Putting pupils in charge of other young people's learning sounds inherently risky. They are there to be taught, surely, not 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 with students who are older and of different ability.
How well a teacher organises their time and teaching in the classroom can raise standards dramatically, and here the research shows that peer learning is one of the most important strategies.
A study by Steve Higgins and colleagues from Durham University, published in May 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 pupils experienced a six-month gain in achievement - or the equivalent of a GCSE grade - if the strategy was implemented over a year, and 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. "Consistent positive effects have been found in different countries, across different age groups and in different areas of the curriculum."
Teachers can implement peer learning in a number of ways (see p27). In science, for example, 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. So each child is involved and kept on task, and motivation and engagement is raised. 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, who remains the "guide on the side", says Allen Thurston, reader in education at Durham University and a leading expert in the field. "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, and one that is used effectively to teach literacy, is where an older, more able "tutor" reads with a younger pupil, the "tutee". This form of paired work has benefits for both pupils, particularly in reading, according to Dr Thurston, who worked on a major project involving primary schools in Fife (see above).
The study, which was published in September 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 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. "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 and may miss something important, but this can't be allowed to happen in paired reading because of the need to check comprehension."
Similar approaches used, say, in maths can help consolidate learning by verbalising what pupils already know and discussing their thought processes with others.
Peer learning of all varieties generally works better in primary than secondary, because of the organisation of classes and the way secondary teachers are "subject teachers first and pedagogues second", according to Keith Topping, one of the UK's leading experts. The professor of educational and social research at Dundee University has researched and written extensively on collaborative learning.
"A number of secondary schools use sixth-formers to tutor those who are much younger, particularly once public examinations are over," Professor Topping says. "It is unlikely the older pupil will gain any learning benefit from it."
However, there are advantages in terms of personal development, confidence and self-esteem, developing a sense of responsibility and providing work experience for, say, a career in teaching.
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 all the subject areas, says Professor Topping.
The least well-used method is same-age same-ability, also known as reciprocal tutoring, which is mainly used in teaching primary science.
Research carried out in the US suggests that pupils with mild learning disabilities and those with behaviour problems make significant progress through peer learning because of the individual attention. There are also increases in self-esteem through reversing the role of the tutor and tutee, so there is a reciprocal arrangement.
The peer-learning approach can have disadvantages, so teachers should try to secure some continuing professional development (CPD) before implementing it in their classroom, says Professor Topping. Ideally two or three teachers could be trained 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.
"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."
Deconstructing one's own teaching style may also prove tough, 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. Some will see it as an obstacle, but it is one that can be overcome with very significant benefits.
Peer learning in Fife primaries
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, 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.
Almost 9,000 pupils have been involved. 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 education officer Nora Conlin.
"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 details on the Fife project and classroom resources, go to www.cemcentre. orgfifeproject
- Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning: summary for schools spending the pupil premium - technical appendices, Sutton Trust, June 2011. http:bit.lyrqGtXy
- "Co-operative 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
- "Co-operative Learning in Science: follow-up from primary to high school", Inter-national Journal of Science Education, June 2009. http: strathprints.strath. ac.uk20618
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.
Co-operative learning typically occurs in small groups of four to six members. Usually students work towards a common goal, often discussing opposing points of view. All members of the team are aware that they need each other to achieve their joint task or goal.
Collaborative learning implies a symmetrical relationship in terms of academic levels of the peers. Normally small groups of four to six pupils, but differs subtly from co-operative learning as each member has to be successful in individual role for the group to succeed as a whole.