Peer-to-Peer Learning in Unusual Places
Peeragogy is a term that is being used to describe peer-to-peer learning. It is a puzzling and rather cryptic word for something we do a lot of more or less successfully. It stems from the word pedagogy which is defined on dictionary.com as:
1. the function or work of a teacher; teaching.
2. the art or science of teaching; education; instructional methods.
And this has largely been a teacher-centric world in which teachers explain how to do things, students listen, and then demonstrate their understanding of what was taught. Historically, it is a hierarchy with structure and clear roles. This structured top down approach often found its way into business and other environments. There was a leader who instructed others as to what to do and even how to do it. The other people in the group were expected to follow the instructions. These systems served us reasonably well through the industrial revolution but left us flat-footed and unable to respond to the changing needs of globalization and a quickly changing environment.
Peerogogy is another way of reimagining education and working together. It is where people learn from each other. A teacher may guide students but it is not a teacher-centric model. It is one in which there is a focus on collaboration and sharing of ideas which results in consensus and shared learning.
And although this word may seem foreign we use this sort of interaction more than we may realize. We often take it for granted and taking it for granted can sometimes contribute to challenges as we carry assumptions and make decisions without considering all possibilities before choosing a path. We instead default to what we think is the obvious choice.
This is the value of peerogogy. By studying the dynamics of collaborative and joint learning efforts, we can identify best practices and suggest options when you feel your group may be lost or at an impasse.
To show peeragogy in action, I will give you a simple example.
For those not in the United States, jury duty is when relative strangers are picked to come together, to listen to all the evidence of a case, and only when all evidence is presented are they to collaborate and to come to a conclusion. In some cases, there does not need to be complete agreement. In other cases there does. Regardless, the jury is not done until everyone is done. Everyone crosses the finish line together.
I have been involved in two cases. Both in downtown Los Angeles so the jury pool was remarkably diverse. They are good case studies in some of the challenges that peerogical groups face and highlight some things to keep in mind when you are working in collaborative efforts.
Case 1: Bank of America vs. a currency exchange house in Mexico.
Background: The jury composition was unusual. We had a criminal prosecuting attorney, a criminal defense attorney, a cop, a catholic priest, a graphic artist for a studio, me (analyst for a Japanese automaker) and I think that the rest were engineers in the defense industry to the water company. I may have missed a job but you get the idea. It was unusual and diverse.
The case happened when Mexico’s currency was fluctuating wildly. The currency exchange house in Mexico had requested a conversion of pesos to dollars or dollars to pesos as required by Mexican law at the time. (Mexican law required that they keep ratios of dollars and pesos.) The company in Mexico was working with Bank of America in San Fransisco to make the conversion. Additionally, they were doing it around Christmas time. The problem was discovered late in the afternoon of the last working day in the US (a Friday) before Christmas. The exchange house was told it could not be corrected that day and that it would be taken care of when they (Bank of America) got back, which, based on the way the holidays fell, was December 27th in the United States but Mexico was open for business on December 26th.
It was a complicated case but this is what it boiled down to.
- The case was being heard several years later.
- Bank of America stipulated to the fact that they/their employee made a mistake as we started the case.
- Bank of America was being sued for negligence and foreseeability was not needed on their part to be guilty of negligence and damages.
I had never been on a jury before. We started as I suspect most juries start, with a vote. We were pretty evenly split. And that is where we started. People who felt one way explained why they thought what they did. People who felt the other way explained their reasoning. It went back and forth. The discussion was reasonable and thoughtful. It became clear we could not come to a consensus — or if we did and agreed that Bank of America was guilty, we could not agree on a dollar amount which was also part of our task.
In thinking about how we were divided, I realized that some people were predisposed to believe Bank of America even though their employee told three very different stories under oath and none of the stories matched her actions later or the actions of other Bank of America employees. On the other hand, the actions and documents provided by the exchange house in Mexico matched their story and matched their actions AND matched the actions of other Bank of America employees who were not involved in the initial problem. Some gave the Bank credit for stipulating at the beginning that they made a mistake. It is a demonstration of how honest they were. My experience told me that they did not immediately admit it because they released the documents slowly and seemed to more recently make the admission.
The deliberation largely involved each of us defending our original positions. That said people did change their minds and did eventually admit to negligence but then refused to hold the bank accountable for damages.
We ended up hung and could not make a decision.
Case 2: Gang Shooting
Background: Several years later I am in a downtown courthouse again. The case involved two attempted murder changes by a gang member against other gang members.
We, again, had people from all walks of life. Unlike the other case where both sides presented their cases carefully, the evidence presented by the defense and the prosecutor was a hot mess. Each side seemed to make the case for the other at times. A witness changed his testimony and there was a dirty cop who was testifying for the prosecution. He was not identified as dirty. His demeanor and techniques did that. There was another officer-involved who was extremely good and testified to best practices and why. The other officer followed none of those practices and frankly was scarier than the guy accused of attempted murder.
That said, when we hit the jury room, I did not know what to think. I also knew two ladies on the jury would be hesitant to make a decision on anything at all. They were older, seemed tentative with everything and English was not their first language. They understood things well but it seemed that getting them to agree on the time of day might be hard.
Anyway, since I was the only one with experience, I was chosen to be the foreman and, based on my previous experience and the fact that the evidence was a hot mess, I proposed going through all the evidence first before we took a vote. I explained that I could not even make a decision yet based on everything.
