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The power of social learning: Can working with peers improve outcomes?

By January 15, 2014June 13th, 20168 Comments

In 2005, I made a video called “1990” about how surprisingly little high schools had changed in the years since I graduated. In spite of everything I had come to know about the importance of active, student-centered learning using modern tools, in most high schools I visited, students were still, 15 years later, sitting at desks in rows and listening to their teachers, who were standing at the front of the room, the dry erase boards behind them a jarring compilation of messy, hand-written notes.

But humans weren’t designed to learn by sitting and listening for long periods of time. We are social creatures (even the most introverted of us) who need to move around and bounce ideas off one another in order to cement new concepts. Students, in other words, need to talk about their learning. Often. (For more on this concept, I highly recommend Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Chai Woodham’s article on how we are sitting ourselves to death.)

When I work with teachers and school leaders on Classroom Instruction That Works and Power Walkthrough, they commonly ask, “Where should we start?” Many people are surprised when I tell them they should pay attention to how students are grouped. How is instruction primarily accessed by students? Is it by listening to a teacher give a lesson, then working alone to practice what was learned? Is it by watching a video and completing exercises? Or is it working through problems and discussions with a small group of students? Or brainstorming with a partner? The answers to these questions can tell a school much about where their instruction is in terms of meeting the needs of learners.

Last year, I had the pleasure of working with an intermediate school in Texas that needed to achieve many challenging goals in order to avoid having to take more drastic measures. The school worked hard—my work with them was just one of many initiatives implemented that year—and it truly paid off. By the end of the year, the school had met every one of their objectives.

Out of curiosity, I looked at this school’s walkthrough data and compared it to “typical” walkthrough data. One thing that jumped out was their grouping data. Most schools have ~50-75% whole-class instruction followed by ~20% individual work, but this school had much higher rates of pairs and informal small group work—and it was higher than the rates of other schools in their district.

What do you do to make learning more engaging, active, and student-centered? Do you gather data on how often students sit through whole-class instruction, work individually, or work with others? You may be surprised by the results.

ERHstaffPhoto2011Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is a principal consultant in the Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • “But humans weren’t designed to learn by sitting and listening for long periods of time.”
    Elizabeth, this statement is so true. And I’d like to add that the modality of how the majority of teaching is done is just the tip of what is fundamentally flawed. As Sir Kenneth Robinson states in his presentation, Changing Education Paradigms, “We are trying to meet the future [of education] by doing what we did in the past.” And in the process he states, “we are alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose of going to school.” Here is his presentation in a unique format
    Another critical observation about how schools are not meeting the social needs of children is offered by Dr. Clayton Christensen. In his book Disrupting Class he asks the question, “what job are students hiring schools for?” His answer may seem surprising. Christensen states that students are certainly not hiring schools for education. Instead he claims that students are ‘hiring’ schools for a whole host of social and self esteem needs. He goes on to point out that current systems and institutions are not up to the task.
    Elizabeth, your observations in this post point to why the education paradigm needs to be and must be disrupted. And as Christensen states in Disrupting Class the institutions of education are one of the few institutions to have successfully disrupted themselves in the past. Let’s hope that it can be done again.

