We’ve all experienced the forest of hands which come from setting a challenging task. The forest is especially dense in lessons for younger students, but I have known more than half of a Sixth Form class to have their hands in the air at times. What can be done to respond to your students’ desire for help without giving them the answer or stifling their curiosity?
3B before me
I try my best to promote independent learning by encouraging ‘3B before me’: before students put their hands in the air, they should first use their brain, then their book (perhaps a textbook), then their buddy (on either side), before coming to the teacher as the last port of call. (In some models this final stage is called ‘the boss’, but this may not sit comfortably with your perceptions of your role as a teacher!) I back this up with ‘3B before me’ posters on the wall and verbal reminders before I set tricky work.
I really do recommend this strategy, which was first brought to my attention just a few years ago, at one of Bradford Grammar School’s Teaching and Learning twilight INSET sessions. However, sometimes the hands just spring back up and it is so tempting to just give your students the answer… or give them a hint… or show them what to do on the whiteboard… or go to one of the ones with their hands down who you know you can rely upon to put the class out of its misery!
But to do any of these things would not only set back the course of independent learning, but it would also tire you out and tempt you to set less challenging work next time. So, what can you do to augment the ‘3B before me’ strategy?
Judiciously applied, peer teaching can help.
Peer teaching, at its simplest, is using students to advise and/or instruct their fellow class mates. I find that it is its most effective, at least in Geography, in the context of ‘skills’-based competencies, such as using GIS or other IT software, and in techniques involving paper maps (such as grid references and measuring distances). I applied it this week when teaching relief on maps, using four cross-section tasks of increasing levels of difficulty:
- I demonstrated the start of the easiest cross-section on the whiteboard, involving pupils by asking them to tell me where I should draw the crosses on the line
- Pupils worked through their cross-sections. I reminded the pupils of the expectation to carry out ‘3B before me’
- I toured the class to trouble-shoot the remaining queries
- Once the first pupil had finished, I told him – and the rest of the class – that he was a cross-section expert, and therefore could be called upon to advise others
- As more pupils finished, they too became ‘experts’, until the whole class had finished the task
This prompted others to redouble their efforts to finish efficiently and accurately so that they too could be called an ‘expert’. Also, those who were struggling tended to find that getting advice from a peer was more helpful than getting advice from a teacher!
To summarise some of the benefits of peer teaching,
- Students receive more time for individualised learning
- Direct interaction between students promotes active learning
- Peer teachers reinforce their own learning by instructing others (we are all aware of the adage that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it)
- Many students feel more comfortable and open when interacting with a peer rather than with the teacher
- It can be used when you would like every pupil in the class to finish a task
- Some students work more efficiently when they know that they might be chosen to become a peer teacher
- The learning environment is energised – peer learning can be fun!
Nevertheless, I would not overuse this method, because:
- the novelty of becoming an ‘expert’ may wear off on the most able pupils
- the most able pupils should usually be nudged into ways which might extend their learning rather than simply reinforcing it
- some pupils are shy, and therefore reluctant to be ‘experts’
- it may undermine the principle of independent learning, if pupils get used to the fact that they can call on a fellow pupil to help them
- it might present challenges in terms of classroom management
Discussing approaches such as peer teaching with mixed-subject groups of teachers at my school’s INSET session yesterday also underlined the fact that peer teaching could be tough to apply in certain contexts. Some language teachers, for instance, pointed out that it can take a while for any pupil to be able to have the expertise in a language to allow him or her to peer teach others.
Finally, peer teaching is of course only one aspect of peer learning, which also includes group work, peer assessment, and so on – but in the right context it is powerful, fun, and makes the classroom (or indeed an outdoor learning environment) a more dynamic place. And if you stretch the notion of ‘peer’ to include mixing students of different age groups, then a whole new world of opportunity opens up – for instance, some of my Year 9 students have given an assembly to a Year 7 form on the crisis in South Sudan, and younger pupils may even be able to teach older ones a thing or two about their particular experiences (for instance about their country of origin or their family’s business).
Good luck in trying out new ways of involving pupils in helping others in the classroom – and if you haven’t implemented ‘3B before me’ yet, then what are you waiting for?
I acknowledge https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/peer-teaching/ for summarising four of the benefits of peer teaching given here.