So they agreed and we did. We started at the beginning and reviewed the testimony of everyone at each step. We decided what we thought happened based on the information we had at hand. Step by step. Witness by witness. We would work out differences and then move on. We started in the afternoon. By the second day about mid-morning, some people were impatient. They just wanted to take a vote but I knew we needed to complete the process and others agreed so we continued. We finished about lunchtime.
At that point, we got the specific charges that the defendant was charged with. With clarity and agreement of what happened, there was very little disagreement. The only hang-up we had were the two ladies who were saying that they did not know with absolute certainty whether or not he was guilty. We explained that absolute certainty was not needed but it was “beyond reasonable doubt” and read what that meant legally. We discussed it and I am so glad that no one tried to pressure either one. They were ok with waiting and making sure that the two ladies were ok with their decision, whatever it was. After getting clarification they made their decision on the first charge. I gave our verdict to the bailiff. We then went to discuss the second charge and were in agreement nearly immediately and called the surprised bailiff. He was expecting us to take more time between the two but it was not needed.
I remember the surprise when the verdicts were read. Guilty on one account. Not guilty on the other. The key was that there was zero evidence that the defendant shot at the second guy. He actually did shoot and hit the first guy. He did shoot down the street but the two people involved were not running down the same side of the street and there was no evidence that he shot in the direction of the other guy.
From a peerogy standpoint, there are some lessons.
In the first case, there was a tendency on the part of some to defer to Bank of America even though the evidence did not really follow. They just needed enough to blame the currency exchange house. It was as though they took everything B of A said as fact even if the facts did not line up or changed. The criminal prosecuting attorney fell into this category. The other group looked at both sides and looked for the trail to see which side was consistent. In this case, the currency exchange house was 100% consistent. The criminal defense attorney fell into this group.
Additionally, the deliberation may have been short-circuited by taking a vote which then resulted in people defending their positions from there. There was some movement on positions but overall the B of A people were not willing to blame them for any of the losses incurred.
I am not sure if the people who sided with B of A would have ever awarded money to the currency exchange house but the “obvious” decision to register votes before deliberating made that likelihood less. It seemed like an obvious move but the choice had a bigger impact than I think anyone realized at the time.
When starting collaborative projects these factors are often at work. The tendencies of people to believe certain things, to side with the known, or jump in with certain approaches. It is always tricky because you have to move and do something without all factors being known. Perhaps in this case, when we discovered we were split, we should have stopped and gone through the evidence piece by piece instead of defending our respective positions. So there were two instant, default decisions made. Their first may have been ok (take a vote) but we stayed on a default track of defending our perspectives instead of backing up to consider an approach that may have yielded better results — that being going through the evidence piece by piece.
The second case also demonstrated some common peerogical factors. First, I had a little bit more experience. I don’t think anyone had jury duty experience so they elected me foreman. In any project, people will have different experiences and so roles may be assigned accordingly at the beginning. I suggested a path to help us work through things together and people agreed. I was not demanding but recommending it and explaining why. I think others were in the same spot I was as far as the evidence was a mess.
As we were working through the testimony, people shared what their thoughts were, what they did not understand, and where they were concerned. We hashed out the discrepancies in testimony to come to a collective decision as to what we thought happened that night.
On the morning of the second day, some people got impatient and wanted to jump ahead to the end. This is very common in group projects. Not everyone is on the same page and working at the same pace. Knowing that crossing the finish line together was extremely important, I had to try to keep everyone focused and just explain to them that we are making good progress and that this will help us in the end. When we came to the end and a couple people still baulked, I think that they understood the benefits of going through everything. We were not rehashing testimony. We were looking only at the criteria that was needed to prove them guilty of the crime (absolute certainty and reasonable doubt).
And the process may have affected the results. I think most people, including myself at first, thought we would find that he was either guilty of both or not guilty of both. I think if we took an early vote, it would have gone down these lines too. Our discussions may have followed similar thinking but in going through everything step by step we realized that there was no proof that he shot at the second guy, that the second guy was running down a different side of the street and that there was actually a reason why he might not have shot at the second guy (they were friends from grade school). We could not find him guilty on this second count.
The end result made complete sense by the time we were done. It did, however, surprise everyone until we explained why. They immediately understood.
When everyone has to cross the finish line together, this case demonstrates the importance of process and taking things step by step to get agreement before moving forward. The goal had to influence the process. Additionally, it is a reminder that not everyone will be patient and they will want to jump ahead. Peeragogy is not always kumbaya. There are always challenges that you need to work with and work through. There is nothing wrong with that.
These two examples are ways in which we come together in different ways. The name peeragogy can throw people off but it is something we do every day and in contexts that we had not considered. By having a term and by looking at the dynamics we can understand healthy systems, best practices, and destructive behavior.
I have been part of a peeragogy group that includes people from many different backgrounds from all over the world. There is a key group of people who have been involved (in no particular order): Joe Corneli, Charlotte Pierce, Charie Danoff and Paola Ricaurte Quijano. The group was brought together by Howard Rheingold. They may or may not agree with what I have written. My background and interest is pretty different from theirs. That said we all understand the power of peeragogy and hope that others will too.
Together, and with others, we completed a Peeragogy Handbook that is available here: