Power of Peers


  • Describe a successful classroom teaching tactic that could be replicated by other instructors.

The context:

At a Catholic theological seminary, cross-cultural courses elicit unresolved arguments concerning race, ethnicity, and language.

The pedagogical purpose:

To create a safe context for these discussions, I re-created a course solely around peer questions so that students became constituents as they helped both develop and deliver course content.

Description of the strategy:

First, I explained how peer questions would develop class content. Students were to submit questions every week that were discreet and clear, explaining why the question was important to them. Example: “How can Church authorities champion illegal immigrants? Ministers should condemn illegality.”

Next, I explained ground rules essential to delivery since people's minds like doors are only open to those they trust: Questions are anonymous; everyone can opine, no one is required to; before someone speaks a second time others are invited to; no one can interrupt or interpret another; stay on topic; respect time limits; discussion remains in the classroom; everyone is an expert on his or her own experience, but not the experience of another; use “I” language not “you” language; everyone has a right to his or her own feelings, but not to his or her own facts. I managed development of the content by choosing the questions discussed based on commonalites or their importance to the overall curriculum. I also enforced the rules so that delivery via discussion could occur in safety.

Each class restated a question for clarity, (re)defined key terms (is “illegal” always coterminous with “unjust?”), placed the discussion in context (assisting runaway slaves was illegal: should ministers have condemned that illegality?), and concluded with resources since the final project required researching a particular peer question.

Unless a student was corrected more than twice per class concerning the ground rules, the final grade was based solely on the research paper. More than two corrections meant they could not continue the discussion that day and could result in students deciding how such behavior would affect a grade; the latter never happened and classroom corrections soon became infrequent.

Why it is effective:

Facts are unpersuasive unless empathetically connected to the values of an audience. Students became constituents by developing class content connected to their own concerns, and learned through a delivery of content within a context of peers who demonstrated mutual respect.