Sometimes we need to put down our learning tomes and plan our teaching using the timeless wisdom of pop-rap guru Vanilla Ice. In his seminal song Ice Ice Baby, the man who paved the way for Eminem shared with us the crucial elements of a highly successful teaching and learning strategy when he rapped, “All right: stop, collaborate and listen.”
Thanks Ice, I will.
Peer tutoring has become a prominent feature of my classroom. Not to be confused with the evening tutoring suffered by children of keen parents hothousing them towards exam success, peer tutoring is a broad term that describes a range of strategies for learners to work collaboratively, while providing support and mutual instruction.
Such tutoring has different iterations, the most common of which is the “reciprocal peer teaching” that has students in a class working together, alternating in the role of teacher and student. Then there is “cross-age peer tutoring”, in which older students tutor their younger peers. This is a popular whole-school approach that can help older students to thrive on the responsibility of leadership.
Many examples of peer tutoring are also part of more formal off-the-shelf interventions, usually lasting for a number of weeks and typically focused on reading and maths, such as “paired reading” and “shared maths”.
The evidence to support the effectiveness of peer tutoring is plentiful. The Education Endowment Foundation, for example, has deemed the approach to have a positive impact of up to five months’ progress in learning. Other large-scale studies, such as John Hattie’s Visible Learning – a large-scale meta-analysis involving some 50,000 research articles – support this.
So should we stop what we are doing and deploy this foolproof teaching method? It isn’t quite that simple.
First, peer tutoring won’t be a success unless it is very well structured and supported. Ask students to “collaborate and listen” with weak training and you can expect little more than meaningful chats about YouTube cats and Celebrity Big Brother. For peer tutoring to flourish, there needs to be a rigorous programme of training for students and teachers alike.
Students who are doing the tutoring also need sound knowledge of the topic; they need training in asking good questions, giving appropriate feedback and in developing a trusting relationship.
The timing of the tutoring needs to be right and pairings need to be selected with sensitivity, too.
We should keep in mind the many benefits of collaborative learning that aren’t captured in a blunt test score: peer tutoring can prove very effective in exposing students to different perspectives, challenging their understanding and bursting the bubble of their misconceptions. It can also give them a degree of personal feedback and support that a teacher stretched with a class of 30 students simply can’t manage every lesson (a caveat here is that we should check that they are providing useful and accurate feedback).
Finally, peer tutoring gets students listening to one another and working as a team – skills they will need for life.
Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York
Mike Gershon shares his guide to peer and self-assessment.
Make sure your students know what’s expected of them with these group work role cards.
Help pupils ask themselves the right questions with these self-assessment placemats.