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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: The Value of ‘Peer Teaching’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 20, 2018 20 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

Part Two in this series included commentaries by Rita Platt, Paul Solarz, Laurie Buffington, Dr. Laura Greenstein, and Anne Taffin d’Heursel Baldisseri..

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

Response From Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a national-board-certified 8th grade English/language arts teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom and The Flexible SEL Classroom. She’s the president of her district teachers’ union and a columnist for ShareMyLesson and American Middle Level Educator:

I learned a long time ago that I’m hardly ever the best teacher in the room, no matter how hard I try to engage, impress, and excite children about what we are learning. Rather, students themselves magnetize learning for their peers, creating a draw that could only develop via peer pressure. We’ve demonized peer pressure, but, when facilitated wisely, it can provide a “stickiness” that will help students make learning their own.

The primary way that I utilize students’ magnetism is through our Passion Projects. Passion Projects are designed to showcase the interests of the students, their talents, and to engage other students in the learning. Students are given approximately a month to read at least 100 pages on the topic of their choice, write a “review of the literature,” and create two projects that deepen their learning on the topic. They then create a Google slideshow that will share what they’ve been up to while piquing the interest of their fellow students who are gleaning great background knowledge from their friends. In practice, these projects vary widely and are almost always cross-curricular. Parents, administrators, and fellow students who aren’t in the class are invited to the presentations, and word travels quickly when someone does something “cool.” This type of built-in motivation is important for those students who are not compliant because of external motivations; giving students freedom to be themselves and share who they are works wonders. Students often want their other teachers to come see their presentation because they had been inspired from something in class.

Last year there was a boy who wanted to understand how to drive a golf ball farther. Part of his presentation was to show us a variety of golf balls sliced down the center and allow us to make predictions about which core (the inside of the ball) was more effective, and he went on to show us a video of himself driving the golf balls. He used his science skills to create an excellent public presentation with a technological component, all while engaging his peers. They were exposed to his scientific ideas, information about golf, and even the methodology of cutting the balls in half—which was hands down the students’ favorite part.

I had another young man who demonstrated how to do a DNA extraction with a student’s gargled salt water. It was June. It was 87 degrees in my classroom. We were all “done” in ways that it is hard to pinpoint, but when Santi asked for a volunteer, every student perked up. When the experiment was done, and he was showing students how clumps of DNA float to the top of the beaker, I literally couldn’t get them to leave my room. I had to write three late passes that day! Would this have happened if I were the one delivering content? Probably not. Could I even do the experiment that had fascinated my students? Probably, but it never would have occurred to me, since it isn’t my passion.

In the end, we live in a world that is automated, often virtual, always changing, and it has changed exponentially since I began teaching almost 20 years ago. The one constant that has made teaching worthwhile for me, and my classroom a vibrant place to be, is the relationships that I can foster both with and between my students. One can never truly “get ahead of the curve,” but I feel comfortable that 21st-century learning must allow students to construct their learning together, and the best way to do that is to personalize it to their passions.

Response From Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny has been teaching for over 20 years, is passionate about middle-level education, and serves on the faculty of the AMLE Institute for Middle Level Leadership. Her practice is guided by her belief in reaching every student and educating the whole child. She currently teaches 6th grade English in Michigan and writes an education blog, It’s Not Easy Being Tween, for Middleweb.com:

Peer teaching is one of the most effective ways I have found to ensure student engagement and retention of knowledge. On a regular basis, I use cooperative-learning techniques such as turn and talk, think-pair-share, fishbowl discussions, or group problem solving.

At times, I want to stretch students to think more deeply. One way to do this is a “You Be the Teacher” project. In a nutshell, students work in collaborative groups to take ownership of a standard or topic to be taught. It is not difficult to implement. Groups may be assigned by the teacher, randomly chosen, or student-selected. I prefer random or student-selected as I am not fond of the mixed-ability, teacher-selected form of grouping so often used in classrooms. First, we brainstorm some of what goes into a strong, engaging lesson. In other words, what do they like to do in class. I share with them some of Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate hooks as well as how to reach higher levels of thinking via Bloom’s taxonomy or Webb’s Depths of Knowledge. Then they must work on creating their lesson plan as a group, and I provide the lesson-plan template.

