Peer Teaching in the Traditional Classroom

This month, we’re looking at the single most popular topic among visitors to this blog: peer teaching. I’m going to try to look at peer teaching in different settings, but I struggled to figure out what isn’t already covered in the peer teaching tag so feel free to leave a comment with suggestions of what you look for when you come to this site for information on peer teaching.

Today, we’re going to start in the setting that most often seems to come to mind when we say “peer teaching” – the traditional classroom. Peer teaching can be a terrifying thought for teachers, especially newer teachers or teachers who are most comfortable using the lecture lesson structure, because for a moment the role of authority shifts from the teacher to a student. Worry! Panic! Assume the worst!

The problem is, our role in the classroom is to give students tools they are going to need moving forward from our time with them. Sadly, listening to lectures doesn’t fill up much of a person’s outside life. Beyond the classroom, beyond the school, these children are at some point going to have to lead, to explain, to communicate with others. What better place to let them start learning how to do that than in the supportive, experimental environment of the classroom.

Implementing peer teaching does not have to be a painful experience. Humans by nature engage in certain behaviors, one of which is explaining things to each other. It may be a process; it may be retelling an event. We explain things to each other all the time. If you ever want to have fun, spend an afternoon with a preschooler and let them take the lead. You’ll be amazed at just how much they will explain to you about their lives and about the games they invite you into. Humans like to explain. Because we have this internal tendency toward explaining, anyone can be a peer teacher. Well, anyone with enough understanding of what needs to be explained can be a peer teaching.

Encouraging peer teaching in the classroom actually benefits the classroom teacher in a number of ways. Well-implemented peer teaching can be a useful classroom management strategy. Have a child who zips through work and then terrorizes the classroom out of boredom? Redirect the student to help a student who might be struggling. It kills two birds with one stone when the majority of the class is struggling with a concept as it gives the teacher extra pairs of hands. (It also allows the teacher to assess how well the child who worked quickly grasps the concept, as it’s much harder to explain things you don’t understand to some degree.)

Allowing any student to assume the role of peer teacher also benefits the classroom teacher in terms of assessment, because a student who may appear to be struggling on presented assignments might actually understand the material and be able to present it clearly to another struggling student. When the teacher trusts a student to assume the teacher mantle for the moment, it not only shows where a student really is in her own understanding, it also shows the student who thought she was struggling that she might not be struggling after all. Any moment when we can enable a student, even indirectly, to recognize her own strengths, we help that child build self-confidence and communicate to her that we trust her to step up. It brings so much to the child in genuinely developing her own sense of self.

Ultimately, including peer teaching in traditional classroom strategies offers a lot of benefits to the classroom teacher and to the students as they assume either the teacher or the learner role. And it helps us as teachers reach our ultimate goal of preparing the student to face the world beyond the school environment.


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