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Students Teaching Students – The Peer Math Experiment

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by Neil Finney

Questioning ourselves can often be the first step on the road to redemption – and student success.

A few years ago, students in my class were given a math problem to complete. The question involved solving an equation with one variable (e.g. 2x + 5 = 11). In the classes leading up to this activity, we had learned about variables, how to isolate them and how to solve for the unknown. Or at least, I thought the class had learned about these things. What I found as I walked around the room to see how students were doing is that about half the class did not, in fact, know how to solve the problem.

My first reaction was frustration since I knew that I had taken the time to teach the lessons needed to attain this skill. How could they not understand how to do this? We have been over this for days now? Were they not listening? Was I not reaching them? What am I missing here?

I put my own practice under the lens for a moment and realized that the problem could lie in many places. The most important thing at this moment was to teach a skill (i.e. solving math equations) to the students – in one way or another. I asked the class to hold up the whiteboards that they were working on, and I took note of the students who had the correct process and response. I asked those students to move to the left side of the room.

The students who did not demonstrate the skill were paired up with students who were successful. It was the job of the students who already knew how to solve the equation to teach the other student. I wrote a new set of equations on the board and asked them to complete 3 together.

Now in an intermediate classroom, you might find that the student who already knows how to solve the questions will just go ahead and do it – without teaching their peer. To remedy this, I announced that the marks for the “peer teachers” depended on the success of their teaching of their assigned “peer student.” There would be a reflection following the ‘peer teaching’ lesson and the results received by the “peer helper” would be the same as “the helped”.

The shift in mindset was complete. Collaborative motivation and commitment skyrocketed. In fact, some of the pairings (that would not have otherwise cooperated) found a way to make it work and be successful. I found a resource in the classroom that exponentially improved my teaching success. Why be the “talking head,” when you can use the many heads around you to help educate?

Think of a time when you have been taught something by a peer. What made it so successful for you? In what ways could peer teaching allow us to reach our students in unconventional ways?

During Neilʼs 9 years of teaching experience, he has taught in London, England; Ontario; public and private schools; elementary and secondary; junior; intermediate; core french; developmental skills; and now junior gifted (grades 4,5,6). He is a Reading Specialist that has been incorporating technology in his practice consistently throughout his career. Neil has recently published his first book entitled “Ignite. Incite. Inspire.” – Examining 21st Century Issues in Education, which is a collection of teaching articles and posts written from January to December 2011.

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