Relationships as the ultimate pedagogy: Making everyone a life-long teacher

Relationships as the ultimate pedagogy: Making everyone a life-long teacher

by Christine Renaud

Renting a stranger’s house on the other side of the world, sharing an office space with fellow self-employed creatives, finding out about breaking news before the journalists themselves: often without knowing it, many 21st century citizens now lead a life that has been deeply impacted by the open Web and its values of collaboration. A new awareness of our interdependence transforms the way we consume, work, and travel.

Learning is also profoundly transformed by this novel global proximity. But while many educators and technology entrepreneurs are redefining classroom standards, few initiatives, both inside and outside schools, question the very dogma on which our educational institutions are built: The very concept of education being anything else than the broadcasting of information from one to many. The expert (ex-peer) still acts as a knowledge broadcaster while participants are confined to the role of silent spectators.

Knowmads work for constant innovation in a world where problems and solutions are created everyday. Their reality calls for an adaptable and personalized education option that simply cannot be provided solely by the current broadcast-based education model. What is the missing link that will contribute in delivering the “just-in-time” education our knowmadic society requires? We think it is peer learning. Moreover:

We need to recognize the potential contribution of our peers as flexible, relevant and knowledgeable life-long teachers.

How does peer-learning compare with broadcasted education? And what is the structure needed to scale peer-learning? In my investigation, some answers to these questions were found in the visionary work of education pioneer Ivan Illich, while some were pulled from the inspiring work of my own peers at the Mozilla Foundation, Skillshare, and Meetup. Many more answers (and an exponentially growing amount of questions) were inducted by our members in the experiment my team and I have been conducting at E-180, a matchmaking site that connects like-minded people interested in sharing knowledge one-on-one, over a coffee.

So here is it all, from one educator to another, from peer to peer.

To teach is to learn twice

The first published reports of students teaching students in higher education began to appear in the 1960s. The motivation was, guess what, “dissatisfaction of faculty with large lecture courses in which students played a passive role.” The answer to this discomfort was found in peer-assisted learning, defined by Topping and Ehly (1998) as, “the acquisition of knowledge and skill through active helping and supporting among status equals or matched companions” (p. 1).

As peer-learning began to build steam within the educational system, research showed that the benefits of peer-learning were found both with peer teachers and peer learners. Moreover, “studies demonstrate that the cognitive processing used to study material to teach is different from studying to take a test and [that] peer learners benefit because of the ability of peers to teach at the right level” (Whitman, 1988, p. iii).

When reviewing the literature, we come across revealing titles such as Peer learning in higher education: Learning from and with each other or Strategic uses of peer learning in children’s education. Could peer learning eventually detached itself from broadcasted education and become more than math tutoring, SAT preparation, or children’s socialization in kindergarten? Yes, according to Ivan Illich in his self-explanatory titled essay, Unschooling society. The priest-turned-professor believed peer learning could actually be the road for a complete redefinition of education:

Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. (Illich, 1971)

Teachers, leave them kids alone?

Apart from fostering a stronger engagement toward learning (which is, in itself, not too bad), what makes peer-learning superior, or at least complementary, to broadcasted education?

Learning from Life itself

Peer-learning allows us to learn from the lived experience of those around us, instead of cramming into our brains what Whitehead calls inert knowledge:

With good discipline, it is always possible to pump into the minds of a class a certain quantity of inert knowledge. [The rationale behind this action being that] the mind is an instrument, you first sharpen it, and then use it […]. I don’t know who was first responsible for this analogy of the mind to a dead instrument. […] I have no hesitation in denouncing it as one of the most fatal, erroneous, and dangerous conceptions ever introduced into the theory of education. The mind is never passive: it is a perpetual activity, delicate, receptive, responsive to stimulus. You cannot postpone its life until you have sharpened it. […] There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations. (Whitehead, 1967, p. 5)

And, as learners, we naturally seize life everywhere it happens: at home with family and friends, in the studio with watercolors, a violin, or a yoga mat; as well as at work, with our colleagues, clients, stresses, and successes. So much, that peer-learning is at times even known to be THE go-to approach for learning on-the-fly. According to the New approaches to lifelong learning survey, over 56% of the Canadian workforce develops most of its competencies by discussing them informally with their peers (Livingstone, 2003).

Mobilizing lost gold

Have you ever thought about all the knowledge serving only one person because of a lack of the appropriate funnels directing it toward where many others would learn it? One could argue that all the information you need can already be found on the Internet, and that it provides the perfect receptacle for everything you want to share with the world. This is not so true, according to Paul King, visiting scholar at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at UC Berkeley:

…with 10,000 synapses per neuron and 10 billion neurons, one could reconstruct the memory state of the network with 10,000 * 10 billion = 100 terabytes. However, the actual memory capacity of the brain is probably quite a bit lower than that, and could be 100 gigabytes or less. If you were to write down “everything you know and remember”, how many printed books could you fill? A 500 page book is about 1 MB. Could you fill 100 books (3 bookshelves)? That would only be 100 megabytes! (King, 2012)

Given that a negligible percentage of us have codified the sums of our knowledge into hundreds of books, it is safe to say that what you share in a structured or unstructured discussion with a peer hasn’t necessary yet been encompassed by the Web.

