Peer Teaching from the Students' Point of View

Imagine that you are in third grade. You have been struggling over a page of math word problems for the better part of half an hour. You really tried to understand when the teacher was explaining it, but she went through it so fast! You look around and can see that almost everyone else in the class has already finished. You raise your hand in hopes of getting some help from the teacher. The teacher sees you, but instead of coming over to help, she scans the room, and spots Ashley reading at her desk.

"Ashley," she says, "Can you please help Todd with his math?" Ashley looks annoyed as she puts her book face down on her desk and comes over to help.

Ashley quickly explains how to do the problem. When you still don't get it, she starts talking to you like you are a kindergartner. She obviously thinks you are a complete idiot. At recess she will probably tell all her friends just how stupid you are. You can't concentrate on what she is saying because you are feeling so ashamed and embarrassed by the whole situation. Finally she just gives you the answers. Why couldn't the teacher have just helped you herself?

Imagine you are in third grade. After sitting through the teacher's long and boring explanation of how to do math word problems you already know how to do, you have whipped through the assignment. It was so easy! The good part is now you have almost twenty minutes to read! Harry and Ron are fighting a giant troll to save Hermione when you hear your name being called across the room.

"Ashley, can you please help Todd with his math?"  

"Again," you think. "Can't that kid do anything by himself?" You sigh, put down your book and go over to help. Maybe if you do it quickly, you can finish the chapter before recess. No such luck of course, Todd is not getting it even when you try to go slow. It's easier just to give him the answers. You wonder why the teacher can't just help him herself. It's her job after all. 

As a student, I was often Todd (until around fifth grade when I learned to compensate for whatever undiagnosed learning disability I have), as a teacher of gifted students, my class was full of Ashleys. In my opinion, most elementary children do not have the maturity or the sensitivity to be kind and effective peer teachers. In most cases, the teaching student is given no instruction on how to teach. Further, a gifted student's time in class should be spent exploring new and challenging material, not teaching other kids what she knows inside and out.

I really, really don't like peer teaching, when one student is clearly struggling (I love partner and group work, or programs that pair a much older student with a younger one, this situation is different)  Agree? Disagree? What are your thoughts?


Sherry said...

I totally agree with you. I'm not a fan of peer tutoring. As a special ed teacher many of my kids are humiliated by peers already. They sure don't want to further embarass themselves by having their peers know exactly how much they don't know.

Brandy said...

AGREE! AGREE! AGREE! Back when I taught elem., I was often encouraged to do peer tutoring from other teachers because they felt it was good for both of the students involved. I never felt that way...ever! We did partner work or buddy reading, but I always put them with someone of similar abilities.

I now have a gifted child. In K and 1st, she was constantly used as a peer tutor...and when I say constantly, I mean for every assignment. In fact, there were many times the teachers did not even make her do her own work so she could help someone else. My daughter didn't like doing it either because she could tell that the student she was helping did not want her there. She felt so uncomfortable and guilty for doing it. It also made her feel absolutely terrible for the kids she was made to help.

We're homeschooling this year for the very first time and I must say it was an agonizing decision to make...seeing as how I love school and all. Of course, this wasn't a primary reason for choosing this, but it was one of many. This morning, as my daughter sat on the kitchen counter for 45 minutes watching a butterfly emerge from the chrysalis (she ate her breakfast up there...LOL) and another drinking her homemade nectar she said, "One thing I love about homeschooling is that I have plenty of time to really explore these butterflies."

Thank you for this post. I hope other teachers read it and see how ineffective (and selfish) it really is to do peer tutoring.

Rachel Lynette said...

Thank you both so much for your spot-on comments. It never occurred to me that the tutoring student might feel bad for the struggling student. That makes it even more sad. The public school system is supposed to meet the needs of ALL learners, even the gifted ones and tutoring other students is clearly not doing that.

So glad you are homeschooling now, Brandy. I have many friends who home school very successfully!

Enjoy the butterflies...


Tracee Orman said...

I think it is different in high school. I think they are more mature and actually seek the help from others. I don't force it because I know there are some kids who feel the same as Todd and Ashley.

Our public school has a volunteer peer tutoring program. Students who excel in certain areas sign up to be tutors during our 8th period common studyhall time. The middle school also has the same studyhall time, so many go over there to tutor. Students who are struggling go to the guidance office to sign up for a time when a tutor is available to them. If it is urgent, there are back-up students available to help.

It really lessens the load on teachers. Though we wish we could, we can't tutor all of the kids who need it if we ever want to leave school and go home to our families. Parents can't be expected to help their child in every content area, either. When my son gets into upper-level math, there's no way I will ever be able to explain things if he needs help. And private tutoring is expensive.

