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 up in 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 were able to drive with it, we started to discover the new vehicle together. From learning how to drive 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. There is excessive focus on individual success, competition, and motivation from rewards and punishments. This essay explores the question of 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, 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 very rarely recognised and supported by the school.
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 and 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 daily space for kids in which they can self-design their own learning journeys. This means that each student — based on their intrinsic motivation, curiosity and creativity — can explore their own talents and dreams and their possible meaning and roles for themselves and for their own community.
Manoj explaining the function of solar lights to his older friends
In Creativity Adda, approximately 100 children from different classes and across ages come together everyday to explore the five existing hubs. A hub describes a physical space that is dedicated to a specific learning area. The students are free to decide in which hubs they want to spend the most of their time to learn more about a specific skill such as dancing, cooking, playing music, skating, electronics, 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 a role model or mentor for the children and sometimes they also 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.
1. LEARNING BY EXPLAINING TO EACH OTHER
The learners deepen their own learning process by explaining something they know how to do with other kids. This form of learning requires a restructuring of hierarchies. Different than in schools, the knowledge of the learning guides is equally as valuable as the knowledge of the kids. When this mind-set is established, learners sense more freedom and gain confident to share their knowledge with their peers. Sharing knowledge can have two effects. It does not only create a benefit for the one who gets something explained to them but it also helps the one who explains to manifest and develop his knowledge and to gain self-confidence. Faiz (class 7) is an example to illustrate this. Faiz came up with the idea to reuse the wheels of old skates to build his own, self-designed skateboard. Many 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 the others how it worked also helped him to further evolve his design.
Faiz with his self-made skateboard
In another example of restructuring of hierarchies, kids from the Creativity Adda 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.
2. JUST WATCHING/OBSERVING EACH OTHERS’ SKILLS
The second type of peer-to-peer learning is an outcome of observing each other and copying this behaviour. It is particularly active when the kids appear to be doing nothing and therefore often undermined in mainstream school contexts. In Creativity Adda, instead it is seen as an important source of peer-to-peer learning and therefore gets encouraged. Vineet (walkout) 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 peer to peer 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. In this short amount of time, he also 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 breath-taking stunts you can see them watching carefully. After that they start trying it by themselves.
Vineet making a stunt while his friends watching with amazement
Another story about passion and leadership can be told about Sajid. Like Vineet is seen as the “master of dancing”, Sajid has become a good chef in the Slow Food Chef’s Academy. He is seen as such because he contributes in various ways to the development of the kitchen hub. Firstly, he often comes up with interesting ideas of recipes they could learn together. Secondly, he is very dedicated and ready to explore and experiment with the ingredients. And thirdly, he organically 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 are keenly observing him. Like the learning guides, Vineet and Sajid have become a source of inspiration and motivation for the other children just by their actions.
Sajid (middle) makes chutney while others observing
3. JUST FIGURING IT OUT TOGETHER
The third type of peer-to-peer learning that takes place in Creativity Adda is when 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 that they could find in the hub. After overcoming some challenges by trying out over and over again, they managed to build their own functioning remote-controlled car. Kids are also being supported by DIY sites such as Youtube and Pinterest.
Manoj (front) and Abishek (back) and their remote-controlled car
4. WORKING TOGETHER ACROSS DOMAINS AND HUBS
However, peer to peer learning is not only happening 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 their skills. And new friends along the way. They start unlearning many of the rigidities of schooling. And make new friends along the way.
This form of peer to peer learning also especially helps children to come out of only 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.”
Community Media Hub students making posters for kitchen hub. Chirag (right side) explaining his friends how to use photoshop.
5. THROUGH COMMON CONTAGIOUS ENERGY FIELD — EXCITEMENT IN THE AIR SPREADS EVERYWHERE
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 in rehearsing dance. They radiate so much joy by mastering every single movement, from the expressions in their eyes to their little toes, that others are inspired by it. It feels like their fiery passion for learning is sparking the enthusiasm to discover and explore in others. This form of peer to peer learning creates 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.
Excited dance student showing their routine to other children. Could you sit still?
HOW DOES IT WORK?
What kind of environment supports peer to peer learning and even contaminates kids and adults with enthusiasm and ambition to learn? I asked five students from different age groups in the Creativity Adda 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 tell it to 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 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 i through 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 to kids.
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 is running 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, children come to the Adda with great dedication and enthusiasm. Ashish Tiwari adds: “The project has only been going on for six months in this school, but one can already feel a different learning culture emerging among the students.”
Hub meeting of Creativity Adda, to design creative solutions for challenges
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 than the once from textbooks 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.”
Creativity Adda also sees creativity and imagination not as individual isolated processes but rather they emerge from social interactions and moments of cooperation. Ashish Tiwari shares, “When people appreciate each other and they start exchanging and sharing, real magic starts to happen.”
Real life learning in Creativity Adda
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 shift away from teacher-driven or child-centred approach to a learner-led paradigm.
The kids at Creativity Adda all tell beautiful stories about the power of collaboration in which ‘cheating’ is re-defined into supporting each other. Everyone is turned into teachers and self-designed learners at the same time. In other words, peer to peer learning, like it happens in Creativity Adda, is sowing the seeds of cooperation and self-initiative that is really needed by young people in the 21st Century. As Ashish Tiwari reminds, “We are not here to compete against each other, we are here to complete each other.”
FOR MORE DETAILS: contact Ashish Tiwari <[email protected]>.
First published by Medium