Strengthening our communities

Charles V. Willie (1994) writes, “we should keep what is good for everybody, and change what hurts one of us.” That rings true when bonds are tight within the members of a community, and also when we actually can see and feel the impact of our actions on the life of others. Block (2008) sees small group settings as the ultimate unit of transformation for community building as, “the intimacy […] provides the structure where people overcome isolation and where the experience of belonging is created.”

Sharing knowledge with known or new peers provides a context where new intimacies may be created, broadening our sense of belonging within a local or wider community.

Individualizing learning

As UNESCO (2005) stated in a report on knowledge societies, Web 2.0 created an “unexpected flow of information [which] leads to a lack of people’s control on their education […]. According to some, half the information circulating is simply false or inaccurate.”

When one wants to learn something, where should that person begin? How can one tell what is right from what might lead you down the wrong path? As lifelong learners, we need to be oriented in order to take advantage of all the resources now available to learn outside of broadcasted education. Peer-learning provides us with knowledge brokers, the trusted guides we need who are willing to accompany us through the process of learning something new and navigate the great amount of information available.

Making the invisible visible

However, two major obstacles still stand in the way of those motivated to meet and learn from their peers. First, there is a common misperception among adults that in order to pursue one’s development, that person must go “back to school.” This makes learning a heavy endeavor, where one has to hit “pause” on her life to pursue education. This, combined with the lack of recognition of informal learning, makes peer-learning look more like a hobby than a valid form of education. As stated in a Mozilla working paper:

Most existing systems of educational degrees and job-relevant accreditation require enrollment in formal programs and institutions and dictate that learning needs to follow prescribed paths. Informal, peer-based and self-directed learning is only acknowledged to the degree that it supports the formal curriculum. (Mozilla Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University, 2012)

Another obstacle is the difficulty, once out of school, of finding like-minded people willing to share their knowledge. Even if we are more connected than ever, most of our online connections remain superficial, and the commitment needed to maintain a relationship is low.

Creating the next webs

Let’s get back to Illich, who saw in the late 1960s what is now influencing the work of hundreds of educational tech entrepreneurs. According to him, the redefinition of education was directly related to the necessity of helping serendipity emerge, using technology to connect people who share interests, and therefore create the learning webs we need to transform each moment into a learning one:

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity. (Illich in Mozilla Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University, 2012)

This call resonated, 40 years later, with some of the world’s most successful tech entrepreneurs. The increasing standardization of the United States’ educational system following No Child Left Behind generated a burst of interest and criticism of the schooling system, leading to an era of major educational innovation. Some educators emerged as intrapreneurs and decided to work the system from within; many decided, instead, to step aside and to use the Web to help people reclaim their education, far from standards and testing.

Some leaders emerged from this movement. Within a couple of months, Skillshare became the most popular online “marketplace of classes from teachers in your community,” and Meetup provides the tools necessary for “groups of people with shared interests to plan meetings and form offline clubs in local communities around the world.”

Recognizing and documenting informal learning

But as long as we can’t “prove” or document the results of peer learning, its impact will still be considered peripheral and marginal to the structured system. That’s the challenge tackled by the Mozilla Foundation, with its Open badge project:

Imagine […] a world where your skills and competencies were captured more granularly across many different contexts, were collected and associated with your online identity and could be displayed to key stakeholders to demonstrate your capacities. In this ideal world, learning would be connected across formal and informal learning contexts, and you could discover relevant opportunities and craft your own learning pathways at your own pace, based on your own interests and learning styles. […] The next step is to more systematically support and acknowledge this learning so that these skills and competencies are available and become part of the conversation in hiring decisions, school acceptances, mentoring opportunities and even self-evaluations. This is where badges come in.” By offering an open API to their badge system framework to all organizations interested in contributing to their shareholders “badge backpack”, the Mozilla Open badge project plays a crucial role in the “connected learning ecology by acting as a bridge between contexts and making these alternative learning channels, skills and types of learning more viable, portable and impactful” .Community classes, learning groups, badge framework: what is still missing in this “learning ecosystem” to foster lifelong peer-learning and peer-teaching? The tools necessary to connect like-minded strangers interested in a more individualized learning experience, just like this one-on-one tutoring we find throughout schooling, but based on Life itself. (Mozilla Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University, 2012)

Introducing E-180: Not your typical matchmaking site

As a podcast producer in New York City in 2008, I got to spend more and more time on emerging social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. I noticed from many posts that I was not the only one who learned from the people who surrounded me: Hey, can someone help me with Photoshop tonight? Got a deadline for tomorrow and just can’t seem to make it work. Will pay for beer(s).

