and they start exchanging and sharing, real magic starts to happen.”

Many programs which attempt to change the learning environment of schools focus on the teachers. Teacher training or principal leadership programs are often used strategies to ‘improve’ schools. Creativity Adda offers another theory of change to transform the school culture. They believe in giving real power and autonomy directly to the learners and building a culture of collaboration. According to their vision of peer to peer learning, the children are becoming the learning resources and motivators for each other. Under this theory of change, the school culture starts to shift away from teacher-driven or child-centred approach to a learner-led paradigm.

As Ashish reminds, “We are not here to compete against each other, we are here to complete each other.”

For more details: contact Ashish Tiwari mail@shikshantar.org.