Students as Teachers: a Culture of Inquiry and Learning

“I am just going to check in on everyone and see how they’re doing” – one of my Kindergarten students said as she led her peers through a step-by-step challenge where they created a DIY ‘marble run’ out of paper tubes and tape. 

My DECE partner and I were blown away by her kindness, patience and commitment to the success of her classmates during this process. 

We have been trying to keep an open invite for all students in our class to have the opportunity to be the “teacher” or the expert on a topic of their choice. Through online learning, fewer natural moments of teaching happen from student to student like they would in a physical classroom. Hands on collaboration between students virtually can be tricky, as they lack the opportunity to share space and materials. We decided it would be more equitable to schedule these student-led activities ahead of time, in order to allow all students time to prepare the proper materials. As I move to in person learning in the fall, it is my goal to continue this practice as a means of supporting students belonging and contributing in respect to the Kindergarten program. It is my hope to further explore the benefits of fostering students confidence as teachers in the classroom as I continue to learn from my competent and capable young learners. Here are my initial thoughts:

The classroom community

  • Inviting students as teachers creates a culture of learning, respect and curiosity
  • Students teaching their peers builds community and invites students to be vulnerable and make mistakes

Through the lens of a child

  • When our students stepped into the role of educators, it provided my DECE partner and I a unique opportunity: to see the world through their eyes. Through their ideas, descriptions and step-by-step processes we were able to develop a deep understanding of the way they view the world, the way they solve problems and the way they persevere through challenges. 
  • Many children enrolled in Kindergarten programs are immersed in their first experiences of formal schooling. For some of my students, my DECE partner and I are their very first examples of educators. The way that children go about giving instructions, gaining the attention of others and providing words of encouragement can be reflective of what they see. It can be very powerful to listen to a student recite an encouraging phrase verbatim, such as “You are a problem solver!”.

Benefits for students

  • Teaching their peers provides students with the space to take risks while gaining confidence in their own ideas and abilities 
  • For the students involved in this practice as the learner, it allows them to explore new ideas or approach learned concepts from a different perspective than my own or that of my DECE partner. 

Inviting students to perform a new role as a teacher is inclusionary, culturally responsive, relevant and meaningful – which is the basis of everything I hope to cultivate in Kindergarten. 

The ”EXPERT” Solution

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog about the difficulties of trying to meet the needs of all the students in my grade 7 class.  Just to refresh your memory, this particular group has a unique set of factors at play which undeniably influence the overall dynamic and structure of the class: 33 students in total, almost a 2:1 ratio of boys to girls, 5 gifted students, 3 hsp and another 3 on IEPs. As a solution to managing the endless questions and difficulties of all students, I had set up a system of students who acted as “experts” in their group. I had recruited those students who felt they had a solid grasp of the material and who equally were able to demonstrate patience and good communications skills. Luckily I had more than enough who fit the bill. I had asked the remaining students to submit the names of the top three experts they felt comfortable working with and after spending a couple of months in this arrangement, I decided to move them around to new groups. In the process, I had asked the class to provide me with some written feedback on their thoughts about the “expert” system. On the whole, people thought that it was an effective solution but there were quite a few amusing comments which I had not anticipated. I thought I’d share them with you.

They could all see that having an intermediary was a good form of “blockade” and made life much easier for the teacher. Some were annoyed that their experts couldn’t answer all their questions while others were grateful for the time and effort they had put forth. Funnily enough (I suppose in response to those super demanding students), some had felt rather intimidated and overwhelmed with having to look up all the words in the dictionary for their charges. Others reflected how it was sometimes a thankless job where people were quick to criticize but slow to appreciate.

We had a subsequent discussion as a class where we had to specifically define the duties of the experts who were really only supposed to be the first line of defence. We talked about the need to balance demands with also giving the experts some space to get their own work done. Finally, it was established that the experts were not free labour nor did their duties include literally doing the work of others. With these new parameters in place, the system has been fine-tuned and is now running like a well oiled machine. The experts have achieved a near celebrity type status and seem to enjoy the esteem of their peers. We have now added a new tier as well – the “Experts In Training.”J