I do believe at the early elementary levels the students can't really be "tutors" and that parents need to step it up if their child is struggling. But in the teacher's defense, if they don't have help in their classroom via aides or high school helpers (we also have these - it is an actual class & they are graded by the elementary teachers on how helpful they are), then they are in a bad spot on giving multiple kids extra help. Perhaps an alternative is to take the group of struggling students and re-teach the material, rather than pairing them. Those who "get it" could work on enrichment activities.

Rachel Lynette said...


I love the volunteer tutoring program you wrote about. I think it makes ALL the difference when students on both sides of the tutoring relationship are there voluntarily. I think is great how the high school students are helping the middle school students too. It seems much more likely that a high school student who has volunteered to tutor would be more effective than an elementary student who has been pushed into the position.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment!

luckeyfrog said...

While peer tutoring can work EXACTLY that way, it doesn't always have to be. I do think some teachers use it in place of enrichment, or just to give a gifted kid something to do, and that's not right. I have had situations, though, where students make it known they like to help and I am able to pair them up with someone (usually a friend, so that there's less awkwardness and they're excited to work together). It's a rarity only used in special situations, though, and I also make a point to let the low students help others once in awhile. I can definitely see how it might fall that way, but I think it helps that we spent a LOT of time talking about how we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses and that's okay, so I don't see a lot of resentment or embarrassment from most students involved. (And the ones that I worry would feel embarrassed or not help positively... I don't put in that situation!) I guess what I'm trying to say is that peer tutoring is not evil. It just has to be done very thoughtfully and not as a gifted time-filler and teacher time-saver.

More often, I'll modify it slightly. I'll have Partner A do problem #1 and Partner B do problem #2. I try to make sure Partner A is stronger at that particular skill, and then they get to explain FIRST how they solved their problem, "like a teacher." Then, Partner 2 gets to explain their thinking "like a teacher." They both get a chance to be the teacher (and therefore practice verbalizing what they did) and the second student gets the benefit of hearing how the first student solved their problem first. It's not exactly "peer tutoring," but it still offers a way for the kids to hear an explanation from another kid.

My Blog said...

While peer tutoring in the situation described doesn't seem to benefit anyone, I don't think we can neglect the idea of reciprocal teaching, particularly as a part of class discussion. Often having students explain the concept, out loud, in their own words is a great way to cement the skill in their own mind and help other students see it in a new, possibly more effective, light. I only do this after guided practice when I'm sure the student I choose won't lead others astray or confuse them. I agree with you. There's a big difference between learning cooperatively as a group, in which students help each other understand the concept, and expecting students to do the teacher's job.

Anonymous said...

If these kids are taught to communicate effectively, then Ashley should have explained to the teacher in private that she doesn't enjoy peer helping. I use math groups in which we have volunteer "teachers" in each group. The students know wether or not they understand the concept enough to teach of someone in their group gets stuck. I then pull my own group of students to work with. These are the "Todd's" that I have identified as needing more help during the lesson. They may also join the group at any time if they are still struggling in their group. We have open lines of communication in my classroom and I encourage all students to speak honestly and frankly if they are uncomfortable. Peer tutoring is a necessity when you have 30+ kids in your classroom with no aids or volunteers. It is up to the teachers to know their students personalities and identify who desires to peer tutor AND train them how to do that!

Mrs. Cranford said...

I agree that it depends on the child and the situation. My own gifted fourth grade child enjoys helping others. It is part of her personality and also something we practice through our faith. She is aware that she is able to explain concepts in ways that her peers understand. If she was resentful about helping her peers I would discuss it with her teacher. As with any area of education, we have to be careful about generalizing all students and practices.

Gram said...

I think that peer tutoring depends upon the students that are involved. I have had some tell me that they do not want to do it and I respect their wishes. Also, I think teachers should check spelling on their posts. It makes us look bad, anonymous. Whether, not wether.

Wife of the Prez said...

Saw this on Pinterest. I totally agree. I have only 5 students in my class, but some of them are on the same level in math. Within that, some are at different levels on certain concepts. While I love it when my older boys (14 and 10) want to teach a math lesson to our two 7YOs, who beg for them to teach, that is totally different.

I do often share a skill lesson with our older boys, who are 13 and 10, but then I meet with them individually to go over anything they still don't understand. Otherwise, there is too much competition created or the likelihood of it.

I think the scenario you shared is very sad for both children involved. And what was the teacher doing???

Anonymous said...

My kiddos love to help each other. They even ask if they can help. In first grade the situations though aren't like "Todd" and "Ashley". My kids help others spell words, check writing for conventions, even drill each other on math facts/spelling words. All my kiddos get to help at some point.

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