The requirements of the project will depend on the age level of your students and the breadth of the topic. It could be something they work on for a day and present in a couple of minutes or it could be extensive and become a large project. It could also be something you do during those times right before a vacation when you need something new. (For a twist before a vacation, students could even teach a noncurricular topic that is something they are an expert in such as yo-yoing, cartooning, or tap dancing.) Depending on the goal, students are given clear expectations such as a time limit, an interactive activity, a whole-class activity, a digital/video component, accuracy of information, and a written information piece. These projects could be shared for the class via Padlet, Flipgrid, a Google site, or the like. This would allow students to refer back to the information prior to an assessment.

The final component should be a self-reflection piece where students answer questions such as: What went well? Were your students engaged? What would you change or improve in your lesson if you taught this again? How did you work together as a group? What is the most important thing you learned? What was the most/least fun part of the project? What suggestions do you have to improve this project? (I always ask this of every project because the information I receive is so valuable.) This reflection is where the true growth and development happens. Who knows, they may even appreciate all the work that goes into what teachers do on a daily basis? As a bonus, the teacher can see what the students find engaging and how they may want to be taught. This project is fun for me and the students so it’s a win-win.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is currently an instructional coach at the Shanghai American School in China. He also serves on the national faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, where he consults on a variety of topics. He has worked with educators in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Dominican Republic:

If we want students to engage in teaching each other, it must be for an important and meaningful reason. Sometimes we create assignments or projects and we have a presentation or product they do to teach other classmates. I think before rushing to what students will teach, we need to focus on why students will teach. Ask yourself, what could be an authentic reason for your students to teach their peers? Which peers would find this knowledge important and valuable? If you don’t focus on the why, then students will simply comply and share their information and most likely regurgitate the knowledge rather than exhibit critical thinking.

There can be many reasons why. For example, perhaps you jigsaw the content and have students present the information they learned in small groups. Here the authentic reason and “why” is to share information with others that don’t know and need to know. Another reason might be that it will be interesting and engaging to their peers, like a passion, or interesting insight on a topic. Furthermore, it might be that the overall project uses a powerful driving question that is more than simply teaching, but helping and supporting one another in honoring community members, or sharing ideas for embracing different cultures. When we focus on authenticity, students teaching students is not only more engaging, but also deeper learning.

Response From Dr. Karen Goeller

Dr. Karen Goeller serves as a K-12 deputy superintendent and adjunct instructor for graduate leadership education. She has been a curriculum director, assistant principal, dean, and teacher. She recently published Six Steps to Boost Student Learning: A Leader’s Guide (New York: Routledge, 2018):

Peer Data Discussions

Peer data discussions are easy ways to power up student learning in any classroom setting. These simple forums enable students to talk in structured ways about “How am I doing in this class?” “What is the quality of my work performance?” and “How can I improve?” When students think more strategically about their progress, they develop confidence in their own abilities to grow and learn. Students see the big picture of their learning and better understand how their daily actions influence their long-term goals.

Early in the year, teachers need to plan and carefully craft the peer data discussions. Teachers should create timelines so that meaningful data work is spread throughout the year. Having a simple and clear protocol set up in advance will ensure the strategy’s success. Then, once students understand the routine and expectations, the discussions will become a natural extension of classroom lessons.

Peer Data Discussion Protocol

Students are placed in small groups of three or four members.

A different student is selected as the leader for each group discussion.

Teachers return student -ork products, classroom assessments, and other progress reports.

Student leaders facilitate discussions with peers using guided questions:

What are the learning goals that we have had for this unit of study? What has been important for us

to learn and why?

How are we assessing our progress toward this learning? What are our strengths and opportunities

for growth on our classroom assessments? How much effort and skill have we shown in our work


Students record their progress toward individual goals in data notebooks or other data-collection tools.

Students process the data using a variety of charts and graphs.

Students write summaries from guided questions about their progress:

What intentional strategies did you use in your work?

Did the strategies help you make progress?

How do you know you improved?

How can you bring about more growth with different strategies in the future?

