Peer teaching for my kids? No thanks

by Grace

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.

Are most kids good at teaching?

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.

Related:  Proficiency grouping makes more sense than differentiated instruction (Cost of College)

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5 Responses to “Peer teaching for my kids? No thanks”

  1. Having students simply “teach” other students is a recipe for disaster. However, there is a strategy that is becoming more popular in higher education science courses, called Peer Instruction, which seems to work well according to research. I’ve been to workshops and have been adapting it into my classes. The key to this is that it is structured, and it isn’t really about students teaching each other but rather, students working through hard questions together. I often wonder though, if the main reason it works is that it forces students to not fall asleep during class.

    http://db.grinnell.edu/sigcse/sigcse2013/Program/viewAcceptedProposal.pdf?sessionType=paper&sessionNumber=176
    http://newfaculty.mst.edu/media/campussupport/newfaculty/documents/MazurActiveLearning.pdf

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  2. I agree that a key to Peer Instruction’s success is that it is well structured. It uses clickers that give the teacher immediate feedback, which I would think is critical in the execution of this. Clickers would seem to be a great tool for teachers, but again it depends on how (or if) teachers use that feedback.

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  3. Because my experiences with peer teaching have been positive, I encourage my kids to look for opportunities to do so also. I worked as a math tutor in college, and was in study groups for many of my classes (one prof required everyone in his classes to be in study groups).

    I believe it takes a deeper level of understanding of a subject to teach it than to do well as a student, so peer teaching benefits the teacher. I don’t believe teaching is a gift; it is a skill at which some are more gifted than others, so peer teaching is also an opportunity to develop that skill.

    Students also respond better to some teaching techniques and styles than others, and peer teaching gives them the opportunity to experience more of those that they otherwise would.

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  4. I think college study groups are usually a good idea, as are tutoring centers. Peer editing for writing assignments can work well, (or sometimes not). These examples are very different from most peer teaching that goes on in K-12.

    I agree that teaching is a skill and not a gift, although some teachers do seem to have a special “gift”. But then, to support peer teaching we must believe that most students have learned or been taught the skill of teaching, which I do not believe is true. There are simply many social, skill, and knowledge issues that make peer teaching more harmful than beneficial.

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