As a trained educator and social entrepreneur, that got me thinking. It is not actually the schools I attended or the curriculum I followed that led me so far from what my life could have been: it’s the amazing people I met throughout my journey that trained and transformed me. The people we meet throughout our lives are like living, ever-evolving books: they might become our guides and follow us for the rest of our lives. If we take good enough care of them, they will allow us to go back to them to learn some more, or to relearn the things we might have forgotten as we go along. How could we replicate, optimize and scale those water cooler conversations? What could be the impact on our communities and businesses if we unveiled, with the help of social technologies, all the knowledge each one of us holds, and made it available, in the form of one-on-one, face-to-face, educational conversations between two people? What if we could make everyone a life-long teacher?

Three years later, E-180 was born. It is a matchmaking website, connecting like-minded folks interested in sharing a coffee in person to learn something new or share their knowledge with others. The idea is to take social networking a step further: we connect people on the basis of their learning needs and available skills, and foster in person, one hour-long micro-mentoring sessions.

After one year of private prototyping, in November 2012, we launched our public bilingual version to over 1,600 members, who generated over 300 in-person knowledge-sharing meetings during this first phase. From how to live through loss: grieving through drawing to how to travel with less than $10 per day, our members share their most intimate experiences and their most “out there” skills.

An example: The first E-180 meeting was held right after our private launch, between Élodie, who had never really traveled and wanted to go to India by herself for 4 months, and Paul, who had spent almost a year over there. Slightly nervous, they both met for lunch in an Indian restaurant and chatted about India, its people, flavors and transportation for two hours. Here is what Paul had to say about it, when it wrote about his experience on our blog:

We were so excited to get started once we met, we weren’t even sure where to begin. The walk to our meeting place, “Parc-Ex,” the Indian district of town, where we ate, gave us some time to get to know each other before diving into a conversation about chicken and curry recipes. That’s where everything started. (Mariuzzo-Raynaud, 2012)

After the meeting, Élodie traveled to India for 4 months, came back, and is now offering how to travel to India as a single woman on E-180. That’s the magic of peer-learning: no need to get a degree to become a teacher. One just has to live. “It completely changed my perception of my relationships and the impact they might have on my learning,” said Élodie at the public, bilingual launch of E-180.

A year-long experiment in connecting knowmads

What did we learn from our yearlong experiment in matchmaking for peer-learning? What are our remaining questions, and where will we go from here?

  • People are humble. Most of our users feel uncomfortable telling the world that they are good at something.
    Our question: How can we better help people identify what knowledge they can share with others around them?
  • People are generous, yet busy. The driving factor behind people spending an hour with a fellow human is simply generosity. Yet, people are busy, which is their top excuse for not getting as involved as they would like to.
    Our question: Should we implement a system of rewards (open currency, points, open badges, etc.) to recognize the contributions of our outstanding members?
    Our question: Would public individualized learning pans be an option to utilize the power of community accountability to keep our users on track in regard to their learning goals?
    People feel inspired by peer-learning. Many users are blown away after their first meeting, as it is often the first time that they take an intentional stand for their own education.
    Our question: How can we measure success, in order to reproduce and scale it through our recommendation algorithm?
  • The need for peer-learning is huge. We see new opportunities for collaboration to enhance peer-learning everyday.
    Our question: How can we create peer-learning hubs in public spaces using mobile technologies?

And now what?

The observation of like-minded organizations as well as our experience at E-180 convinced us that, by inspiring people within a community and providing them with the tools they need to learn from one another, we contribute to the emergence of a society where the potential development of any individual does not exclusively rely on the broadcast of information. We facilitate the formation of links of interdependence which can be created among the members of a community.

What will be our ongoing contribution to this rising movement? Our ultimate goal is to unveil all the knowledge our communities’ lifelong teachers hold secretly. And, because we believe spaces play an incredible hub-like role, bringing people together who have compatible knowledge needs, we are now slowly working ourselves into all places where humans gather: coffee shops, conferences, libraries, museum, offices, airplanes, and so on.

Collaborative technology, the DIY movement, and co-consumerism set the table for a very important educational revolution that recognizes our peers as the ultimate reality translators, where dialogue is the mother of all didactics and relationships. Dialogue is the ultimate pedagogy. With the proper structure and recognition, peer learning holds a key to enriching, timely, and personalized education for us all.


Block, P. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling society. Retrieved from

King, P. (2012). Quora: What would be the memory capacity of our brains if we were to approximate it in terms of bytes? Retrieved from

Livingstone, D.W. (2003). New approaches to lifelong learning. Toronto: Centre for the Study of Education and Work.

Mariuzzo-Raynaud, P. (2012). The first meeting. Retrieved from

Mozilla Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University. (2012). Open badges for lifelong learning. Retrieved from

Topping, K., and Ehly, S. (1998). Peer-assisted learning. Mahwah, NJ, & London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

UNESCO. (2005). Towards knowledge societies. Paris: UNESCO.

Whitehead, A. (1967). The aims of education & other essays. New York: Free Press.

Whitman, N.A. (1988). Peer teaching: To teach is to learn twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.

Willie, C.V. (1994). Theories of social actions. New York: General Hall.

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