Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | July 18, 2009

Peer-Based Learning

A wonderful collection of ideas on learning and teaching by John Seely Brown. Please take the time to watch the entire ten minute video. (Youtube)

I think we can all agree that the Arab pedagogical mode, with its absolute respect and reverence for the Teacher, is damaging to our children. It is a system that snuffs out creativity and imagination.

My experience in an architectural studio was profoundly enlightening and it was very much the way it’s described in the video. The first few critiques were uncomfortable and we were all very defensive and took every word personally.

After a few weeks it became clear that there really was nothing to fear. We learned to stop being so protective of our ideas and allow other people to tinker with them and show us things we couldn’t see from our own perspective. We began to not so much ‘teach’ each other but rather challenge each other to think differently.

This is different from the notion of critical thinking. It’s not so much the Socratic method, with it’s dialectical form of inquiry, but rather a framework that allows kids to experiment and to have the freedom to be bold. Peer-based learning is a way to foster the desire to be creative. Think of it like networked brainstorming, with kids gaining confidence from each other, engaging each other and learning from each other. The teacher becomes the coordinator or the orchestrator, guiding the team and providing the anchor to validate ideas and assumptions.

How can we incorporate the peer-based learning that architecture students experience into the broader educational environment? There are schools in the United States, such as the Seattle Girls School, that have been extremely successful by doing something very similar. They teach through long, project-based exercises where the girls are encouraged to experiment with ideas and allowed learn from failed attempts. Graduates from the SGS are sought out at colleges and are given preferential admission because they know how to imagine, create and ask good questions. All good schools have to teach kids how to create. Very few schools do, and none of them are in Kuwait.

Sadly, Kuwaiti youth now define themselves by their material possessions. ‘I am what I wear and what I drive’. What if every Kuwaiti identifies themselves not by their outward image but by the ideas they generate from within?

Edit: I have to admit that for a few years now there has been a successful local experiment in collaborative and peer-based learning. It’s an annual inter-school competition in Kuwait called ‘Battle of the Best’  where high school students are encouraged to create profit making projects. It’s a very capitalist oriented way of teaching creative thinking, but it’s a start. The project is part of Injaz Kuwait.

My hope is that the schools that participate will understand the value of peer-based learning and witness the progress made by the students that competed in ‘Battle of the Best’. This can’t simply be a voluntary extra-curricular activity. It has to be the basis and framework of all teaching starting from the earliest levels. Recitation for tests and regurgitation of facts has failed us. There is a better way.

Via synthesis.



  1. Aah.. it was only a matter of time before you veered off course and addressed a subject other than architecture and urban planning. You have now “found your voice” and you want to use it to express yourself and address topics that matter to you

    Keep it up! 🙂

    • Thanks, zaydoun, but I don’t think that’s really what the site is about. It’s not a personal blog; although I don’t think that it’s going to be strictly about architecture and urban planning, either. Let’s just say that it’ll include anything to do with the progressive development of Kuwait.

  2. As much as I admire the idea of peer based learning, and open collaboration between students and even instructors at times, I have to say that if you were not raised upon these ways of thinking and openness, you cannot benefit from this method.
    We see it over and over in studio, those students who have phobias of sharing their ideas with others. And sadly those who do share their ideas, take criticism in a rather destructive sense. Although my favorite ones are those who are over protective of their work, who do not leave the studio unless all models are tucked in inside the locker!
    I definitely agree that these traits should be taught in childrens schools so that they can create new things, critique others, and most importantly accept criticism.
    I loved this post! .. simply what we need in Kuwait. I’ll post it on my facebook.

    • I completely disagree, Amna. I don’t think that the ‘over-protective’ tendencies of some of the students in studio is something that can’t be changed. Most of that stems from a competitive attitude based on grades. If there weren’t any grades, then you won’t see nearly as much jealousy and or a negative competitive attitude.

      It’s easy to abolish the grading structure for subjectively analyzed projects, such as creative writing and architecture; but how do you ‘grade’ math and science? Is it a simple pass or fail? What will motivate the best students that can easily achieve the pass limit, but need the incentive to work as hard as they used to do to get that A.

      I think the trick there is to find ways to motivate kids to be curious, not because there’s a prize at the end of it, but because they would want to learn new things. How can we create that hunger, that drive? The most important thing is to respect their curiosity and encourage it and never stifle it. Of course, this can’t simply be the school’s responsibility, as a lot of it depends on parents’ involvement and the myriad distractions that can occupy a child’s mind at home.

  3. There are a number of different,call them, ‘philosophies’ that can be applied to architectural, as well as other, academic disciplines. The perhaps clearest divide is the ones practiced between the US based system (which seems to be the norm in most of Kuwait’s institutions of higher learning) which is more sequential and hierarchical, even quantitative, in its structure; the latter, the UK (predominantly London) based sytem is the more qualitative, variable unit system. The former does classify work according to percentages and grades, the latter according to a more subjective,and thus hotly debated, set of norms. Which system is ‘better’ can be debated, but as someone who has partaken in both systems I belive the latter (the UK and unit based) system is more reflective of the topic discussed in this blog entry, as the criteria according to which a project is judged, the project’s/ design’s foundations, are set by the designer/ author him/ herself, rather than an external authority figure. This makes it inevitably much more difficult and challenging, but ultimately also much more rewarding (and educational) for the student as it required them to develop a much more inherent and multi-dimesional understanding of their topic of study.

  4. I absolutely agree in changing they way our children are learning here in Kuwait. In my opinion the education system is not the only one to blame for the materialism in the youth of Kuwait. Parents and upbringing should be equally responsible. “Why doesn’t he get out of that routine job and try something new and challenging?” well maybe if you haven’t lectured him about not drawing outside the lines he would have considered a paradigm shift. The rest would factor in: government, ministries, corrupted customs, banning books and segregation in colleges. The bubble needs to burst sooner or later for Kuwait to survive globalization or else it would be at the mercy of consumerism.

  5. Very nice blog and ideas, keep the good work!

    Concerning the educational system here, i would like to reflect some of my opinions on the topic. I would praise the education which is given to my son by govermental school(Imam Al Shafeii elementary school).He is currently going to 3rd grade and i have only compliments for the school headmaster and teachers who try to follow modern educational methods. I know, not all of the govermental school are on the same level and approach to students differ acording to the district. I wish the MOE sucess in its reforms which started last

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