Peer-taught Classrooms: A Recipe for Creating Learner-centered Bonanzas

The syllabus workshop we did in class was pretty fun. Some of the feedback I got was that my syllabus may have been a little too learner-centered and lacked enough structure to guide more apprehensive students. So I made some revisions. I’ll share the syllabus below and highlight some its aspects that may be useful to other instructors.

First, don’t pretend that teaching and learning can be separated. Be explicit that you do not have perfect knowledge and fully expect to learn something while working with your students. My syllabus starts with a short teaching philosophy that says as much.

The structure of the class is also very adaptable to scale and course content. The gist of the idea is to let the students teach themselves. In my syllabus, they may teach anything so long as the rest of the class agrees. Topics can obviously be narrowed by the instructor for more targeted lessons. Anyway, here it is. Critiques are appreciated. And reading recommendations for the course.


Virginia Tech

PHIL 2984: Self-Directed Learning Techniques & Strategies

Spring, 2016


Instructor:                  Andrew Schultz                                                           Office: HOLDEN 126

Email:                                                            Office Hours: By appointment


Any student with special needs or circumstances should feel free to contact me to arrange
appropriate accommodations.


Teaching Philosophy


I think of myself as more of a veteran student than a teacher.  We’ll be exploring some interesting problem spaces in this course and I probably have more experience with the areas instead of some inherently better means to navigate them.  I should be thought of as a guide.  I can show you around, point out interesting landmarks and questions, but I am perfectly happy to help you start exploring something new and outside of my direct expertise.


Educational Objectives


Having successfully completed this course, the student will be able to:


  1. Identify their personal reasons for learning and the value of their education.


  1. Research reliable information and techniques for learning.


  1. Plan and implement strategies to acquire specific knowledge.


  1. Clearly and effectively communicate ideas, propose questions, flexibly frame problems, suggest solutions, and justify conclusions.


Course Description


This is a course about learning: the process of questioning truth more often than finding it.  What is your definition of learning?  Why do we do it?  What’s worth knowing?  When?  How can we learn? Which ways are best?  Who should do it?  Does that change with the content of the learning? Why?  What can we learn from asking the same questions about teachers and teaching?


Learning is (a) gaining the ability to identify questions that are personally, socially, scientifically, economically, etc. interesting and novel, (b) discovering and/or inventing reliable means to gather information, (c) evaluating and prioritizing the importance of and need for specific information, (d) developing the capacity to verify information and its source’s validity via routine, rigorous skepticism, (e) efficiently recalling past experiences by (f) making creative associations within and between areas of information, (g) building ready access to dense webs of knowledge that allows for adaptive critical thinking and creative problem solving, and (h) becoming proficient at sharing valuable information in ways that facilitate understanding – in a word, teaching.  This class is about developing your own philosophy of learning and gaining new strategies to better control and direct your education.


Teaching and learning can’t be separated; therefore, teaching will play an important role in this course.  It is more than merely transmitting information.  Teaching well means doing one’s best to inspire the students’ interest and imaginations, nurturing their confidence and enthusiasm to explore independently, anticipating students’ frustrations, misunderstandings, shortfalls, reservations and resistances – this requires you to simulate disparate ways to formulate problems and generate solutions – teaching is about manufacturing rewarding challenges, pointing out opportunities, and illuminating ways in which students can attach meaning to their learning.  Basically, if you can learn how to effectively teach others a topic of mutual interest, you will be empowered to better direct your education through teaching yourself.  In this class you will be teaching your peers.  Your first task will be convincing them that you have information worth learning.



Course Reference Materials


Heinrichs, Jay. Thank you for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson can Teach us About the Art of Persuasion.  Published by Random House, Inc., New York. 2007.  


Class Structure and Proposed Procedure


(for letter grade and Pass/Fail; No Audits)


“The purpose of education is to teach a defense against eloquence.” – Bertrand Russel


“Truth springs from argument among friends.” – David Hume


Whatever we decide to learn this semester, my hope is that we will question and argue about it – Is it relevant? Why do we care?  Is it important?  How much? Is it accurate?  To what limits and in what situations? Et cetera…  The class will be based mostly on student-lead discussion under the instructor’s moderation.  Participation and engagement are critical in this class.  One of two required reading for the course is Thank you for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs.  As the course description explains, the ability to learn relies on one’s knowledge of and skill at teaching; further, teaching begins with persuading students to engage the material.  Heinrich’s book is a fun introduction to rhetoric: the tools, techniques, and strategies of influence.  It’s actually not even required if you feel confident in your persuasive abilities, but it’s a great read and even better reference for this class.  The best way to resist the influence of others is the ability to reciprocate targeted influence in them.  The second “mandatory” piece of reading is an excerpt from Love is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends by Tim Sanders.  The excerpt contains arguments I like for the efficacy of books as self-directed learning tools and the significance of reading as the most important habit for continuing one’s education.  I hope it justifies the course structure proposed below.  The rest of the course material and structure is up for debate between the instructor and students.  Here is a suggested format:


