, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 329–338 | Cite as

Mutual learning: a systemic increase in learning efficiency to prepare for the challenges of the twenty-first century

25th Anniversary Volume A Faustian Exchange: What is to be human in the era of Ubiquitous Technology?


One of the few certainties we have about our collective future is that it will require a massive amount of learning, by just about everybody, everywhere. The time for generating as many creative and collaborative knowledge builders has come. Therefore, improving the efficiency of learning could very well become a key leverage point for successfully meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century. This paper explores the possibilities of using mutual learning as a systemic means to improve learning efficiencies. This is measured through three different metrics: (1) the time required to learn, (2) the quantity of learning that is retained over time, and (3) the leveraging of the cost of scholarships through the use of a complementary currency designed to track and encourage mutual learning. In all three metrics, mutual learning is shown as an important approach to increase the effectiveness of learning and, at the very least, can be an adjunct to the conventional educational methods. Mutual learning could apply not only to learning among peers, but also to social, intergenerational, or intercultural mutual learning.


Economic development Learning efficiency Mutual learning 

1 Why a new educational model is needed?

The Knowledge Society, the Knowledge Economy, the Learning Society, and the Learning Organization have become household terms. This means that learning has become a crucial process for development in many countries. For instance, the importance of knowledge was first pointed out by the European Commission in the White Paper entitled Growth, Competitiveness, and Employment. The challenges and ways forward into the 21st century (1994), followed one year later by a second White Paper, “Teaching and learning. Toward a cognitive society” (1995) and then by an OECD public report, “The Knowledge-based Economy” (1996), trying to identify best practices of education. Since then, many strategic papers from international organizations have endorsed such a priority, and now, 15 years later, learning appears as the central tenant in the EU education and training policies, as well as, in many countries in and outside Europe.

But what has been done in practice during the past 15 years? The Lisbon Strategy, initiated by the Lisbon Special European Council held in March 2000 aimed at gearing the European Union “towards a Europe of Innovation and Knowledge,” and affirmed that Europe would become “the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world” by 2010. Today, in spite of a “new start” launched at the mid-term of the plan in 2005, it appears that this strategy did not allow Europe to reach its initial objectives in 2010, partially because of events beyond the control of policy makers, but also because the EU and the member states have not been able to implement the relevant structural changes, in particular in the education and training area. There is no reason to expect that the targets set for education by the Europe 2020 Strategy will produce better results. Similarly, over the past decades, several US Presidents have launched ambitious educational programs, some even tried to become identified as “Education Presidents,” but after all the media dust has settled, just like in Europe, very little systemic changes have been observed in practice.

As reported in recent strategic papers, to face the daunting challenges of this century, the upcoming generations will have to be composed of “creative and collaborative knowledge builders,” to paraphrase the title of a background paper for the OECD Innovation Strategy (Taddei 2009), which clearly stated that “only countries that implement policies to reform their education to promote adaptability and creativity in adults and children are likely to remain at the forefront of human development and technology.” Other recent reports in different countries come to a similar conclusion.

The question, now, becomes: Do we still need an educational system? And, if the answer is yes, what type of education system will allow the development of creative and collaborative knowledge builders? The current education and training systems tend to develop conformity and alignment instead of creativity; competition instead of collaboration; and knowledge reproduction instead of knowledge creation! These desired results seem impossible to meet without a complete transformation of the current systems. The question is not new, since Illich (1971) has already posed it with accuracy, and, at the same period, Freire (1970) demonstrated the possibility of alternatives on a large scale in Brazil. And today, home schooling is growing in several countries and generally provides better results than public or private schools (Basham et al. 2007). Recent research (Livingstone 2001; Carré and Charbonnier 2003; Eraut 2004) confirm Allen Tough’s first findings (1971) that most of adult learning is informal and does not happen in a place dedicated to education. Put together, these arguments seem to make the case against any formal educational system. Nonetheless, to consider that all parents will be able to provide home schooling and get good results cannot be taken for granted. So, this begs the question: If an educational system is necessary, is it possible to find inspiration in Educational sciences and Economics to build a more efficient one? This is the challenge the authors assign to this paper.

