Here is what happens when students teach and teachers learn

This year, one of our high school seniors is teaching a computer science course, and our most senior faculty member is taking two high school STEM classes alongside his students.

Tanner (12th) created his year-long game design course after teaching himself AP Computer Science A last year. He worked closely with faculty mentors to develop a syllabus, select appropriate texts, and design assessments. His class of five students, grades 6-10, meets three times per week to learn basic programming skills in order to create a polished game, a non-digital prototype, and a short commercial for a broad audience. You can follow his progress on his blog.

My colleague and Philosophy Wars co-teacher Dr. Kevin Oliveau is an MIT-trained computer scientist and political scientist whose professional distinctions include founding and building a cohousing community and being awarded a patent for work he developed as a micro-coder. He is also a bit of a deity for our students, who follow him closely, challenge him good-naturedly, and meme him incessantly. But for 60-90 minutes each day, Monday through Friday, Kevin sits among the kids he teaches as “one of them” – taking seriously his role as a student in high school chemistry and an elective called Introduction to Mathematical Reasoning: Proof and Logic.

In fact, Kevin had to delay joining us for a pre-event faculty dinner this week because he had to finish his chem homework first.

 Dr. Oliveau participates as a student in Mr. Ragsdale’s AP Chemistry class.

Dr. Oliveau participates as a student in Mr. Ragsdale’s AP Chemistry class.

What I’ve discovered watching my student become a teacher and my fellow teacher become a student is that there is inherent value in shifting out of our established roles. We see things we’d otherwise have missed, and we empathize with people we wouldn’t have understood as well.

Here are five things I’ve learned from Tanner, Kevin, and the students in their classes about the value of these experiments:

1. Peers learn more deeply from students who teach

Jack (10th), one of Tanner’s students, shares what he loves about learning from his classmate (and also adorably assures me that I am “not old”):

"I guess I can kind of connect with him a bit more because I feel like he’s more my age. Not that you’re old; you’re not. He’s more – he’s my friend, he’s more friendly and I feel comfortable around him and tell him stuff, like whether I understand."

The kids in Tanner’s class feel comfortable expressing confusion and asking for help. I watch them call him over for guidance with roadblocks. I see them attempt to answer in-class questions before they are certain they understand. Tanner doesn’t have to administer regular formative assessments to know what his students grasp; they tell him right away.

Because of their unique relationship to their students, students who teach give their peers access to the content in a way traditional teachers cannot. This is the rationale for the high school writing center movement, which draws on the university model of leveraging peer tutors to help all students become more effective writers.

The impact transcends academic discipline. The Young People’s Project (YPP), for instance, trains 500 high school students to teach math literacy to 2,000 students in elementary schools across six American cities. A Black Enterprise piece about YPP points out that the kids teach:

"in a way that is low-stress, informal, even playful, yet the results speak for themselves. According to internal and external assessments from 1997 to 2014, YPP involvement has improved test scores and increased mathematical confidence."

The measurable academic gains resulting from peer instruction have clear implications for underfunded schools and schools that serve black and brown kids. Students can get more instructional time and individualized attention at little or no cost. And they learn from people who look like them, which affects achievement and college acceptance.

2. Students who teach learn more deeply

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Knowing he was going to have to teach his peers made Tanner want to learn the content inside out. He explains:

"Last year I basically only had time to skim the stuff that I was learning about. Now that I’ve spent an entire summer rereading the books, teaching a subject forces you to know about it because you can’t bullcrap your way through it. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better knowledge because I have to teach it. Probably the whole game design aspect in general, I went pretty deep into the field and learned a lot more because I had to teach it. I’ve gotten a lot more programming skills now because I’ve had to come up with new ways to teach the same stuff. It helps when you can approach it from a different perspective."

Research bears out Tanner’s insight. A 2014 study showed that students who expected to have to teach what they read in a passage had stronger recall and answered more questions correctly than students who merely expected to be tested on the passage. That was true even though the kids didn’t end up teaching at all. The mere expectation created the opportunity for deeper learning. Knowing you will do something public and social with what you’ve learned motivates you to learn it thoroughly.

And the act of teaching extends your learning. A D.C. nonprofit called Reach Incorporated identified high school students who struggle with reading and prepared them to act as reading coaches for second and third graders. Within a single academic year, the high school coaches demonstrated two years of reading gains.

Teaching well requires us to think metacognitively – to think about our thinking. To prepare his lessons, Tanner needed to reflect on his own learning: how was it that he came to understand this thing he wants to teach others? That sort of reflection makes us better and more purposeful learners. And by anticipating several different ways to teach the same concept or skill, Tanner came to understand nuances and details he missed the first time around. Teaching was an opportunity for him to do something meaningful with his learning. He explained:

"I think tests are fine and all that but practical stuff that you have to actually be able to do, you can’t multiple choice or essay question that. You have to demonstrate that you know how to apply what you’ve learned. What I’m doing for myself is a huge leap, and you don’t necessarily have to teach a class on the material to demonstrate that you know the material. But you should be doing something more than just testing where it matters. Like actually going and building a game instead of just sitting through a class about game design."

Tanner reminds us here that just as we want the content and skills we teach to be important, our assessments should matter, too. 

3. Shifting into new roles increases empathy

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Most adults organize their lives so that they only have to do what makes them feel competent and comfortable. Tanner and Kevin chose to purposefully unsettle themselves by taking on new roles and experiencing education from a different perspective.

As with all things worth doing, the risk is huge, but the rewards are transformative. 

