Once peer engagement was treated as an afterthought.  Teachers possessed the knowledge and skills and the teaching task was to transmit them to the students. Back then it was the innovative teacher who set up a group of students with a question and the direction ‘Discuss!’. However, what is a modern understanding of peer engagement? Peer engagement is a structured intervention to stimulate meaningful interactions between students for learning. It will feature in education’s new normal for it captures that all important pedagogical skill, question-asking, which Neil Postman reminded us decades ago “is our most important intellectual tool”(p.140)

The research tells us that the most positive benefits occur when students are active users, referring to activities that facilitate direct exchanges with others (p.60). Alongside the power of direct appeal, the potent path to fizzy peer engagement includes prompts which stimulate dialogue, which drive a response or reply.  Open questions (those demanding more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer or a short, correct answer) are an essential starting point, but in fact direct engagement with artworks and designs also set up interpretive openness. Negriff and Subrahmanyam (2020) clearly identify the need for teachers to plan the quality, quantity, purpose, and goals of online interaction (p.65). The challenge for teachers in education’s new normal is to design online peer engagement activities which elevate active usage: how to design peer engagement activities which deepen learning, for both students’ online and offline worlds, and increases self-esteem, social support, social capital, and safe identity experimentation.

I have been working in the Pacific for the last two decades and my experience, in face-to-face classes and online, suggests that four principles are fundamental to facilitate rich, active participation and stimulate direct exchanges between learners.

Building a specific context to investigate.
The Pacific is made up of many island nations and the diversity across them is extensive. However, diversity demands specificity. While there are common issues and themes across the Pacific including gender-based violence, climate change, sorcery related violence and a youth bulge with increasing unemployment, the circumstances of these themes are not identical. Violence against women for example has very different implications for the people of Papua New Guinea than it does for other countries in the Pacific. Peer engagement then needs to be framed by the specificities of the context created.  Prompts, such as well selected pre-texts or cultural artifacts that invite an initial peer response, need to have energy and lure for peers to share the experience and informally contract into ongoing exploratory engagement.

Fashioning collaborative narratives.
One way of building a specific context of relevance is for peers to collaborate and co-construct the narrative they wish to interrogate. For example, while in my work we are all familiar with the structural and economic inequalities that exacerbate violence towards women, particularities of the lived experiences of women in these contexts that are woven into a narrative, capture the social systems and ways of being that need deeper understanding and exploration. Understanding contributes to meaningful narratives.  Gender violence is very often bleak and filled with hopelessness. But through such narratives learners can control their own story and imagine the future, rather than being locked into the structures of the present.

Ensuring gender inclusivity; especially of women and girls.
To build shared understandings and manage differences, peer interactions need to be designed and monitored as safe spaces for everyone. In the example of women and violence in the Pacific, safe spaces for women to talk freely and dissect male authority are essential. Safe spaces need explicit and shared rules of engagement. When men are included in these spaces, it is crucial that women can be heard and speak without fear of reprisal, and the men present engage with generosity and authenticity to what may confront longstanding cultural norms. When structured thoughtfully, collaborative deliberation can stimulate compassionate solutions by both male and female peers.

Composing a collective product.
Peer engagement is most rewarding when everyone feels connected, and at its best it inadvertently nurtures relationships, develops contracts, and creates safe spaces for dialogue. These benefits are amplified when peers co-create a poetic or artistic output together. This could mean co-devising a performance, a visual artifact, a case study, an imagined world, or a collective artwork. Co-creating a poem of possibility thinking (shifting from “what is” to “what might be”), featured in a recent online artwork created by women leaders in Papua New Guinea (p.iv). It served the learners well, enabling them to share their ideas and poetic choices with some anonymity and overcome any shyness about engaging with their peers.

Reflecting back to see what lies ahead
A life free of violence
There is hope
A dream coming true
To be told and achieved

By Jackie Kauli (Ph.D.) from Papua New Guinea. She has worked as a senior research fellow, academic and teaching artist for over two decades developing and curating collaborative works. She uses arts-based methodologies for transformative impact. Her collaborations are with Universities, Indigenous communities throughout the Pacific, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and major UN agencies. Email: jackie.kauli@gmail.com


Brad Haseman, Professor Emeritus and Executive Vice President, Kadenze, Inc.

Credit for Image: Elias Alex, Goroka, Papua New Guinea, Peer engagement workshop, 2021