What students learn from each other

I’ve always been reluctant to let students teach other students, for a few reasons:

First, how much do students really know?

Second, will they give each other honest feedback?

Third, are the “teaching” students losing their own opportunity to be challenged?

This year, I’ve seen how powerful students teaching students can be. I’ve been so busy after school that I have delegated much of the responsibility for coaching “Econ Challenge” to the seniors on my econ team.

This was a relatively low-risk experiment — I didn’t put them in charge of teaching content for a state test or even a classroom test. I also helped by making short recordings of weekly lessons, giving the students a strong starting point.

But the leaders had a lot of responsibility. They selected practice questions, ran the weekly review sessions, and explained and re-explained confusing concepts. So many times, I eavesdropped and found them drawing market graphs with elasticities, setting up game theory questions, wracking their brains to figure out how to best explain currency valuation.

Occasionally, they were stumped and had to ask me to explain something, but that was rare. (And when they did ask, sometimes I had to research an answer.)

The result? Both the seniors and the younger students were the best prepared they’ve ever been. The students doing the teaching have developed an incredibly deep understanding of complex concepts — teaching does reinforce the teacher’s learning. The younger students also learned quickly and seemed more engaged and comfortable asking questions of their peers.

On top of that, the students connected as a team. I saw the same thing happen with one of my Junior Achievement Companies; they embraced the role of being a “teaching company” and even posted videos to teach coding on their website, and they have a great team rapport.

My skepticism has been replaced by confidence — and plans for expansion. Within class, I am relying a lot more on students teaming up to solve problems before seeking my advice. Next year, all of my activities will embrace peer tutoring and more student leadership.

I’m still not convinced this strategy can always work; it’s not a panacea for our classroom challenges. But under certain conditions, it’s very effective.

First, we must not set the “teaching” students up for failure by asking too much of them. They need to be confident in the content they are teaching, and they need to feel comfortable asking for help.

Second, the teacher needs to create an environment that fosters cooperation. I tried this with another activity, an online business simulation, but the students who were best at the game didn’t want to teach others; they just wanted to win. It was a bad fit.

Finally, the teacher needs to be present and monitoring what’s happening. A friend who is a college professor compares ill-prepared teachers to “time bombs” —  as in, it’s just a matter of time before their misunderstanding spreads to their students. Students can be time bombs too, if the teacher isn’t available and tuned in enough to gently correct mistakes.

But my biggest fears — that students won’t know enough, won’t give accurate feedback or won’t have the opportunity for their own growth — were all unfounded. Students can be highly effective teachers, if we show them how.

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