Recent research in neurology suggests that creativity uses physiological mechanisms within the brain such as lowering the level of norepinephrine in order to allow connections between areas that are not usually connected. But more importantly, according to this research, creativity requires abilities in divergent thinking to handle multiple alternative solutions easily and “a high level of general intelligence, domain specific knowledge, and special skills” (Heilman et al. 2003).

So, the first step in developing creativity and adaptability appears to be acquiring a high level of general knowledge together with highly specialized knowledge and skills in a particular domain. This leads to the query: What is the most efficient way to acquire and retain knowledge and skills? This has been a central question in educational sciences since the middle of the twentieth century, in general, and, within the behaviorist community, in particular. Today, anthropologists who are interested in the cognitive processes would say that an important factor to take into account to understand cognitive processes is that cognition is situated (Suchman 1987), therefore, learning is situated too (Lave and Wenger 1991), and the most efficient learning situations are “authentic” situations (Brown et al. 1989). Educational psychologists would say that motivation of the learner (Schunk et al. 2009; Carré and Fenouillet 2008), volition of the learner (Corno 2001; Cosnefroy 2011), and finally self-regulation of the learner (Zimmerman and Schunk 2008; Cosnefroy 2011) are the main factors determining efficiency of learning. Another school of psychology would say that the most important point in learning is that it is a social process (Vygotsky 1986; Bruner 1990), and therefore, that efficient learning depends on the quality of the interaction leading to shared understanding.

There exists at least one model of learning that provided empirical evidence of a high efficiency in the past: “Mutual Learning.” This paper will therefore explore some options to re-evaluate the relative efficiency of mutual learning compared with the more conventional educational approaches.

2 Mutual learning

Mutual learning, the process in which students teach each other, is also called “learning through teaching.” It is certainly not a new concept. It was first described in the Western countries in 1795 by a Scotsman named Andrew Bell, who was living at that time in Madras, India. He wrote a book about the mutual learning method that he observed and used himself. The Londoner Joseph Lancaster picked up this idea and implemented it in his schools. This method was then introduced in 1815 in France by the “Société pour l’instruction élémentaire,” because it was the most cost-effective way to provide instruction to the lower class children. The same year, a member of this association, Lazare Carnot, happened to be appointed as Minister of Domestic Affairs and launched the “Écoles Mutuelles” initiative. This became the largest scale experiment ever for this teaching methodology. It provided a solution to the increasing number of pupils without having to proportionally increase the expenses, since “moniteurs”—locally available advanced students instead of fully trained teachers—could support up to ten clusters of geographically concentrated mutual learning clusters with students of varying age. Furthermore, a smaller quantity of books was needed, as the books could also be shared. The number of young children attending this type of schools rose from 165,000 in 1815 to 1,123,000 by the end of 1820 (Gréard 1911). After the French revolution of 1830, no less than 2,000 “Écoles Mutuelles” were officially registered in France.

However, universal schooling was, at that time, considered mainly as a tool of social control, to keep children of the poorer classes from getting involved in mischief in the streets and keep them busy until they were old enough to go to work. Furthermore, the students who emerged from this educational approach were both creative and clever, but they turned out to respect the established authorities less than those trained in the conventional way. The political coup de grace came when it was noticed that most of the leaders of the Radical Party that organized the popular revolt of 1848 had attended this type of school! For instance, one of them was Joseph Proudhon (Hauptman 1982, 38–39), who today is still considered a major innovative social thinker.

During the Restoration period, lack of respect for the established authorities was unforgivable. The Écoles Mutuelles were, therefore, dismantled shortly after 1848 during the Second Empire. It was never resurrected in France because, once a body of teachers and their unions were established, they had no interest in considering this modality, because it reduces the numbers of teachers and reduces the prestige of the teachers in the class.

