Peer Turbo Power: How Clipboards Can Accelerate Learning

The other day my ten-year-old daughter Zoe had a great violin lesson. The setup was simple: there were two other kids, David and Lily, and one teacher. Partway through, the teacher handed out clipboards and explained the system: one kid would play, the other two would take notes and offer suggestions. Then they’d switch.

The atmosphere in the room changed. You know that bristly, electric moment when you can tell kids’ senses are activated, and they start paying attention on a deeper level? That happened.  The kids with the clipboards leaned in, observing keenly, scribbling their notes. The kid playing violin upped their game as well, knowing that they were being observed by their peers. It was a perfect storm of peer learning; everyone was reaching, learning from everyone else. (Here are the notes Zoe received from her classmates — they’re great.)

The method works because the learning process has two basic phases: Doing and Evaluating.  In the first phase, you’re absorbed with the performance itself — hitting the target. In the second, you pull back and examine, strategize.

These two phases require radically different mindsets. The “doing phase” is about concentration, absorption, focus, producing the intense heat of effort. The “evaluative phase” is about the opposite: pulling back, being cool and impersonal, spotting errors and fixing them.

The clipboard method works because it shifts kids into Phase Two learning, helping build the evaluative muscles they can apply to their own playing. It’s a method used by good teachers everywhere. One of my favorite examples is Kurt Vonnegut, who famously directed his students at the Iowa Writers Workshop to edit and evaluate some of the best short stories ever written. (Vonnegut’s assignment letter is a classic.)

Of course, a teacher can’t just hand the reins to the students and tell them to start coaching. The trick of doing this well is to impose some guardrails.

1) Keep it positive: Ask students to include compliments as well as how-to-improve comments.

2) Make sure they write down their comments, to promote precision and prevent vagueness, and also so they can be saved and referred to later.

The larger goal is to help nudge students toward the place where they are reflexively coaching themselves. To embrace the old paradox: the greatest teachers are the ones who are best at making themselves unneeded.