Peer teaching can be a scary approach for a teacher. If she’s brand new to the profession, the thought of handing over control of instruction to a student can be nerve-wracking. If she’s been teaching for years, the thought of giving up control can be paralyzing. In both cases, the teacher (the education machine itself) has been conditioned to see the teacher as the source of knowledge in a classroom. It turns out, though, that a teacher can be a source of knowledge and a facilitator of content mastery without any threat to their identity, to the benefit of the student who takes on the teaching role.
Allowing a student to assume the teaching role accomplishes a number of goals. First, it allows the student to be the expert, giving them the opportunity to authentically grow trust in their own knowledge and abilities while strengthening their sense of self. It demonstrates the teacher’s trust that the student knows the material well enough to explain it to someone else, which also helps build their confidence. Because the ability to peer teach is totally dependent on the student’s own mastery of the skill, any student in the class can become a peer teacher. It’s not limited to the “brightest” students, nor does it exclude the “slowest” students, helping to shake that stigma and recognize different people can be good at different things without the need for competitive labels.
Second, it gives the teacher an opportunity to assess if and how thoroughly the student understands the material. More effective than a pencil-and-paper test, a peer teaching moment shows the teacher what the student really understands by how they explain it to the fellow student they’re teaching. If the student who is teaching has misunderstood something about the concept or process they’re teaching, it quickly becomes obvious and the teacher can step in and clarify that point for both students before returning control to the student who is teaching.
Third, teaching is a communication method. We don’t often look at it that way, but it really is. Every time we set out to teach something, we have a “message” we’re trying to get across, something we want the learner to take away with them. We think carefully about how we want to present the concept and we reflect on how to adjust the presentation for the next lesson to more successfully reach the learner. When we put a student in the teacher role, we’re giving them the opportunity to develop their own communication skills. They have to decide what to present, weed out what’s unimportant about that topic, and then develop and implement a means to present that topic. If we structure the situation correctly, they’ll get the feedback they need to make their next presentation stronger and better able to reach their classmates (and later on their target audience).
Fourth, piggybacking onto that last thought, teaching is an interpersonal activity. Students creating these presentations, assuming the teacher role, are engaging in collaboration with their classmates and developing their social skills at the same time. While many presentations are still in front of the class, many of them are now taking place online in the form of student blogs, student-created videos, and student-created tutorials. These students are learning not only how to choose, edit, and present their topic, but even the most introverted student is finding a platform to share their knowledge with classmates and get the feedback necessary to create stronger moments.
Creating peer teaching moments in a classroom isn’t about giving up the teacher’s power. It’s about sharing it to allow the students in class to develop their own teaching abilities and their confidence in their knowledge and their abilities. It’s about getting them ready to deal with the world outside the school environment.