After this large-scale experiment, and a few smaller ones during the same period in other European countries (Italy, Spain, UK), mutual learning disappeared as an official methodology, until it was rediscovered more than a century later under different names: in the USA, “Learning through teaching” (Gartner et al. 1971), “Reciprocal Teaching” (Palincsar and Brown 1984; Carter and Fekete 2001), and “Reciprocal Peer Tutoring” (Fantuzzo et al. 1989; Greenwood et al. 1989; Ginsburg-Block and Fantuzzo 1997), From the 1970s onwards, the method was used primarily in many small-scale experiments with children or students having learning difficulties. In spite of the significant gains observed, there were no attempts to further develop these methods and bring them into the mainstream educational system. Today, this methodology has been transposed to computer-based learning by the “The Teachable Agents Group” at Vanderbilt University (TN), which has developed a “Learning by teaching agent” (Leelawong and Biswas 2008).

The major contemporary implementation of this method is in Germany (Kettwig 1986; Klassen 1988; Krüger 1975; Renkl 1997), where the use of “Lernen durch Lehren” (LdL) started in the field of learning French as a Foreign Language, with the work of Jean-Pol Martin (1985, 1996) from the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. The extension of this method to disciplines other than learning foreign languages has accelerated after 2001, when the PISA survey revealed that German students’ results using conventional teaching methods did not reach the level that was expected. Today, a network of more than thousand teachers in different disciplines successfully uses Martin’s method throughout Germany. Recent research on its effects demonstrates “the ingredients for effective learning” and also facilitates the development of personal, social, and methodological competencies required by the knowledge society (Grzega and Schöner 2007). Is this a passing fad or are there some arguments to be made about great efficiencies that would favor broadening this approach as widely as possible?

3 Measuring learning efficiency

One can imagine many means to measure learning efficiencies. Given the subtle nature of human knowledge and skills, one should expect that not any one metric will be both a quantifiable number and genuinely universal. In this paper, three metrics will be used: (1) the time required to successfully cover a given curriculum of learning, (2) the quantity of retained learning over time, and finally, (3) the efficiency of the use of public funds involved in education.

3.1 Efficiency as measured through elapsed time

One of the surprises that emerged from the large-scale experiment of the Écoles Mutuelles in nineteenth-century France was that this type of school was not only much cheaper, but turned out to be very efficient in time: the curriculum, which was designed for 5–6 years of study, was completed on the average in 2–3 years by the pupils (Querrien 2005, 81–84). For instance, “a child learns to read and write fluently in 2 years instead of the normal 5 or 6 years” (Querrien 2005, 54). Furthermore, such acceleration was not limited to elementary knowledge: those students were eager to learn more, beyond what was planned in the curriculum. Curiously, this was considered a major problem, because it was providing the children from the lower social classes with an occupation for only 20 months instead of the 8 years expected in the normal curriculum! Finally, what could the educational system of the nineteenth century do with large numbers of 12–14-year-old sons and daughters of laborers who were ready and eager to go on to study at a university level?

After all, “the main reason to make schooling obligatory in the protestant countries since the seventeenth century and in France in the nineteenth was to transform the poor into future workers. Schooling was imposed on the children of the poor, exactly as military duty. The purpose was not to encourage the desire to learn. Schools aimed at teaching work discipline as a duty, at training future factory workers” (Querrien 2005, 33). It is ironic that a methodology that was initially introduced primarily because it was the most cost-effective turned out embarrassingly more efficient in time than the conventional approaches.

That the quality of the results obtained in the “École Mutuelle” was not the reason for its suppression is clearly revealed by a report from the Conseil Général du Calvados in 1822. It proposed “to reserve this method for the upper class children, because they would have to expand their knowledge to their maximum level and it should be in their interest to learn, as soon as possible, the required mechanisms” (Querrien 2005, 106).

Though there was no formal educational research at that time, the experiment was sufficiently large in time and participation to provide testimonies and evidences of its efficiency. In spite of a large number of today’s research on cognitive effects of mutual learning under its different labels, most of these works focus on retained learning or on cognitive gains and psychological benefits (see next section). As far as we know, none has surveyed the elapsed time parameter in order to confirm that a curriculum was learned more quickly through mutual learning modality as was the case during nineteenth-century France.