Early in the year, teachers should demonstrate steps within the Peer Data Discussion Protocol. Modeling use of guided questions, along with effective speaking and listening skills, will promote the right attitudes about data use from the start. And, showing students different ways to represent their progress with simple graphs and charts will ensure that they process the data efficiency. When teachers think aloud about their own use of strategies while writing summative narratives, students will understand how the choices they make impact their learning.

The collaborative discussions give students simple ways to teach and learn from others. Varying the group leaders sets the tone of high expectations for data use from all students. From this peer leadership, students develop positive attitudes about data use as they become self-assured, independent learners.

Having regular data discussions ensures that students understand where they are in their learning, and as data partners, teachers have easy ways to seamlessly and continuously use student-data monitoring to inform instructional activities. For systemic school improvement, data use must become part of everyday learning. By adding peer data discussions at the student level, there is more likelihood that real student improvement will occur and that the school will move closer toward a culture of inquiry and growth.

Response From Michael D. Toth

Michael D. Toth is the author of the award-winning book, Who Moved My Standards, the co-author with David Sousa of Improving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning Through Academic Teaming (forthcoming, 2019), and the co-author with Dr. Robert J. Marzano of The Essentials of a Standards-Based Classroom, School Leadership for Results, and Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference. Toth founded Learning Sciences International, where he serves as the CEO and leads LSI’s Applied Research Center. Toth addresses teachers, school leaders, and superintendents at national conferences, policy forums, and workshops, including past addresses to the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Peer Teaching and Coaching Through Academic Teams

Peer teaching and coaching is a key element in the development of students’ social-emotional skills, as well as other crucial 21st--century workforce skills like critical thinking and creative problem solving.

We have found the best way to embed peer teaching and coaching in daily classroom instruction is by shifting to a team-centered model of instruction. Students step up to support each other when the proper team structures are in place.

Arguably ,student teams that have more peer coaching have more student learning, as illustrated in Improving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning Through Academic Teaming(Sousa & Toth, in press). This is a healthy sign of what we call teaming effects that result from strong team structures, well-defined roles, and norms. Our field research has shown when these structures produce teaming effects such as use of academic vocabulary in student discourse and debate, self- and peer-regulation and -encouragement and students owning the team results, that peer teaching and coaching is a natural result.

Techniques for Beginning Student Grouping

To help support productive peer teaching and coaching in academic teams, we recommend at minimum the roles below for each team:

  1. The facilitator, who ensures that every group member participates equally and keeps track of time.
  2. The success-criteria quality checker, who tracks the group’s progress to the learning target and ensures that every member is learning according to the success criteria.

To establish conditions for peer teaching and coaching, we have seen teachers post and regularly reinforce the following classroom norms:

  1. Respect others by: not talking out of turn; being kind to others; being appropriate.
  2. Disagreeing: look at the person; use a nice voice; tell how you feel; give a reason; listen to the other person.
  3. Before you start a task: read learning target to your group; read success criteria to your group; read the task; pick out important information; explain how the task will demonstrate the learning target and the success criteria; plan your work using the success criteria.

Teachers often post “question stems” as communication guidelines during peer teaching and coaching:

  1. “Have you tried...?”
  2. “Did you think about...?”
  3. “What is your evidence?”
  4. “I agree/disagree with you because...”
  5. “Can you explain why you think that?”

From Grouping to Teaming

Once students are comfortable with teacher-imposed roles, norms, and communication guidelines, the classroom can begin moving into team-centered instruction. In a team-centered classroom, students take ownership of their learning and that of their peers while completing the task. Students no longer rely on the teacher or on scripted supports; conversations and debates become natural. In a team-centered classroom, peer teaching and coaching becomes embedded in the classroom culture, and students develop highly advanced SEL and other critical 21st-century skills.

Response From Megan Bang, Laura M. Brady, Stephanie A. Fryberg, and Mary C. Murphy

Dr. Megan Bang is an associate professor of learning sciences and human development at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on improving the quality of life and educational opportunities for youth, families, and communities historically disadvantaged by education, with a central focus on indigenous peoples and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) education.

