Teachers, Take a Step Back

Let Your Students Teach One Another

So far, I’ve suggested two ways for teachers to hack English literary studies and facilitate the independent, extracurricular reading practices of students. The first one urges teachers to take those practices into extracurricular spaces. The second one reinforces the value of the first by having teachers bring into the space of the classroom certain attitudes and behaviours that typically have no curricular value. Both of them work towards collapsing the boundaries between the academic and social spheres, thus allowing students’ engagement with literature to flow freely back and forth between the two.

Still, though, there’s another dimension of the social sphere that remains in need of hacking. I’m referring to the network of peer-to-peer relationships that exist among students not only outside of the classroom but altogether outside of structured learning environments. Great educators know that it’s not just the case that this network can be hacked to help students make educational gains. Great educators know that hacking this network is one of the very best ways to help students make gains that last for a long time.

Peer-to-peer tutoring operates on the same principle as teachers modelling vulnerability, opening up a space for students to learn by doing. Recent research shows that students learn more productively, acquiring and retaining knowledge and skills, if they learn from and with their peers rather than directly from a teacher. The results are better across the board because, with peer-to-peer tutoring, strong students are empowered to instruct others, thereby reinforcing their own gains, and weaker students in social contact with their stronger peers are unconsciously and even habitually exposed to academic best practices in a variety of non-academic contexts.

Peer-to-peer tutoring works, in short, because it allows learning to not look like learning at all. Stronger students learn better through performing actions that don’t look like the sort of learning they’re accustomed to, and weaker students learn better through social exchanges that occur in places they don’t associate with learning at all. Weaker students, in particular, are significantly more likely to seek informal assistance from superior peers than they are to seek assistance of any kind from older student guides, academic mentors, teachers, or anyone in a position of authority. They are the ones most ready to take their learning outside of the classroom, and to take responsibility for it in the process, as long as they have peers they know they can turn to for help.

How Do I Get It Off the Ground?

Here’s just one simple way that I let peer-to-peer tutoring work in my classroom, with results that extend beyond the classroom. After I’ve run some diagnostic exercises and acquired some sense of how well each student is performing in relation to all the others, I rank roughly them according to ability. So, for the sake of mathematical simplicity, let’s say I’ve got twenty-four students with Student A being the strongest and Student X being the weakest. I divide them into four groups of six, A - F, G- L, M - R, and S- X. Then I pair up each of the top three students in each group with one of the bottom three in the same group: A with D, B with E, C with F, and so on. This means that the strongest students in the class are not working with the weakest overall, but only with the weakest of the top quarter of students, and the weakest overall are working with the strongest of the weaker students: S with V, T with W, U with X, and so on. It’d be counterproductive to student morale to have the weakest students working with the strongest students, because they would be continuously conscious of their own weakness and because, after all, incremental learning is more successful in the long-term than trying to find ways for students to make sudden leaps ahead.

I then devise three variations on a particular exercise: one relatively easy, one relatively difficult, and one more or less average, wherein the increases in difficulty involve the use of increasingly complex skills. I give the easy exercise to the weakest member of each pair of students, and I give the difficult exercise to the strongest member of each pair, and I ask all students to complete it independently. Generally, I pitch the difficult exercise at a level that would be appropriate for the strongest students in the class, so they can complete it with few problems while I offer assistance to the weaker students who have received the same difficult exercise because they are the stronger members of a weak pair. Then I ask all students to get into pairs, I give all pairs the average exercise, and from that point I am totally hands-off: it is up to the pairs to complete the exercise, with the stronger student in each pair tutoring his or her weaker companion because he or she has already practised the skills necessary to complete the more difficult variation on the exercise.

With later exercises, I switch it around so that each student has had a chance to be the lead learner in a pair, and sometimes I create larger groups from pairs of pairs. On the whole, though, this is how it begins. Each student has a peer who is stronger than themselves in some respects and weaker than themselves in other respects. This peer is one to whom they can impart certain knowledge and skills and from whom they can acquire other knowledge and skills. Most importantly, though, this peer is also one with whom students are generally familiar and comfortable enough to socialise outside the classroom, and in the process of doing that, they simultaneously interact with a model of best practices and present themselves as a model for others in a context that seems to have little to do with where they are when they’re with me.