Why is such a methodology so efficient in the speed of learning? Though, as far as we know, no specific research has addressed this issue, we can suggest at least two reasons. The first is that teaching knowledge and skills to others forces the “teacher” to make his/her knowledge or skill objective to be able to tell it to others and so to really understand it (Piaget 1974). The second cause might be that doing so reinforces the feeling of self-efficacy generated by sharing knowledge and learning the skill to teach to others, which fosters the learning process in a kind of virtuous circle (Bandura 1997): the more one succeeds in passing knowledge or skill to others, the more one feels like learning and transmitting new knowledge and skill, which is exactly the attitude needed to produce creative and collaborative knowledge builders.

3.2 Efficiency as measured through retained learning

The origin of the concept of retained learning as a measure of learning efficiency goes back to Dales’ work comparing the efficiency of different media and situations for knowledge and skills retention, which resulted in what he called the “cone of experience” (Dale 1946). “Verbal symbols” were considered to be the less efficient, while “Direct purposeful experience” was the most efficient. In between, he found “Visual symbols,” “Still Pictures—Radio,” “Motion Pictures,” “Educational television,” “Exhibits,” “Study trips,” “Demonstrations,” “Dramatized experience,” and “Contrived experience.”

But it is Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory (Pask 1975, 1976b) that first supported the fact that “Teachback” was an efficient learning strategy. He provided some evidence of it through measurement of retained learning before and after Teachback (Pask 1976a, b). His measurement protocols were based on elaborated teaching methodologies requiring a “modelling facility” and sequences of “How” and “Why” questions and responses, which were probably not the methodologies used during the nineteenth century.

Nonetheless, even if research protocols on retained learning might be questioned, since they might have been designed in order to prove what they intend to prove (Despret 2004), it does not invalidate the historical evidence that, at very least, the speed of learning through teaching others is substantially improved. And learning methods seem to so influence learning, as shown by many research works on mutual learning under its different appellation.

The seminal research work on mutual teaching seems to be Bargh and Schul experiment presented in their paper titled “On the cognitive benefits of teaching” (Bargh and Schul 1980). Their experiment was split into two phases: in the first phase, 42 undergraduates participated. One group of students studied verbal material to learn it themselves, while another group studied the material to teach it to another person. Students preparing to teach scored reliably higher than controls on a subsequent retention test. Phase two intended to assess the effects of actual teacher–student interaction. For both a verbal and a problem-solving task, 121 undergraduates either worked alone, verbalized their thoughts aloud, or taught another person the task while performing. There were no reliable performance differences between conditions on either task. This second phase showed that the type of teacher–student interaction had no significant effect on learning. So, it could be concluded that cognitive benefits of teaching do exist and result from utilization by the student going to teach of a different method of study.

Another piece of research comparing mutual learning with several other methods is the one conducted by Annis and published under the title “the processes and effects of peer tutoring” (Annis 1983): the classroom effects of five peer tutoring situations were compared with 130 female students enrolled in a history course at a U.S. Midwestern university. Students read a 1,525-word article and were assigned to one of the following conditions: reading an assignment to take a test; reading as if the material were going to be taught to a tutee, but not actually teaching; reading in preparation for teaching the materials followed by actually teaching a tutee; being taught the material by a tutor; and reading the material followed by being taught by a tutor.

Students were then administered Bloom’s taxonomy to determine the effects of various aspects of tutoring and being tutored on content-specific and generalized cognitive gains. Results indicated that tutoring compared to being tutored resulted in significantly greater gains in content-specific and cognitive scores. In addition, students who prepared to teach and actually taught generally scored higher than students who prepared only, indicating the importance of the actual teaching process for learning.

Experiments were also made with students with reading problems, starting with those conducted by Palincsar and Brown, which showed that Reciprocal Teaching, compared with “typical classroom practice,” “led to a significant improvement in the quality of the summaries and questions. It also led to sizable gains on criterion tests of comprehension, reliable maintenance over time, generalization to classroom comprehension tests, transfer to novel tasks that tapped the trained skills of summarizing, questioning, and clarifying, and improvement in standardized comprehension scores.” (Palincsar and Brown 1984).