First, identify individual and collective learning interests, brainstorm questions related to those interests, and systemically design plans to investigate as many topics as possible.  Teams of 3-4 students could produce a presentation that introduces the rest of the class to an important idea (perhaps the thesis of a book) pertaining to one of our predetermined subjects of interest (something like a TED talk).  Their goal could be persuading their peers to investigate the concept or topic further for themselves.  Each person would do this 3-4 times throughout the semester; teams may (are encouraged to) change between presentations.  This ensures that each person will experience responsibility for researching and teaching their peers while gaining familiarity with multiple team dynamics.  Say, for instance, each presentation is primarily a kind of book report – an attempt to persuade the audience to read the book(s) upon which the presentation was based.  Alternatively, a group could refute the main theses presented in a book, convince the audience it’s not worth reading, and propose another option.  Students can also write short summaries of their books to share with the class.  Conducting class this way and assuming groups only present 1 book at a time, individuals need only read 4 books while we collectively receive the benefit of reading 20-30 books worth of customized education over 13 weeks – pretty impressive!  Ideally, the presentations will inspire and convince individuals to read more than the minimum 4 books and groups’ presentations will tie the ideas and conclusions from multiple books together.  Students are challenged to read 10 or more books this semester.  Imagine if a class of 20 did this and summarized each book for their peers.  That would be 200 books in 13 weeks – damn impressive!  Let’s shoot for somewhere in the middle: collectively averaging 6-8 books per person this semester.


Proposed Course Schedule


Week In-Class Readings
1 Intros, Team Formation, Curriculum Brainstorming Love is the Killer App (excerpt)

Thank You for Arguing

2 Discussion Book 1
3 Discussion Book 1
4 Presentations Book 1
5 Discussion Book 2
6 Discussion Book 2
7 Presentations Book 2
8 Discussion Book 3
9 Discussion Book 3
10 Presentations Book 3
11 Discussion Book 4
12 Discussion Book 4
13 Presentations Book 4


Grades and Expectations


You are responsible for directing your learning through the selection of course content and design of your presentations.  You have the freedom to teach the class however and about anything your group agrees to so long as you do so with civility, foster an inclusive environment, demonstrate intellectual integrity and remember…


Evaluations (assuming the suggested format is agreed to) will be done utilizing in-group peer-reviews, audience reviews, and instructor reviews.  For instance, in-group reviews will evaluate individuals’ contributions to preparing the presentations; the audience and instructor will review the engagement value, relevance, clarity, accuracy, and persuasiveness of the presentations.  Class participation will be based on your contributions to developing the course’s content and engagement in the weekly discussions.  A good rule of thumb would be to have at least 5 comments and questions ready for each session.  Students are expected to propose materials and justify their relevance to the rest of the class.  Involvement in designing assessments and providing meaningful feedback for peers is also expected.  The instructor has veto power in creating and modifying rubrics for assignments but student input is welcome and encouraged.  The details of each rubric should be mutually created and agreed to by the students and instructor.



The tenets of the Virginia Tech Graduate Honor Code will be enforced in this course, and all assignments are subject to the stipulations of the Honor Code.


Class participation:  (25%)


Presentations (75%)


Peer review – 30%

Audience Review – 25%

Instructor Review – 20%


*Notice that students control more grading power (55%) than the instructor (45%).

Recommended Readings



  1. The Tao of Pooh – Ben Hoff


  1. Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism – Richard Wolff


  1. The Spiritual Emerson – Ralph Waldo Emerson; Ed. Jacob Needleman


  1. The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg


  1. Natural Capitalism: The Next-Industrial Revolution – Paul Hawken and Amory & Hunter Lovins


  1. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahnemann


  1. Siddhartha – Herman Hesse


  1. Love is the Killer App – Tim Sanders


  1. Your Money or Your Life – Vicki Robin & Joe Dominguez


  1. How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie


  1. Thank you For Arguing – Jay Heinrichs


  1. Moon-Walking with Einstein – Joshua Foer


  1. Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer


  1. Ishmael – Daniel Quinn


  1. Empire of Illusion – Chris Hedges


  1. The Omnivores Dilemma – Michael Pollan


  1. The Heart and The First – Eric Grietens


  1. The Glass-Bead Game – Hermann Hesse


  1. The Ecology of Commerce – Paul Hawken


  1. The Science of Discworld – Terry Pratchett & Ian Stewart


  1. Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps – Allan & Barbara Pease


