Turning Peer Pressure Inside Out

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The best statement of the peer principle came from Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous: "Drunks don't need a drink," he said, "they need a drunk." This concept became the basis of a worldwide movement and has spread to many groups beyond AA.

The essential idea is that people are influenced, and can be helped best, by others who share their problem or condition.

Among young people, it is critical to understand that they are far more influenced by each other--their peers--than by parents, teachers, or other adults in their lives. Young people talk the same language and listen to each other. For better or worse, they model themselves on other young people. Peers have a profound effect on each other's fashions, social attitudes, decisions about drugs and sex, and tastes in entertainment. Recent research by Laurence Steinberg and others in Beyond the Classroom found that, while parents have little influence on youngsters' attitudes toward school, peers are very influential, largely in a negative direction, as they often disparage education and learning.

What strategy flows from this analysis? For some, the answer is to teach parents how to overcome their communication problems with their children. For example, the Partnership Against Drugs attempts to teach parents how to talk more directly with their children about drug problems.

All of this is contrary to the peer principle, which sees the fundamental dynamic in different terms. We believe that deep, lasting change, individually and structurally, must ultimately come from sharing with like individuals. It is not hierarchical, not top-down. But a problem arises in relation to negative peer pressure among young people. How does one turn around negativity to become positive peer learning, counseling, and mentoring?

One way is to build on the tacit alliance between adults in schools (teachers, counselors, administrators) and those young people who are concerned with more positive behavior. It is an association that builds on students' strengths, style, and similarity--they understand each other--combined with the teaching and training skills of the school staff. Each of the partners is allied in sending critical messages: "It's good to achieve." "Drugs ruin people's lives." "There is a lot to look forward to."

While there is unquestionably much negativity in peer influence, there are clearly lots of young people who oppose violence in schools and drug abuse, want to reduce sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy, and are dedicated to their own academic advancement and that of their classmates. These individuals require no conversion. They form the core or cadre of peer programs. Together with their teacher allies, they aim to win or convert numerous allies.

This whole approach capitalizes on the peer principle, in contrast to the parental strategy proposed in Beyond the Classroom. A parental strategy has a role, but it is not built on the immense power of the young people themselves.

Every proposal for reforming schools emphasizes either teachers or administrators or parents or class size, but overlooks the one most crucial change agent--young people. The standard response to the suggestion of putting young people first is that we already do--schools are all about kids and for them. But rarely are schools by them or even with them. They are being ignored as the prime constituency of schools. The opportunity of using students as agents of change is being squandered.

By applying the peer principle to schools, we are not suggesting that youngsters run the schools. What we are proposing already exists in some measure: students involved in processes such as peer tutoring, counseling, and mentoring. There are literally thousands of student-to-student programs against AIDS, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy and for academic achievement.

Research shows that programs such as peer drug education, peer tutoring, peer mediation, peer mentoring, and youth "help lines" are effective and, equally important, cost-effective. A Stanford University study found that cross-age student tutoring was most cost-effective in comparison with three other well-known reform strategies: reduced class size, computer-assisted instruction, and a longer school day. An evaluation of peer tutoring in the San Francisco Peer Resource Program noted substantial improvements in student attitudes and behavior and had a ripple effect on the school's culture and overall dynamics. The Peer Assisted Learning program in Texas has dramatically improved the performance of its teenage participants in the areas of grades, school attendance, and student morale.

The key to all this peer activity is peer tutoring. Its great power derives from its one-to-one characteristic combined with the dynamic potential of peer relationships. Moreover, the chief beneficiaries appear to be the tutors. In the past, advanced students progressed exponentially by volunteering as tutors for underachievers. The rich got richer as they learned and mastered material by taking on the responsibility of teaching it to others.

We propose giving all students the chance to play the role of tutor. Those struggling in high school math, for example, can tutor youngsters in the primary grades in arithmetic. Peer tutoring is a powerful tool and a source of a double benefit as both those tutored and tutoring gain. When older students mentor younger students, those mentored get guidance in coping with growing up, and the mentors assume responsibility in a way that fosters adult behavior on their part.

A quiet revolution is taking place. Young people and their teachers are working together to oppose negative peer pressure and influences so that the beginning of a new school ethos of caring and cooperation can emerge. There are, however, stubborn constraints and cautions:

  • Quantity. There are not enough peer programs in place nationwide. There are no peer-centered schools.
  • Awareness. Educators don't understand fully the potential and significance of peer programs in relation to reforming schools.
  • Connections. Peer programs tend to be fragmented and not connected to other peer approaches in the schools.
  • Teachers. Many teachers are resistant to changing their roles radically from imparters of information to facilitators of a learning process in which their students do more of the teaching.

The transformative power of the peer principle is not widely understood or systematically applied.

The scope and positive impact of peer programs could be expanded greatly by giving all students the opportunity of playing the helping role. It is through the act of helping others that really powerful learning takes place for the helper. We need educational visionaries to lead schools in this process of unlocking this learning and helping power. Students, indeed, are the most overlooked resource in our schools.

Audrey Gartner and Frank Riessman are the co-directors of the Peer Research Laboratory at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York in New York City.

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Page 36

Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Turning Peer Pressure Inside Out
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