Another set of researches on Reciprocal Peer Tutoring (RPT) provided similar results, as indicated by the following examples from conclusions of sampled investigations:

A component analysis of the reciprocal peer tutoring (RPT) strategy was performed, which previous research had demonstrated to be effective in producing cognitive gains, lowering subjective distress, and enhancing course satisfaction. One hundred students were randomly assigned to one of four groups designed to systematically compare the RPT strategy with its hypothesized components: dyadic, mutual exchange, and structured-learning format. Pretest analyses revealed no significant group differences in demographic variables or pretest scores on course examinations and self-report inventories of subjective distress. Further analyses supported past findings on the superiority of the RPT strategy. This superiority was attributed to the RPT group’s unique combination of elements: preparing to teach a peer teaching a peer, and accountability for this process. (Fantuzzo et al. 1989).

RPT students displayed significantly higher rates of mathematics achievement, self-report of social acceptance and behavioral conduct and higher rates of observed teacher and student task-related behavior as compared with controls. (Ginsburg-Block and Fantuzzo 1997).

In a series of investigations, we have found that RPT is effective in terms of cognitive gains. For example, in controlled experiments comparing students’ performance following RPT with students who either worked alone on similar assignments, worked in unstructured study groups, or watched course-related films, RPT students scored an average of 83 % on exams compared to an average of about 70 % for the other conditions […] RPT not only enhances academic performance but has psychological benefits as well. Students in the preceding studies were administered various measures of psychological well-being (e.g., student anxiety, depression, distress), both at the beginning and end of the term. Students in the RPT condition showed significant improvement in well-being during the semester, whereas students in the other conditions showed either no change or, in some cases, increases in anxiety and depression. (Riggio 2006).

The results of all these research projects are convergent. If the difference with other methods cannot always be quantified in terms of “retained learning,” there are always cognitive gains and positive psychological effects induced by the use of mutual learning.

3.3 Efficiency as measured through leveraging scholarship funds

The effectiveness of the money spent on education is the third approach by which we propose to evaluate mutual learning. As already shown above, the introduction of the Écoles Mutuelles in France was based primarily on the argument that it was the lowest cost option. It makes sense that if the bulk of the teaching is performed by the students themselves, the cost of teaching should be lower. This was a main argument used by the Société pour l’Instruction Élémentaire to make the case for the Ecoles Mutuelles. In Volume III of its journal, the following comparison is given for the center of Paris: the École Mutuelle would cost 15,000 francs for three schools hosting up to 800 pupils, when traditional schooling will cost 30,000 francs for 32 schools to host the same number of pupils (Querrien 2005, 94). The “Guide des fondateurs et des maîtres” also published by the Société pour l’Instruction Élémentaire mentioned that for Paris only, traditional schooling would cost 2,279,000 francs more every year to host 50,000 pupils than would do the Ecoles Mutuelles (Gréard 1911). If no recent research allows current comparisons, it is, nonetheless, clear that national education budgets involve a massive administration and infrastructure, which have only indirect relation to the actual learning taking place. Those learning overhead expenses clearly would distort any comparison of financial effectiveness in disfavor of the conventional teaching methods.

That is why the focus of this paper is on achieving more learning through the leverage of scholarships funding—and how this can be leveraged both in terms of making the funds go further, but also improving on rates of learning, retention, and general well-being of the students. The example we choose involves the innovative use of a complementary currency specialized in the domain of mutual learning, called the Saber (meaning “to know” in Portuguese, pronounced Saa Bear). It was originally designed for Brazil (Lietaer 2006). Variations on this methodology were implemented in Brazil by Professor Gilson Schwartz of the University of Sao Paulo under the auspices of a “City of Knowledge” and an “Imaginary Money Fund” (“IMF”) (Schwartz 2008). A pilot project inspired by the Saber, with a currency called “Wispo,” took the form of a group learning game implemented in 2010–2011 by Bernard Lietaer with Igor Bytebier and Hugo Wanner for the Atheneum Wispelberg, a secondary school in the city of Ghent, Belgium.

