Peer teaching has serious downsides.
Peer teaching* has become increasingly popular over the last 30-40 years, in conjunction with the rise of mixed ability grouping in K-12 public schools. Typically involving a slower learner receiving instruction from an advanced student, this practice has significant downsides for both parties.
Students Act as Teachers sums ups the story of frustrated teachers in Manhattan who created a buddy program, enlisting older students to help teach struggling readers. Part of the goal was to have the older students “get a dose of their own medicine by seeing how difficult it can be to teach”. How did it turn out?
The results, they said, were mixed.
This mirrors my observations, even though I’ve had at least one teacher insist there was abundant research strongly supporting the use of peer teaching. That’s what she learned in graduate school. As in many other aspects of “innovative” pedagogy, research of questionable quality is used to support instructional practices that are often implemented in a haphazard manner. In one case I know, a student struggling in geometry was asked to tutor another student who was struggling in algebra. The teacher insisted both would benefit, but as it turned out the struggling geometry student received no help in her area of weakness. Based on other conversations with this teacher, it was clear that the intended benefit was to strengthen social connections, promoting compassion and self-esteem that would ultimately pay off in improved geometry skills. Spare me.
Not supported by research
The 2008 National Mathematics Advisory Panel reviewed “instruction in which students are primarily doing the teaching”, finding “only eight studies that met our standards for quality”. Additionally, the Panel found 20 high-quality studies of cooperative and collaborative learning. The only definitive benefit to students shown by any of these studies was an improvement in computation skills. I’m imagining a scenario where one student is helping another in drilling math facts. I can buy that. Otherwise, peer teaching seems to be a waste of precious classroom time. Here is how the Panel puts it.
There is suggestive evidence that peer tutoring improves computation skills in the elementary grades. However, additional research is needed.
Some math kids like to tutor and are probably good at it, but I tend to think of teaching as a separate gift. I know many people who are masters at what they do but can’t explain it worth a darn.
I want expert teachers, not other students, teaching my kids.
Unfortunately, I have many anecdotes about the downsides of peer teaching. A bright fifth-grader I know decided it was best to clam up after being derided as a know-it-all in his collaborative learning group. So much for learning compassion and self-esteem.
* Peer teaching is included as part of various “cooperative”, “student-centered” learning strategies, with names like Team Assisted Individualization, Student Teams-Achievement Division, and peer-to-peer learning.