Kevin described what he learned about being a student:

"It gives me much more sympathy for my students and what they go through, the demands. If you missed what the professor said, you learn what it feels like to try and catch up. Also time, because it’s AP chem, so you have to be fast. So the quizzes are very stressful. And it’s also funny how quickly the students accepted me as a student. There was a day I didn’t notice the second page of the test, so I only did half the quiz. That rumor quickly spread through the entire school. Every quiz since then, it’s, “Oh look, Dr. Oliveau: there’s a second page.” It’s kind of humbling because you’re struggling."

Remembering what it’s like to struggle changes the way we relate to our students.

Veteran teacher Alexis Wiggins had been teaching fifteen years before she spent two days as a student, and her insights changed her whole approach to instructional design. Her entire piece is worth reading, but here are a few of her crucial take-aways:

"High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes."

By the end of her first day, she felt mentally and emotionally drained. She also noticed the psychological impact of being constantly reminded that your personal needs or desires are inconvenient to the teacher’s aim:

"You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long."

Perhaps most devastatingly, she noticed that because teacher talk dominates classroom activities, students don’t feel like they play an important role in what happens in the classroom:

"I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no."

Shadowing for two days as a student helped Wiggins see that teachers were unintentionally placing their students at the margins of the work of the classroom rather than at the center. Kids’ voices and choices were too often a “nuisance” when they should have been the driving force of instructional design. This insight led to a dramatic retooling of her pedagogy.

And just as experiencing class as students challenges the assumptions teachers have about what kids are thinking and feeling in their classrooms, teaching has made visible to Tanner all the work that often goes unseen by students. He shares:

"I spent the entire summer drawing up a syllabus and lesson plan. I was expecting some stuff to change through the course, but I was surprised by how much changed, how fluid and elastic you have to be, how flexible you have to be in order to get what you want done."

4. Students and teachers have fun shifting into new roles

Deep learning is serious and demanding work. It is filled with struggle, uncertainty, and increasingly daunting tasks. But it should be joyful, too.

The kids in Kevin’s classes delight in watching him raise his hand to talk, stress out over an exam, and make mistakes. Kevin explains why:

"It’s fun for them to see a teacher struggling as a student. We’re always in this position of superiority as know-it-alls. And I’m always asking questions. I started out as the most backward student in the class. The last time I had chemistry was in 1978."

His classmates agree. Katie (10th) explains:

It’s an interesting exercise to learn with him. He makes the most interesting metaphors – he’s created this elaborate metaphor about bonding being like one atom bullying the other for electrons. And when we get tests back, it’s always fun to discuss answers with Dr. Oliveau since sometimes, rarely but sometimes he gets them wrong too. I really enjoy talking about the questions with him.

Kevin’s presence brings kids joy in AP Chemistry for a few reasons: 1) the incongruity of the role shift is just cool to see; 2) it’s genuinely fun to watch him wrestle with the material; and 3) he models that it’s possible to enjoy yourself while you’re doing something difficult. Kevin attempts almost 100% of in-class questions, gets excited as he gets closer to understanding, and finds ways to create a personally-meaningful understanding of the material.

The metaphor Katie mentions is a great example of this. In class, Clark discussed a diagram visualizing an aspect of covalent bonding theory:

"Clark: No bullies to take the electrons away. (looks knowingly at Kevin)

Kevin: Right, this is all romance.

Michael (10th): Oliveau, you switched from bullies to romance?

Kevin: Oh yeah, with bonding? Oh yeah."

The class loved it. Clark plays it perfectly, and the dynamic wouldn’t work without him – it’s like watching a straight man and an end man from an old vaudeville routine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these teacher-student reversals are fun for all ages. Veteran teacher Tova Rivera wanted to break with the typical end-of-year activities and instead prepared her fourth graders to teach their third grade peers a preview of what they’d learned all year. The whole thing took around two weeks, and kids “had a blast” finding creative ways to share what they knew.

Routines and clearly-defined expectations can help our students feel comfortable and confident. But we all long to break free from these constraints every now and then.

5. Students who teach are empowered, and students gain confidence when they see teachers struggle

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The first great piece of guidance I received as a new teacher was to ask myself during a lesson: “who is working harder, me or the kids?” If the answer is me, I am doing it wrong.

That question reminds me that the classroom is a place where kids should be the ones doing (instead of passively receiving knowledge).

And at its root, that question is ultimately about control and trust. Am I willing to cede power to my students, knowing they might not get where I want them to be, knowing we might not cover what I’ve planned? Of course these are valid concerns, but by giving up some control, teachers create space for students to do great things.

Teacher leader Jessica Lander notes:

"The opportunity to teach your peers sends a powerful message. It says to students, “You have knowledge worth sharing, you have a teacher’s trust, and you have an opportunity to support your friends’ learning and growth.” Students teaching students is an authentic way to build confidence, leadership, and empathy."

And that contrasts starkly with the student Alexis Wiggins interviewed, who laughed when asked whether she thought her absence from class made a difference to her peers.

By redistributing some of the authority away from the teacher and toward the student, we help kids see themselves as capable thinkers and doers. We accomplish something similar when we take on the role of student. Katie (10th) explains that when she sees Kevin make mistakes in class, it is a powerful form of humility:

"It’s sort of an admission that he doesn’t know everything, even though he seems to in the courses he teaches."

When students and teachers reverse roles, it helps kids see themselves as potential experts, and it helps us all remember that no one masters anything without struggling, failing, and trying again.

Of course this all makes me wonder about the curricular and policy implications:

  • Should each teacher have to experience school as a student every few years?
  • Should we build time into the school year for each student to teach?
  • Should local districts interested in boosting student learning formalize peer tutoring programs like YPP and high school writing centers?