Financial help through scholarships is a very old concept and practice dating back to medieval universities. One of its largest scale modern applications was the “GI Bill” used by the United States after World War II for its veterans: government funds were paid out directly for student scholarships. The money granted in a scholarship is helpful to only one student, however, as the funds are used to pay directly the educational establishment. In contrast, by introducing a complementary learning currency,1 a substantial “learning multiplier” can be set in motion, so that a given amount of money can facilitate substantially more learning for a greater number of students, as will be explained below. A complementary currency is defined as any standardized item, other than national money, that is used as a medium of exchange.

The initiator of the project hereafter called the “Learning Currency Administrator” could be a non-profit organization, an educational foundation, a school or university, or a country’s Department of Education. This Learning Currency Administrator could issue a complementary currency in the form of a specialized paper currency or as an electronic currency.

In all the examples given next, let us assume that the learning currency system is applied as an extra-curricular activity in a conventional school environment from primary school to university. The same principles, however, could be applied in other contexts (e.g., if applied in society at large, it could be people who know something that others find of interest, ranging from a language or playing a musical instrument to hobbies as sailing or mushroom hunting, etc. In a business context, entry level employees could be trained by more seasoned employees, etc.). In terms of the type of topics that could be thought in this chain of learning, one could leave it completely open to the choice of the teacher and the learner or keep it within specific guidelines (e.g., topics of relevance to the school).

The Learning Currency units would be allocated to the lowest level of learners (e.g., in a conventional school environment, this could be 7-year-olds). This currency is given for free to these lowest levels at the condition that they choose a mentor (e.g., a 10-year-old). The Learning Currency units are transferred to the older student in compensation for the hours spent mentoring. The 10-year-old can do the same thing with a 12-year-old and the latter with a 15-year-old, and so forth.

At the end of this “learning by teaching” chain, one needs to create a “final sink.” This final sink represents a desirability of the Learning Currency for its users and/or those at the end of the chain. For instance, the Learning Currency could go to a 17-year-old who would then be able to use his or her accumulated Learning Currency units to pay all or part of university tuition. The university in turn would be able to exchange the Learning Currency units for conventional money through the Education Fund (see Fig. 1), but at a discount of say 50 %. The logic for such a discount is that most of the costs at a university are fixed and the marginal cost of an additional student has little impact on those expenses.
Fig. 1

“Saber” complementary currency system = learning multiplier

Another final sink could be access to a desirable event that cannot be purchased with dollars or any conventional currency, only with a given quantity of Learning Currency. For instance, a special concert by a band that is particularly popular among the participants in the system could be accessible if and only if one buys the entry ticket with ten Learning Currency units. Other “final sinks” could be spending time with a famous person, etc. For the “Wizard Wispo” project, the group learning game in the city of Ghent, Belgium, the final sink included a fun city-wide meta-game at the end of which Rudy Coddens, the head of the city’s education council, crowned the winning teams (

The following figure is a conceptual diagram of the flow of the learning currency for the case of the Brazilian Saber application described above. Application 1 is the example provided purely for learning through teaching, and application 2 is an example of learning through social service.

3.3.1 Calculating the learning multiplier of application 1

The key desirable effect of the use of a Learning Currency instead of a straightforward scholarship is the learning multiplier it enables for a given budget. The multiplier estimation made possible by the use of learning currency compared to a one-time-use scholarship will depend on the metric used: time or the quantity of retained learning.

In the case of the metric of time efficiency, the calculation is very simple, as it is the same as the improvement in the length of time to complete a given curriculum. Completing a 6-year curriculum in 2 or 3 years as stated in the report on the Ecole Mutuelle in Calvados, the Learning Multiplier of the Ecole Mutuelle approach would be 200–250 % more efficient than the conventional schooling one.

For the case of a retained learning metric, the process will be illustrated first mathematically, then with a concrete example.

