Archive for February, 2013

The Power of Peer Learning in Education

February 15, 2013
The AthenaBridge model for peer-to-peer learning is similar to how Carl Wieman (Nobel Prize in physics) teaches his students:

It is in these peer discussions that most students do the primary processing of the new ideas and problem-solving approaches. The process of critiquing each other’s ideas in order to arrive at a consensus also enormously improves both their ability to carry on scientific discourse and to test their own understanding.

Specifically we make it possible for the professor to create an online conversation where hundreds of students can participate in a meaningful way.  The purpose is not to replace discussion forums, but to augment them for the deeper discussions that they were not built to handle.

Blending In-Person and Online Discussion

February 5, 2013

When we’ve taken AthenaBridge software to a dozen classrooms in DC and Philly, we blended online and in-person discussion in 15-minute increments.

With some classes, all the students were working alone, and in other classes students were collaborating in groups of four.  With groupwork, the exchange of ideas was faster, but some group members were more dominant than others.

For those of you looking to use offline discussions in your classroom, here are some thought-provoking tips by Suzanne Chapin.  These are geared for math discussions; other subjects seem even easier for facilitating discussions because there is more room for individual interpretation, so if these suggestions work for math, they will work for many other subjects too:

“Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others”

February 4, 2013

Nearly all states in the US have adopted the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice in their public schools.  Implementation is happening over the next few years.

Common Core Standard #3– which asks students to be able to “Construct viable Conversation Maparguments and critique the reasoning of others”– is the most relevant one to our work at AthenaBridge.  After all, we make our software for deliberation and critical thinking.

These critical thinking skills are essential for citizens in a modern democracy, and teaching them shouldn’t be limited to mathematics simply because the Common Core Standards place this standard there.  Critical thinking also clearly belongs in the study of history, civics, government, literature, and the list goes on.

But how about blurring the lines between subjects further?  We are facing societal challenges of increasing complexity that require interdisciplinary approaches, so our educational institutions should reflect that.

How about a French teacher collaborating with an economics teacher to create host an online debate or brainstorming session about current events with students from a school in Paris?  Sure, it wouldn’t be as easy as learning to order food in French, but it would allow for much more creative thinking– among other things, students would learn facts about a complex economic situation, how to analyze different plans, how to communicate a solution effectively, how to communicate that solution effectively in a foreign language, and what students from another country think about that same topic.

The challenges we face at a national level do not fit neatly into categories, and the lessons we teach students might be more effective if they cross over into other subjects and class periods.

What are some innovative techniques you’ve seen to blur the line between subjects?  What the best ways to get students engaged in a critiquing the reasoning of others, whether it is inside or outside the math classroom?

Teaching Critical Thinking Skills via Peer-to-Peer Learning

February 4, 2013

Scott K. Johnson recently wrote an article in Scientific American about the need to improve the teaching of critical thinking skills in the classroom.  From his perspective as a college-level instructor in Earth Science, he believes that more interaction between students will help them examine their own assumptions more effectively:

All students have opinions and perspectives that they bring to these issues, and the sharing and sifting of ideas among classmates should elicit the very critical thinking skills that we’re after. Few things encourage intellectual maturation like recognizing and examining the assumptions behind one’s opinions.

We’ve seen this first-hand.  From our experience bring our critical-thinking software to a dozen high school classrooms, we noticed that students were able to quickly share an opinion about a topic, but they had difficulty backing that opinion up with facts or being able to support it as they were questioned by other students.

One possible explanation is that they are able to absorb opinions of others that they hear on TV, at the dinner table, etc much easier than they are able to retain the reasoning behind those opinions.  I think that’s generally true for each of us– that we absorb some opinions through our environment subconsciously.

We’ve seen that the peer-to-peer discussion model is highly effective in helping students question each other’s assumptions because they are coming from different perspectives and they raise questions naturally.  It’s quite exciting to see students learn by coming into contact with new ideas right in front of our eyes.

Our software which facilitates this process of in-class brainstorming and deliberation is free for teachers in grades 5-12; pricing for universities is on our homepage; please contact us at and we’ll be happy to get you started.