At first glance, democracy is not a very efficient system. Put a good dictator in charge and it would seem you can get a lot more accomplished a lot more quickly. But we have learned since grade school to recoil at such ideas in part because we know that the more we impose solutions from the top down, the less those solutions are ever actually carried out by the people they’ve been imposed upon. As nice as sweeping new policies sound on paper, they tend to fall flat in reality.
But the opposite approach isn’t that appealing either. Get rid of all the people “at the top” and expect that each individual will come up with their own solutions and you’re left with a few good solutions and a lot of bad ones. At times, under the guise of empowering principals or teachers to make decisions, it seems we have actually left them isolated and overburdened trying to handle issues that are too much for one person.
In my years working in education, I have seen approaches from both ends of this spectrum: the dictatorial ultimatums (“Here’s the new curriculum. Now start teaching it!”) and the isolating empowerments (“We won’t tell you what curriculum to use. Just create your own!”). Trying to find the midway between these extremes usually lands me back at the idea of peer learning.
Peer learning gets rid of edicts from the top, but if done well, it doesn’t get rid of outside expertise. Well-constructed peer groups draw upon existing research, experience, and models of practice to serve as an anchor for learning. In a profession as complicated and difficult as education, having some well-explored potential solutions and being able to draw upon the experience of people who have successfully been helping students for years is invaluable. In the six years since the NYCDOE first launched the idea of Inquiry Teams, I have seen too many such teams go around in circles grasping at ideas because they had a structure in place to share those ideas, but no structure to gauge their quality. The best Inquiry Teams I’ve seen had some framework for judging the quality of new solutions and getting guidance from colleagues and research.
Peer learning also helps educators overcome the isolation of what can often be a very lonely profession, but again only if it is structured well. Too often, I’ve heard principals or teachers talk about meetings that devolve into lectures or lounging when they could have been great opportunities to learn from peers. Thoughtful planning, clear goals, and a genuine shared interest in participating can make the difference between boredom and progress. And when it works, such peer opportunities push colleagues not only to learn from one another but, in the process of doing so, to reflect more deeply on their own understanding.
In taking a deeper look at peer learning, I wish I could say that ideas about communities of practice are thriving in New York schools; they aren’t. I wish I could say that the launching of peer learning structures such as the Peer Quality Reviews led to dramatic breakthroughs in all the participating schools; they didn’t. But like democracy, peer learning is not a perfect idea. It’s just better than any of the alternatives.