The following variables are relevant. If M = the retained learning multiplier created by the learning currency compared to a conventional scholarship; Rt = Percentage of Retained Learning from teaching another student; R0 = Retained Learning from conventional environment (typically a combination of lecture and readings); N = number of times that the learning currency circulates from a learner to a teacher before being absorbed in the final sink; Vc = Value of learning currency in national currency during circulation among learners; Vd = Value of learning currency in national currency as discounted by the funder of last resort.

Then: M = Rt/Ro × N × Vc/Vd

3.3.2 A practical example of a learning multiplier

To demonstrate a practical example, we need to obtain values for the two retained learning variables Rt and R0. There is no consensus on methodologies to measure these two variables. We propose to use for this example the values incorporated in the “learning pyramid” as provided by the NTL laboratory in Bethel, Maine, and used as reference by the World Bank (World Bank 2012).

If one accepts the values of this learning pyramid, then Rt = 90 %. Similarly, the retained learning for a lecture is estimated on average at 5 %, and for reading a text, 10 %. Therefore, assuming that the mix of lecture and reading is 50–50, the retained learning from the conventional approach is R0 = (5 + 10 %)/2 = 7.5 %.

We have assumed in the earlier example illustrated in Fig. 1 that the Learning Currency circulates five times before it reaches the university (N = 5). Finally, the discount that the university obtains in $ for each learning currency is 50 %, therefore Vc/Vd = 2.

The learning multiplier for this example is therefore M = 90/7.5 × 5 × 2 = 120. In other words, with a scholarship fund of $1 million, using a complementary learning currency would trigger retained learning equivalent to $120 million of straight individual scholarships.

3.4 Application 2: social learning

The second application, on “social learning,” does not lend itself to quantitative analysis as the previous one. So we would not even attempt at conceiving a quantitative metric for this one. Social learning also requires us to broaden our definition of mutual learning to include intergenerational and intercultural kinds of social learning.

Indeed, why should only intellectual learning be considered relevant? Experiential learning, also called learning by doing, can also play a positive role (Kolb 1984). Powerful life learning can indeed take the form of simply becoming genuinely aware about the worldview and social reality of others.

The precedent of a project of an international scale is relevant here: President Kennedy’s Peace Corps established by Executive Order 10924 of March 1, 1961. Since then, over 200,000 Americans have joined it to serve in 139 countries. Each program participant (aka Peace Corps Volunteer) needed to be an American citizen with a college degree, who works abroad for a period of 24 months after 3 months of training. Volunteers work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in education, hunger, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment. After 24 months of service, volunteers can request an extension of service. The work is generally related to social and economic development.

Two out of the three core objectives of this program implicitly refer to one form of mutual learning:
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served

  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Among the accounts by Peace Corps Volunteers—more than 900 of which got published—stories of mutual learning are recurrent. In short, many of the most positive experiences took place when both people learned something from each other.

Today, one does not have to go to exotic countries to meet people in socio-economic circumstances that university students otherwise would never meet. What follows next is a proposal for another application of the Learning Currency concept, one that would apply to social learning. Why not have young people earn Learning Currency units by helping elderly, handicapped, or socially isolated people, even in other ways than teaching? One obvious example is reading to the blind.

Indeed, in several countries around the world, growing movement on college campuses encourage student involvement in their communities, particularly through what is known as “service-learning,” in which students participate in community service activities organized by local community groups. In many places, however, this remains mainly a pious intention without real follow-up. It is likely, and it will remain so until there is a measuring system established to track measure such activities. The University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) has developed a novel solution for this issue through its Center for Full Employment and Price Stability. It formally adds a community service component to the undergraduate and graduate programs, through the use of a complementary currency called the Buckaroo.