Dr. Laura Brady is a research Associate at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on understanding how culture, social class, and race shape educational experiences and opportunities, and how schools can build more inclusive, motivating environments for students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Dr. Stephanie Fryberg is a professor of psychology and American Indian Studies at the University of Washington. Her primary research interests examine how social representations of race, culture, and social class influence the development of self, psychological well-being, and educational attainment. Her most recent intervention research focuses on scaling up a model for building culturally inclusive growth-mindset classrooms.

Dr. Mary Murphy is an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences and associate vice provost for student diversity and inclusion at Indiana University. In the realm of education, her research illuminates the situational cues that influence students’ academic motivation and achievement with an emphasis on understanding when those processes are similar and different for majority and minority students:

Peer-to-peer teaching is a powerful way of leveraging students’ existing knowledge to deepen their own and their peers’ engagement with course material. In our work, we take peer-to-peer teaching a step further, using this practice to help teachers build culturally inclusive growth-mindset (CIGM) classrooms. The core beliefs of CIGM classrooms are that 1) students from all backgrounds (e.g., race/class/gender) belong and can make valuable contributions; and 2) all students can grow through effective effort, persistence, and support from teachers and peers. CIGM classrooms are inclusive, collaborative environments where students take risks, embrace challenges, and support one another’s learning and growth. All students feel valued, included, and respected, and they make (and learn from) mistakes without fearing that they will be judged. Rather than focusing on perfect performance, students understand that learning involves growth, and teachers celebrate all students’ progress as evidence of learning.

Over the past two years, we have worked with hundreds of educators and thousands of students to understand how to build CIGM classrooms. Peer-to-peer teaching is one of our key CIGM practices. Many traditional approaches view peer-to-peer teaching as a means of deepening knowledge for successful students while improving understanding for struggling students. A CIGM approach, however, breaks down the notion that certain students are “good” students while others are “strugglers” and creates an environment where all students learn from one another. In CIGM classrooms, students’ diverse cultural experiences and perspectives are resources that enhance learning by challenging the class to engage with class material in different ways.

CIGM peer-to-peer teaching requires effective planning to ensure that all students can contribute without fear of failure or judgment. When planning for peer-to-peer teaching, educators should:

  • Recognize that certain cultural norms and perspectives are disproportionately represented as “good” or “right” in educational settings (e.g., white/middle-class norms), which can undermine racial-minority and low-income students’ engagement and performance.
  • Frame peer-to-peer teaching as a collaborative activity that helps students grow from each other’s perspectives and strategies.
  • Communicate that all students can make valuable contributions—there is no “right” way to learn.
  • Ensure that all students share their perspectives/strategies, acting as both “teachers” and “learners.”
  • Group students so that they are exposed to—and try out—multiple perspectives/strategies.
  • Develop a positive theory of failure among students—celebrate mistakes, challenges, and struggle as opportunities to grow together.
  • Uphold progress (e.g., growth, trial and error, learning from mistakes) rather than performance as a key metric of success.

CIGM peer-to-peer teaching can engage students who are often marginalized in educational contexts while orienting all students toward growth. However, this practice is likely most effective when the whole classroom culture reflects and reinforces CIGM values. We conclude with questions to guide teachers in building CIGM classrooms that support effective peer-to-peer teaching:

  • Planning for Instruction: How will you structure the activity/environment to ensure that all students feel comfortable participating and believe they can succeed?
  • Framing New Material: How will you destigmatize the classroom and develop a positive theory of failure/struggle (i.e., make it OK for students to be confused, make mistakes, or need more time)?
  • Giving Feedback: How will you respond to mistakes so that students don’t feel personally invalidated or demotivated?
  • Teaching Diverse Learning Strategies: How will you ensure that students are exposed to and experiment with different ideas, approaches, or perspectives?
  • Assessing Student Learning: How will you orient students toward persistence and effort rather than perfect performance?
  • Building Classroom Cultures: What guidelines will you give students for supporting and respecting one another?
  • Inclusion Practices: How will you welcome diverse people and celebrate their contributions to the learning community?

Thanks to Amber, Cheryl, Andrew, Karen, Michael, Megan, Laura, Stephanie, and Mary 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.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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