What is peer learning and why is it important?

by Lisa Stamm

What is peer learning and why is it important?

In short, peer learning means that you learn a new skill together with another person who might or might not share the same level of knowledge of this particular skill.

42 Heilbronn consistently relies on peer learning concepts. This collaborative learning, to help in the solving of concrete tasks, determines and supports one’s daily development. It enhances team spirit and the practice of critical, creative thinking is wholly encouraged. Our great-great-great-grandparents already knew that this was a recipe for success. If you work together, you work better.

Legacy of reform pedagogy

Knowledge is created through experience - and not passed on merely through abstract memorization. This idea originated with the U.S. philosopher and educator John Dewey.

He was a contemporary of Maria Montessori, considered among the great reform pedagogues of his time, and is still thought of as a pioneer of peer learning concepts today.

So, how does the 42 Heilbronn implement peer learning in practice?

Examinations at eye level

There are no lecturers—we do not involve professors or doctoral students in the traditional style—at 42 Heilbronn. Instead, we utilize alternative structures that facilitate the sharing of knowledge.

During their studies, students are required to solve various, clearly defined programming tasks through projects. These projects are also subject to the peer learning concept.

Students who think they have successfully completed a project will have it checked by three different, fellow students, and explain all the steps to them. For this, it is imperative to have a deep understanding of the project.

One of our students, Katharina, had this to say of her experience with our learning model: "From university, I am used to bulimic learning. Memorizing foreign knowledge at a specific time, repeating it - and forgetting it. Here it's completely different. For evaluation, I really have to understand what I'm talking about. So what I programmed and how - and why."

The evaluators, in turn, sometimes get completely new approaches to solutions explained to them in this way, which they might not have thought of themselves.

Eric, another student at 42 Heilbronn, says: "You always have to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Maybe if you have more knowledge, it means resetting yourself to a starting level. That's fascinating because it takes you down completely new paths again mentally."

More creativity and greater speed

It seems evident that peer learning lends to one’s creativity. A value that is of particular importance in computer science - where completely new worlds are created from mere ideas and thoughts.

What's more, peer learning is highly dynamic. Eric shares, "Months pass before a professor at a regular university has created his lecture series on any given topic. And then it determines the learning content for some time. Absurd time periods for computer science! At 42, we can absorb and use new things much faster and more flexibly."

Into the deep end

To become a student at 42 Heilbronn, one must pass a four-week test phase to see whether the 42 concept fits the candidates. This phase is called the Piscine; the French word for ‘swimming pool’.

From the very first day, concrete programming tasks have to be solved without a teacher to impart theoretical knowledge in advance.

How do you go about solving the tasks? By the prospective 42’ers working together as a team and supporting each other in finding solutions. This is facilitated by forming small groups, the so-called “villages,” for the test phase.

The invaluable ability to work in a team is a tough criterion here. Lone warriors - regardless of their level of performance - are not accepted.

Sharing knowledge

In the Piscine, students learn together in small villages. Those who need help quickly turn to other students and build up a knowledge network in 42 Heilbronn within the first few weeks.

Furthermore, there is the messenger service Slack; an online platform by which the worldwide knowledge of the 42 schools is shared.

Katharina, who started at Heilbronn in early 2021, says, "I can approach any coder at 42 and ask for advice. Everyone then takes time to solve the problem together or provide assistance. This even works worldwide. I've never experienced knowledge transfer like this before."

What’s more, students independently offer talks and regular lectures to share knowledge with each other.

These learning formats exercise curiosity. What John Dewey and Maria Montessori formulated theoretically 100 years ago, is today the tools of the coding culture and shapes coding teams in all applicable areas.

There are three 42 schools in Germany (and many more around the world) following the peer-learning model.

  1. 42 Heilbronn
  2. 42 Wolfsburg
  3. 42 Berlin

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