3.4.1 The case study of the Buckaroo

The University of Missouri at Kansas City requires 25 Buckaroos per semester for each student, equivalent to 25 h of service learning, payable only in Buckaroos when students register for taking the exams at the end of each semester. Buckaroos take the form of paper notes and are named after the UMKC mascot (a kangaroo). It bears the inscription “this note represents 1 h of community service by a UMKC student.” The system’s record-keeping is kept quite simple. Each student is required to pay B25 to the UMKC “Treasury” each semester. Approved community service providers (state and local government offices, university offices, public school districts, and a growing list of local not-for-profit organizations) are provided with the buckaroos used to “hire” student workers, so long as basic health, safety, and liability standards were met.

These service providers use their buckaroos to hire students payable in hours of service. The Treasury ensures that the providers were, indeed, paying one buckaroo per hour of student labor—there is no need to keep track of the names of students who worked for each provider. There is no necessary limit to the number of buckaroos paid out during any semester. The number supplied to any provider would be limited only by the provider’s needs for labor and by its ability to attract student workers. Sometimes, the university found it desirable to place quantitative limits on some service providers in order to promote diversity of the kind of efforts and activities available. When students pay their B25 tax, they return these buckaroos to the UMKC Treasury.

Among the advantages to this system is freedom of choice: students are free to choose from among a wide array of service providers and are free to switch “jobs” as frequently they desire. Record-keeping by both service providers and UMKC is also extremely simple: service providers simply pay a buckaroo for each hour of labor provided; and UMKC collects B25 per student per semester. Students are able to “hoard” buckaroos for future use, thus can work extra hours in one semester in anticipation of a heavy course load in a following semester. Students are also allowed to lend, borrow, buy, or sell in US$ and buckaroos at will among each other. The “buckaroos” have thereby become something like a “local currency” used on- and off-campus.

3.4.2 Some further possibilities

Learning could become a vast and rich intergenerational or intercultural game. All this would encourage intergenerational relationships, intergenerational learning, not to mention creating extra aid for the elderly without burdening governmental budgets. This budget issue will become a driving force, given that most countries are expecting a higher percentage of elderly people to take care of over the next decades. The cost of which is part of the trillions of unfunded liabilities that will pressure governmental budgets during the next decades.

The mutual learning approach could also help addressing the challenges of different learning styles. It has indeed been known for a long time that learning styles and learning strategies may be different from one individual to another. Several typologies have been proposed by well-known researchers in the field of educational sciences (for example: Kolb 1976; Pask 1976a; Schmeck 1988; Riding and Rayner 1998), and learning efficiency has been clearly related to the taking into account of such differences (Pask 1976a, b).

One of the reasons why the conventional educational approach tends to overlook multiple learning styles is that simultaneous teaching to a group of students by one teacher makes it by definition impossible to cater to the individual learning style of each child. That is not the case with mutual learning. It should become possible to create learning groups in which the learning styles are taken into account. The increase in learning that such an approach could make possible could turn out to be significant, particularly for those that are considered mediocre or failing students in the conventional educational system.

4 Conclusions

The needs of our society during the twenty-first century in the world are different from those prevailing in nineteenth-century France. As stated in the beginning of this paper, the future of the world will depend on our society’s success at producing as many creative and collaborative knowledge builders as possible. The one certainty that we have about our collective future is that there is an unprecedented amount of learning that will need to take place everywhere, by just about everybody in all levels of society. If today we have to make the choice between substantially higher learning efficiency and creativity at the cost of some respect toward established authorities, we propose that the time has come to reverse the decision that was made under Napoleon III and to reconsider introducing other types of learning situations than simultaneous learning, more likely to fit diverse learning styles and learning strategies.

Shouldn’t we now consider definitely replacing simultaneous learning by a combination of learning strategies, such as mutual learning, inquiry-based learning (Welch et al. 1981), and problem-based learning (Barrows 1986; Savery 2006), and blend them with other active learning strategies such as games in order to design more efficient learning systems?


  1. 1.

    A “complementary currency is” “an agreement within a community to accept something else than legal tender as a means of payment” (Lietaer 2004, 3).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre de Recherches Education FormationUniversité Paris 10ParisFrance
  2. 2.Centre d’Etudes Supérieures Industrielles, ParisMontpellierFrance
  3. 3.Center for Sustainable Resources of the University of California at BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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