Where the pupils are the teachers

16th May 2008 at 01:00
More than 100 primary schools in Fife are raising attainment in maths and reading by using a peer learning programme in which pupils tutor each other
More than 100 primary schools in Fife are raising attainment in maths and reading by using a peer learning programme in which pupils tutor each other.

The biggest effect of the initiative so far, however, is proving to be its impact on the children's self-esteem. It is also expected to improve communication.

Never before has peer learning - children teaching other children - been implemented on such a large scale or over such a long period.

Fife Council's education service has been working with researchers from Dundee and Durham universities for almost two years, introducing peer learning to 125 primaries in the authority. The aim is to make Fife a centre of excellence for peer learning and a template for the rest of the UK.

The schools have been using the technique in a variety of ways:

- Some have used it to teach maths, some to teach reading, and others for both;

- Some schools have used the technique for three half-hour sessions per week, others just for one half-hour session per week;

- And in some schools, children of the same age work together, while in others, older children act as the tutors.

The full impact of the various interventions will not be known until the end of the year. However, an evaluation carried out after the first year has shown the project is improving reading and maths. Nevertheless, the "clear big gain", the researchers say, is the project's impact on "pupils' self concept".

Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at Dundee University, said: "What we have got is a situation where not just one or two of the able kids are tutors, but the whole class is involved. If you are a weak reader, you can see how being asked to be a tutor could have quite a profound effect on self-esteem."

Peer learning matches the aspirations of A Curriculum for Excellence, he argues. "A Curriculum for Excellence talks about developing confident pupils - this would seem to fit very nicely with that. It's something the time is right for now."

He acknowledges, however, that teachers may struggle to adjust to the more backseat role the technique requires. While there is a "healthy buzz, like a big nest of bees" in peer learning classrooms, one of the things that strikes you is that "the teacher doesn't seem to be doing very much", he says.

"The teacher's role is very, very different. Instead of being the director of everything that happens, the teacher gives some responsibility to the children."

Parents may also need some time to adjust to the idea that their children have turned teacher. But Professor Topping argues that "helping helps the helpers learn faster too".

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