Putting pupils in charge of other young people's learning sounds inherently risky. They are there to be taught, surely, not to play at being teachers.
Yet a growing body of international evidence suggests that peer learning is one of the most reliable ways to improve attainment. The approach involves pupils working in pairs or small groups, either with students their own age, or more usually with students who are older and of different ability.
Peer learning stands in stark contrast to the types of national education initiatives that can be foisted onto schools by ministers, frequently for reasons of political expediency. Studies have shown that top-down, wide-scale government schemes can often do little to boost attainment.
What can raise standards dramatically, however, is how well a teacher organises their time and teaching in the classroom. Here, the research shows that peer learning is one of the most important strategies.
A study carried out by Professor Steve Higgins and colleagues from Durham University, published in May this year for the Sutton Trust, concluded that peer learning was one of the most academically effective and cost-efficient methods of raising attainment.
The paper, Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning: summary for schools spending the pupil premium, found that pupils experienced a six-month gain in achievement - or the equivalent of a GCSE grade - if the strategy was implemented over a year, and that it had "high impact for low cost".
"There are few costs directly associated with the approach, though it does need some time to organise and set up, particularly in the early stages," Professor Higgins says in his findings. "Consistent positive effects have been found in different countries, across different age groups and in different areas of the curriculum."
Not only is peer learning effective, it can also be cheap - making it a strategy worth considering at a time when schools face budgetary constraints.
So how does peer learning work? Teachers can implement it in a number of ways (see box, page 7). In science, for example, a subject that lends itself particularly well to collaborative approaches, pupils from the same class typically work together in groups of four to six, with each member having a specific role or responsibility to fulfil during the lesson. This helps to ensure that each child is involved and is kept on task, and it has been found to raise motivation and engagement. In many studies, peer group work has also been found to improve language and communication skills, and social interaction between pupils.
The composition of groups should be determined by the teacher, says Dr Allen Thurston, reader in education at Durham University and a leading expert in the field. However, the teacher's role in the lesson is the "guide on the side" rather than a "sage on the stage". "Students should take responsibility for their own learning and be less reliant on the teacher, although additional support will be required in the early stages," he says.
Probably the most popular method of peer learning, however, and one that is used effectively to teach literacy, is where an older, more able "tutor" spends time reading with a younger pupil, the "tutee". This form of paired work has been proven to have benefits for both pupils, particularly in reading, according to Dr Thurston, who worked on a major project involving primary schools in Fife (see case study, below).
The findings of the study, which was published last month and involved pupils aged seven and eight working with 10 and 11-year-olds, revealed that paired reading can give the tutee up to 20 times more feedback than with a teacher over a period of 30 minutes.
"Normally when children learn to read with the teacher, he or she can only devote about 30 seconds of their time to that pupil, because of the size of the class," he says. "So the amount of feedback and praise they receive is minimal. But with paired reading there is someone to pick up their errors and, crucially, to give praise, which is important in raising self-esteem and confidence."
There are benefits, too, for the tutor. "As strange as this may seem, the tutor actually gets more out of this exercise than the tutee because they have to think of questions to ask that will test the younger pupil's knowledge and understanding," Dr Thurston adds.
"It hones their own reading skills so they ensure they understand what they are reading. People often skim words when they are reading and may miss out something important, but this can't be allowed to happen in paired reading because of the need to check comprehension."
Similar approaches used in a subject such as mathematics can help to consolidate learning through verbalising out loud what pupils already know and discussing their thought processes with others.
A primary preserve?
Generally speaking, peer learning of all varieties works somewhat better in primary than secondary schools, because of the organisation of classes and the way in which secondary teachers are "subject teachers first and pedagogues second", according to Keith Topping, one of the UK's leading experts in peer and collaborative learning.
The professor of educational and social research at Dundee University has researched and written extensively on the role of collaborative learning in the classroom over many years.
"There are a number of secondary schools that use sixth-formers to tutor those who are much younger, particularly once public examinations are over and they have more time," Professor Topping says. "One of the difficulties with this is that it is unlikely the older pupil will gain any learning benefit from it."
However, there are often advantages in terms of personal development, confidence and self-esteem building, developing a sense of responsibility and providing work experience should the student, for example, be considering teaching as a career. "Although the use of young people in this way by schools is laudable, the most effective peer learning is where both gain benefits from the arrangements."
Professor Topping says it is difficult to determine which is the most effective method of peer or collaborative learning as the different methods have not been applied through the range of subject areas. The least well-used method is same-age same-ability, also known as reciprocal tutoring, which is mainly used in teaching primary science, as described above.
Younger, less able students are rarely used to tutor older ones unless there is some particular interest or aptitude they can share. In that case, the arrangement may be more reciprocal, he says.
International studies also bear out the effectiveness of peer learning. Research carried out in the US, for example, suggests that pupils with mild learning disabilities and those with behaviour problems make significant progress through exposure to peer learning because of the individual attention involved. There are also benefits in terms of increased self-esteem gained through reversing the role of the tutor and tutee, so there is a reciprocal arrangement.