  • Elizabeth, your thoughts here are exactly in line with an understanding I have recently been coming to in my own teaching practice. As a secondary teacher, I most certainly have always seen that my students enjoy the social aspect of school and appreciate my provisions for “talking time” in class. However, in the past I have often relied on group work to play a follow-up role to the direct instruction I provided to the class. I have to admit that this is probably due, in large part, to the fact that I am a control freak, particularly in my classroom. I know myself to be the expert in the content I am teaching, and I want to impart my wisdom to my students and help them arrive at conclusions through the means I designate.
    Recently, though, I was intrigued by a teaching strategy I ran across in an online discussion forum. The activity called for a complete “hands-off” approach on the part of the teacher, and I was interested to see what my students would do if I backed away and made them take the learning into their own hands.
    When I implemented this particular activity, I found that my students, once they became used to the fact that I wasn’t directing the talking or the learning, became empowered pretty quickly and took responsibility for their own learning and that of their peers. We were working on a fairly difficult AP practice reading passage and questions, and not everyone ended up with all of the correct answers that day, but I did witness learning of a different type. I saw my students become aware that they could wrestle with material, using the tools I had given them at different points throughout the year, and draw conclusions for themselves.
    I suppose that a small, silly part of my ego says, “Don’t teach them to be too good at directing their own learning. What will your job be when they figure out they don’t need all of your lectures and lessons?” But then I remember that, particularly as a secondary teacher, my job is to teach students how to learn on their own or in a group, for in the very near future, they will be largely responsible for their own success in a post-secondary environment. And since I, as a teacher finishing my first decade of teaching, am still finding ways to learn and to organize my learning, I don’t think it likely that I quickly will run out of strategies to teach my students as I endeavor to put them in a position for success in their lives after high school.
    To conclude my rather lengthy discussion of my personal epiphany, I have recently begun to realize the very powerful role that social learning can play in my classroom, and not just as a follow-up to my “center stage” time as the instructor. When given the right tools and environment, students will most certainly benefit from a learning context that allows them to work closely with peers to absorb material. What a beautiful combination is evident in this approach: My students will benefit from the social aspect of the learning and may actually perform better, and at the same time they are learning powerful skills related to team work and self-monitoring that will serve them well in the future. I’m excited to reap the benefits of empowering my students in this manner!

  • Alicia Bernard says:

    I too agree with you that in some schools have remained very much traditional in their method of teaching,still using ‘chalk and talk’. This really has to stop if we are really going to reach our students who are “tech babies”. Some ways we are going to reach them is through technology and working in peers.when they incorporate these two things there can be a massive explosion of critical learning taking place.
    When students are peered properly, they are able to share a wealth of knowledge with each other because believe it or not they can learn more effectively from each other than from some teachers.Incorporating technology into the mix is the icing on the cake for effective learning to take place.

  • Briana Henley says:

    I am someone that also believes that social learning can improve outcomes in schools. To make learning more engaging, active, and student-centered, I try to make my students work in groups regularly. Usually, this depends on the type of day and length of time because time is taken up putting the students in groups. Seeing that I am a Mathematics teacher and I don’t have my own classroom, I move from class to class so I have to make use of every minute. Honestly, I have not gathered any data on how often students sit through whole-class instruction, work individually, or work with others. However, this is something that I will do as of tomorrow, in all of my classes.
    This post was interesting and it made me reflect on my actions. Thank you for the information provided.

  • Colin says:

    A very interesting article indeed!

  • Hi everyone,
    Thanks for such thoughtful responses! Glen, I’ve been a fan of Sir Ken Robinson for some time – it was nice seeing the parallels you brought out there.
    Sarah, I so much enjoyed reading about your epiphany! I taught 1st-3rd graders and distinctly remember that very same moment I had when I realized that I had underestimated their ability to self- and peer-teach as long as I circled back around to formatively assess and address misconceptions.
    Alicia & Briana, thank you for your insights! I would be interested in hearing how your grouping changes after you gather data.

  • Cerissa Thomas says:

    I absolutely believe lessons should be student centered. Students will gain more from cooperative learning groups. I have noticed students’ engagement and motivation from this approach. When I give students a choice of topics and allow them to become the teacher in discussing information, they become alive with excitement. I try to keep my instructions short and allow students to facilitate their own learning. I try to use many strategies to utilize this type of learning- turn and talk, jigsaw method, think-pair-share, numbered heads, etc. . . . Having students discuss topics with their peers and exchange ideas is very authentic to real life. The class becomes a culture of cordial discussions, respecting other opinions that are different from their own. Many students of this generation are used to conversing on social sites; therefore, becoming bored when they enter the classroom to sit and listen to teachers direct instructions. Social learning in the classroom can be a very productive way to increase achievements in schools.
    I really enjoyed reading this blog!

  • Kimberly says:

    I really appreciate the thoughts expressed in your post. For teachers, there has been a huge push towards engaging in Professional Learning Communities, moving teaching out of isolation and into camaraderie. It has been stated that teachers learn more when we share our strengths and weaknesses. If lifelong learners engage in social learning, then why wouldn’t teachers urge their students to do the same?
    One difficulty I have experienced is the issue of keeping students on task when they engage in group work. Even with a set list of goals to accomplish, I find that my students have little respect for rules of conduct, let alone authority figures in general. However, after reading your article, I am even more motivated to focusing on strategies for effective social learning.

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