10/03/2012 02:41 pm ET

What Can Educators Learn From Hackers? We Learn Better When Learning Together

Behind an unmarked door on a dodgy San Francisco street, you'll find rows of band saws and soldering stations whirring late into the night. One could mistake the spot for an industrial-era factory if it weren't for the house motto prominently displayed over the workstation: We teach, we learn, we share -- hardly a sentiment echoed in most assembly facilities. This is a hackerspace, a growing urban movement where people come to meet, socialize, and collaborate on new projects. And the emphasis on peer-to-peer learning is not all talk; on one wall, you'll find a skill share white board crammed with items that people wish to learn (from CSS programming to the routing structures of phone trees) and skills they can teach in return.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that learning as part of a group, be it in a hackerspace or a college study group, is much more effective, engaging, and efficient than learning on one's own. Professor Richard Light of Harvard found that students who study in small groups of four to six students perform better than those that put in the same amount of time studying on their own. According to Light's research, "as a result of their study group discussion, students are far more engaged and better prepared for class, learning significantly more."

These results are not surprising to anyone who has participated in a robust learning community, yet our education system deemphasizes or even prevents this kind of group learning. If today, knowledge flows like water, then most our classrooms (in-person or online) operate like fire hoses; the content stems from a single voice, and those on the receiving end soak up what they can. If we want students to engage with and absorb the content, they need to get in the water together and splash around.

This will not only help with retention, but also applied knowledge and problem-solving. In a 2006 study of students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, groups of three, four, or five performed better on complex problem solving than the best of an equivalent number of individuals. These kinds of 'aha' moments are common in the San Francisco hackerspace as well, where just a few minutes of collaboration crack a coding problem one individual has been struggling with for hours.

A lot of attention in education has been paid to how we will consume educational content in the future: whether it will be online, in-person, streaming, or live. Less attention, however, has been afforded to who we will learn with.

With World Teachers' Day coming on October 5th, we should all celebrate the communities these incredible people help create and also work to expand our own notions of the classroom. A classroom isn't a confined space; it is anywhere we gather together in learning. And by encouraging communities of learning, we create environments where people learn faster and retain more, and places where they want to stay, helping one another, late into the night.