The peer-learning approach can have its disadvantages, however. For this reason, teachers seeking to use it should try to secure some continuing professional development (CPD) before implementing it in their classroom. Professor Topping believes that many teachers are confident enough to introduce peer mentoring without any CPD, but it is preferable for two or three teachers in a school to get training and then offer support to others.
"One of the worries with collaborative learning, particularly in same group settings, is that you can end up with the blind leading the blind," he says. "You can get one supremely confident pupil in the group who leads the others on a wild goose chase, which takes everyone down the wrong path.
"So the teacher has to try to create the right pupil balance. Those who are confident are not always right, and the children who are right often do not have the confidence to speak up.
"You have to emphasise to the class that it is acceptable to question what other members of the group think or are doing. The class teacher should also monitor the groups at work and be on hand so pupils can ask whether they are on the right track. Phrasing it in this way will prevent any child from feeling foolish or embarrassed if they have got something wrong."
Deconstructing one's own teaching style may also prove tough for some teachers. "One of the biggest challenges is moving outside your own comfort zone and trying someone new," says Dr Thurston.
"Some will find it very hard to move the focus away from themselves as the teacher, and to continue to orchestrate the interaction of the classroom while passing that control to the pupils. This can create some anxiety and some will see it as an obstacle. But it is one that can be overcome with very significant benefits."
Find these free Teachers TV videos at www.tes.co.uk
- "Peer to Peer Assessment" - a lesson idea for peer-to-peer assessment in key stage 3 and 4 maths. http:bit.lypPBL9E
- "Self Assessment and Peer-to-Peer Marking" - one school's approach to self-assessment in peer-to-peer marking. http:bit.lyomv2B8
HOW PEER LEARNING IS BEING USED IN PRIMARY SCHOOLS IN FIFE
Primary schools in Fife have been using peer learning for the past five years to enhance learning in literacy and mathematics.
Covering 129 out of 145 primary schools in the education authority, the Fife Peer Learning Project is the biggest of its kind in the UK and is carried out under the supervision of academics from Durham and Dundee universities.
Literacy is taught partly through paired reading, with an older, able student (aged 10 or 11) assigned to help a younger pupil (aged seven or eight).
In maths, a system of "duolog" is used, with the older partner encouraging his or her tutee to discuss the process used to solve mathematical problems.
In all, almost 9,000 pupils have been involved in the project. The outcomes are under constant review, but have been so successful that they are now rolled out across the whole authority and embedded as a strategy in the curriculum, says Nora Conlin, Fife's education officer.
"Peer learning has given the teacher another pedagogical tool with which to work in the classroom," she says. "It supports the whole idea of active and engaging learning, which keeps pupils on task and allows teachers to look closely at how they are responding.
"For the children, it has brought a focus on problem-solving, rather than presenting them too quickly with concepts of right and wrong answers. Peer learning allows them to go through a process before arriving at a conclusion, and so has developed listening and speaking skills, too.
"The project has brought huge improvement in engagement and improved attitudes in the classroom, and has reduced the need for working from textbooks."
For more details on the Fife project and to access classroom resources, go to www.cemcentre.orgfifeproject
There are three main types of peer learning.
Peer tutoring involves one pupil teaching another where pairs are typically of differing academic level and sometimes differing ages. Peer tutoring normally refers to two pupils working as tutor and tutee, and is most often composed of a more able tutor and a less able tutee (although other formats are possible).
Co-operative learning typically occurs in small groups of four to six members. Usually, the students work towards a common goal, which is likely to require discussion of opposing points of view (cognitive conflict), and improved thinking should emerge from the need to reconcile these conflicts. This method also features "positive interdependence" - all members of the team should be aware that they need each other to complete their joint task or achieve their joint goal.
Collaborative learning implies a symmetrical relationship in terms of the academic levels of the peers working together. It normally occurs in small groups of four to six pupils and differs subtly from co-operative learning in that, when each member of the group has a task to undertake, it is impossible for the group to succeed as a whole unless each member is successful in their individual role.
Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning: summary for schools. Spending the pupil premium - technical appendices, Sutton Trust, June 2011. http:bit.lyrqGtXy
"Cooperative Learning in Science: intervention in the secondary school", Research in Science and Technical Education, March 2011. http:bit.lyr6eaYw
"Outcomes in a Randomised Controlled Trial of Mathematics Tutoring", Education Research, February 2010. http:bit.lyp6XI7M
"Supporting Group Work in Scottish Primary Classrooms: improving the quality of collaborative dialogue", Cambridge Journal of Education, March 2009. http:strathprints. strath.ac.uk20287
"Effects of Group Work Training on Science Attainment in Rural and Urban Schools", Research in Science and Technological Education, April 2008. http:bit.lypBNzLI
"Improving Attainment Across a Whole District: school reform through peer tutoring in a randomized controlled trial", School Effectiveness and School Improvement, July 2011. http:bit.lyoyMYB4
"Cooperative Learning in Science: follow-up from primary to high school", International Journal of Science Education, June 2009. http:strathprints. strath.ac.uk20618.