A room full of children and adults using computers: nothing strange about that, you might think. But listen in to the conversations and you will realise that something unusual is happening. The adults are learning skills in desktop publishing, creating slide shows and using digital cameras: their tutors are eight and nine years old.
We have been using peer tutoring in ICT lessons for the last four years, with very beneficial results, but the decision to extend its use to teaching adults is a relatively new venture. A pilot study last spring, when four Primary 4 pupils tutored their own parents, convinced us that a larger scale initiative would be viable. The pupils enjoyed teaching their mums and dads and the adults all felt that they had learned something new.
Just before Christmas, we wrote to all our junior school parents and had responses from about a dozen families who said that they would be interested in participating. Classes got underway in January, with a mixture of mums and dads, brothers and sisters and grannies and grandpas coming one afternoon a week, for up to an hour and a half after school.
Learners and tutors come for whatever part of the time they can, taking into account other commitments. Some of the adults use the time simply to find out from their children what they have been learning in school. Others have chosen to receive formal tuition in various aspects of basic computer skills from one of our Primary 4, Primary 5 or Year 6 tutors.
"It's a fun way to learn," enthuses one of the mums after learning PowerPoint from her daughter. "Much more fun than an adult class! Also, I like seeing things from the children's point of view - and it gives me a chance to see what they are learning in school."
Our pupils have become skilled in peer tutoring in school ICT lessons using the Dolphin System (www.dolphinsystem.co.uk), which provides a structured pathway for learning ICT skills across the curriculum. The on-screen teaching materials have proved ideal for the after-school sessions since they allow each learner to select a subject of their choice and then to learn from a tutor who is already competent in their chosen area. The materials are clear and easy to follow, with special help buttons that enable the tutors to remind themselves of anything they have forgotten.
"When you are taught in the right way, step by step, it can make it look very easy," says one dad, after a first introduction to Microsoft Excel. "I found the session very helpful - very, very useful; and it's good for the girls - they are learning as well."
The sessions virtually run themselves. My role is to pair tutors up with learners as they arrive at each session. Then I leave them to it. Each learner decides whether to work through the teaching materials step by step, or to learn first by simply asking questions from their tutor and then use Dolphin to review what they have learned and fill any gaps. The tutors take full responsibility for managing the teaching input and gauging the pace of the lessons. An occasional word to ask how things are going is all that is needed to ensure that everyone is learning effectively.
Tutors and learners have been unanimous in their approval for the project.
Another mum waxes lyrical about the benefits for her daughter: "Tutoring is a great way for the children to reinforce their own understanding and application of IT, but it offers more than that - they develop the skills needed to tailor their teaching to suit a range of ages and abilities and become confident and effective communicators. That benefits them, both as tutors and as learners across the curriculum."
"It's fun," says Sarah (aged nine), who has been involved in the project since the beginning. "You get to tutor people you wouldn't ordinarily tutor in class - so you get to know new people. But it's not as easy as teaching children - with adults you have to explain it more!"
The last word goes to Roselle (aged eight), who yesterday had her first experience as a tutor: "It's really good. I liked it because I think it's going to teach me to be more confident. I used to lack confidence (on the computer) but now I'm feeling much more confident having joined the after school tutoring, because I'm going to teach my Grandma. It feels like my Grandma is like someone in Primary 1 who doesn't know much on the computer and I know more than her!"
For further information on the Dolphin peer tutoring system, or on Rob Porteous' research into peer tutoring, please visit www.dolphinsystem.co.uk
Alternatively, Rob can be contacted on 0131 337 3158 or email email@example.com
Rob Porteous is curriculum leader at St George's school for girls (junior) in Edinburgh