  1. The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan


  1. The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers


  1. Ecological Intelligence – Daniel Goleman


  1. The Hidden Brain – Shankar Vedantam


  1. Republic – Plato


  1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari


  1. How to Train A Wild Elephant – Jan Chozen Bays


  1. Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond


  1. A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn


  1. Walden – Henry David Thoreau


  1. Verbal Judo ­– George Thompson


  1. Think Like a Freak – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner


  1. Freakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner


  1. Outliers – Malcom Gladwell


  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey


  1. Who Moved My Cheese? – Spencer Johnson


  1. I Moved your Cheese – Deepak Malhotra


  1. Our Iceberg is Melting – John Kotter


  1. The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer


  1. America: Imagine a World without Her – Dinesh D’Souza


  1. What Does it Mean to be Well-Educated – Alfie Kohn


  1. The Gift of Fear – Gavin de Baker


  1. The Social Contract – Jean Jacque Roseau


  1. A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers


  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde


  1. Cradle-to-Cradle – Michael Braungart & William McDonough


  1. The Outsiders – William Thorndike


  1. Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut


  1. Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Paulo Freire


  1. Pedagogy of Freedom – Paulo Freire



Preparing for future learning

As I reflect back on my blog posts to see my stance regarding pedagogy, I realize a common theme underlying those. I will use those ideas to chalk out a vision of a classroom syllabus. Since I am interested in integrated Computer Science in middle school STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) classrooms, I will discuss my points considering a hypothetical middle school science classroom.

Middle school would be the age when children start questioning and exploring their identity, and starting to formulate a strong idea about themselves and the society they live in. Hence, I feel, it becomes imperative that we enable this identity exploration process through a well-formulated syllabus and a well-designed learning environment. Taking the backward design approach, I would like to help my students to prepare themselves for future learning as they start to form their identity around the constantly changing aspects of the society.

There are three facets in my above stated goals that I would individually like to discuss:

  1. Form their identity:
    It is important that students are free to explore and form ideas and beliefs on their own. Much of what we learn arises from our drive to exploration and experiences. Students should have the freedom to seek differing experiences and be able to take charge of certain situations.
    In a classroom, this translates to giving students some control over their learning experiences. At the basic level,  I would let students to develop and implement classroom activities. This could mean planning trips to a nearby science museum, classroom activity that the student(s) choose or develop, and letting students set the policies for classrooms (break times, phone/computer usage, etc.). Not only would this promote autonomy but would also help students to imbibe the idea that they are in-charge of their learning experience.
    Taking this idea further, I would also negotiate learning goals and assessment expectations with the students. Each student is at a different learning levels and would have different goals and as an educator we need to meet each student at the place they are, and thereupon, help them grow further. This class would be project-based wherein students would negotiate and decide the project they want to work on. It would be certainly taxing for each teacher to negotiate but I believe we can design methods (and conduct professional development) to make the negotiation process more efficient and scalable.
  2. Constantly changing aspect of the society:
    The society is constantly changing. Things that were considered extraordinary in the past are commonplace now and may become obsolete in the future. Change is the only thing that remains constant. Within this changing environment, I would like to help my students be able to negotiate and handle such change. Social aspects of learning particularly collaborative and cooperative learning would be a significant focus. Project-based work would involve dealing with “real world” objects  and would be proceeded by related problem-solving activities. Problem-solving activities would help them value the work and their learning experience. The real world project would help in promoting their sense of agency and their potential impact on the world outside. Furthermore, this approach of both problem-solving activity before a project work would also help imbibe the idea of the need to learn and adapt as they progress in their work.
    Assessments would also be formative rather than summative where I would encourage self-assessment and revision. Self-assessments would help students monitor their progress and also would provide intrinsic encouragement to work for further learning. Revision helps in fostering a growth mindset – that one can alway improve and progress further. To support revision, at the basic level, students will be able to re-submit or redo assignments/projects. This would encourage students to focus on learning rather than performance. Furthermore, formative assessment would also help me plan my teaching and design scaffolds according to each students needs.
  3. Future learning
    We cannot possible teach student everything and so, we need to make them become knowledge seekers. For this, students have to be curious and have an intrinsic motivation to learn. By setting classrooms which have problem-solving activities combined with project-based learning environment would help in fostering curiosity in the students. Furthermore, allowing students to negotiate learning goals, set assessment expectation, and self-assess their work would help them decide what and how they want to learn in the future. Formative assessments would also be useful in providing students feedbacks and opportunities to further progress and learn deeper. Making students familiar with the changing trends in the field especially using computers as a literacy tool would also be my priority. All these would help students be better prepared for future learning.

I can sense that this is going to be very exhausting to a teacher especially in large classrooms (that are typical of a middle school). However, I believe that with proper technological interventions and teaching methods, we can solve this problem.


This is a mashup of several learning sciences theories and transferred to a practical classroom implementation. The primary ideas and their corresponding sources are :
1. Problem-based activities before project and formative assessments: Barron, Brigid JS, et al. “Doing with understanding: Lessons from research on problem-and project-based learning.” Journal of the Learning Sciences7.3-4 (1998): 271-311.
2. The importance of autonomy and self-determination: Deci, Edward L., and Richard M. Ryan. “Self-determination theory.”Handbook of theories of social psychology 1 (2011): 416-433.
3. Future learning: Schwartz, Daniel L., and Taylor Martin. “Inventing to prepare for future learning: The hidden efficiency of encouraging original student production in statistics instruction.” Cognition and Instruction 22.2 (2004): 129-184.

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