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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Students as Teachers in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 21, 2018 9 min read
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(This is the last post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective strategies for having students teach their classmates and other peers?

Part One‘s contributors were Bobson Wong, Adeyemi Stembridge, Jennifer Davis Bowman, Starr Sackstein, Kathy Dyer, and Rachelle Dene Poth. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Bobson, Adeyemi, and Starr on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

The second post in the series included commentaries by Rita Platt, Paul Solarz, Laurie Buffington, Dr. Laura Greenstein, and Anne Taffin d’Heursel Baldisseri.

In Part Three, Amber Chandler, Cheryl Mizerny, Andrew Miller, Dr. Karen Goeller, Michael D. Toth, Megan Bang, Laura M. Brady, Stephanie A. Fryberg, and Mary C. Murphy shared their ideas.

This series will be wrapped-up today with responses from Bryan Goodwin, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Sarah Thomas, and Bradley Witzel.

Response From Bryan Goodwin

Bryan Goodwin is the CEO of Denver-based McREL International. He thrives on translating research into practice, scanning the world for new insights and best practices on teaching and leading, and helping educators everywhere adapt them to address their own challenges. A frequent conference presenter, he is the author of Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success and the co-author of The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching and Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School. Before joining McREL in 1998, Bryan was a college instructor, a high school teacher, and an award-winning business journalist:

Reciprocal teaching and peer feedback are two techniques that are important to us at McREL because we believe that education isn’t just about imparting knowledge, it’s about supporting one another with lifelong thinking skills.

Reciprocal teaching is a good strategy to help students capture, organize, and reflect on important facts, concepts, ideas, and processes they will need to access later.

As described in Classroom Instruction That Works (2012), reciprocal teaching consists of four comprehension strategies: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. After seeing these modeled by the teacher, students assume four roles, one for each strategy.

The summarizer reads a short passage and summarizes it. (Other students are welcome to chime in with their observations about the passage.) The questioner then asks questions that are designed to help elicit important information. As they progress, the teacher can guide the group in questioning more deeply—for example, with questions that require inferences or the application of new information from a text.

The job of the clarifier is to be on the lookout for hurdles to understanding, such as vocabulary or pronunciations that may be unfamiliar to group members, and to help make meaning clear for everybody by rereading or asking for help. Before the group moves on to the next passage, the predictor asks the group what they think will happen next and records their predictions. To perform this key stage effectively, the predictor must review the relevant information that the group already possesses about the topic.

Now the group has an incentive to keep reading: to find out if they were right! I’f you’re looking to use this process in your classroom, we’ve created some free resources that you can find here.

Peer feedback, meanwhile, has a lot in common with the peer-coaching model we advocate for teachers. It can be uncomfortable for students at first (as it can be for professionals!) so in our book The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching (2013), we identified several protocols teachers can provide to make students feel relaxed about assessing one another. Sentence stems can help: “One thing that really confuses me is ______,” or “One thing I understand so well that I could teach it to others is _____.” Tactics with names like “two stars and a wish” and “praise and polish” give students opportunities to praise, provide suggestions, and pose questions to one another.

To prevent peer feedback from getting unruly, the teacher should be sure students are familiar with a rubric or set of criteria so they focus their feedback on the most important aspects of the presentation.

Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr.Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at the University of Cambridge but lives most of the year in California writing books for educators like Engaging and Challenging Gifted Students. A Mensan who volunteers as assistant coordinator of Mensa’s Gifted Youth Program, Dr. Rankin has a Ph.D. in education and served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education and research officer:

Encouraging students to teach and learn from one another can be helpful for students. However, too often gifted students are used as unofficial teacher assistants when this strategy is mishandled or overused. Such a role is detrimental to gifted children, as it does not involve sustained engagement with the higher levels of rigor for which they are ready.

However, differentiated instruction (when teachers provide different learning options and/or roles to students so that each child receives the best instruction he or she specifically needs at any given time) offers hope. If the teaching activity charges each student with advancing his or her own learning, peer teaching can be handled in a way that benefits higher-achieving students while also benefiting struggling learners, who often gain access to lessons when they are taught with peer language.

As an example of how this can be done well, consider a Model United Nations (UN) class I took in high school. Our teacher was great at asking higher-achieving students to explain concepts in constructive ways. He’d use recent, previous measures to station us in readiness-based groups, and students who had scored midrange on a concept would get started on their activity. Meanwhile, those of us who’d already mastered the concept would be briefly paired with low performers for our “starter challenge”, where:

  • The higher-achieving students would each have a timed minute to give our “best explanation possible” of the concept while applying it to our assigned country (in Model UN, each student is assigned a country).

  • The lower-performing students would all serve as the listeners for these minutes; they had the task of being the judges, voting on the explanation they liked best while mirroring how voting occurs in Model UN.

This practice helped the higher-achieving students solidify the concept in our own minds before we moved on to more advanced work for the rest of the class period. This also helped the low performers hear the concept explained in a variety of ways in peer-friendly language, while still requiring these students to come up with their own applications to their own countries, preparing them to work on mastering the concept. The system also kept low performers in a respected and contributing role (which is absolutely vital). It complemented Model UN structure and also helped the teacher manage different mastery levels within a single class.

There is, however, one important change I would make to this lesson. I would opt for labels that are more positive and pertinent to the role in an activity—such as “judge” or “presenter"—as opposed to my teacher’s choice of very direct labels based on the previous day’s performance—high, medium, and low. Students don’t need to know why they’re in one group rather than another, and they certainly don’t need to know their peers’ performance data.

All students should be simultaneously engaged in activities that are best for them, without any students functioning as unofficial teacher assistants. If teachers stick to this rule, they can find all kinds of creative and effective possibilities for kids to teach and learn from one another while simultaneously advancing their own educations.

Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas, Ph.D., is a regional technology coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland. She is also a Google certified innovator, Google education trainer, and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest:

Peer-to-peer learning is very effective for students (as well as for us as lifelong learners). A great way for students to do so is creating videos for one another. Also, one classroom reward I have used in the past has been “Teacher of the Day,” where the student and I would plan a lesson, and the student would facilitate it on a given day. Finally, student edcamps are a great way for them to learn with each other.

Response From Bradley Witzel

Bradley Witzel, Ph.D., is an award-winning teacher and researcher who works as a full professor and program director of the MEd in Intervention at Winthrop University. Dr. Witzel has authored 10 books and delivered nearly 500 presentations on strategies for students with academic needs:

Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) is a systematic way to assign partners that has resulted in high effect sizes. It is a very specific strategy that requires preparation and precision of implementation. This IES report explains the approach and the research.

The three tasks of PALS are as follows:

Task 1: Partner Reading

Student 1 reads the passage aloud with Student 2 following along. The roles are switched, and then the passage is read again.

Task 2: Paragraph Shrinking

Both students read aloud and then summarize and state the main ideas from the passage. The partners check each other for their comprehension.

Task 3: Prediction Relay

Student 1 predicts the possible information present in the next half of the text and then reads aloud from the passage to find the information. Both students take turns predicting text.

Adapted from The Peer Assisted Learning Strategy In The Classroom.

Thanks to Bryan, Jenny, Sarah, and Bradley for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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