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When everyone’s a learner and teacher

4 August 2014 No Comment

Divya Choudary

You’ve been through this. You wrack your brains over a particular concept or problem and still find the solution elusive. And then, a friend comes by, and over a cup of coffee explains it to you and you find yourself having an “Aha!” moment. Simply put, this is peer learning – an effective means to gain deeper understanding of concepts through informal and formal means. Sometimes, a peer’s explanation is just easier to understand. The peer can use examples drawing from real life experiences that you’ve shared and can understand better where the doubts lie based on their own similar experiences.

It is no different with students. Aditya, a student of class 6, says, “Sometimes, when I haven’t understood what the teacher has said, I just ask my friend. He helps me with maths and I teach him science.” Aditya also ‘coaches’ his friends on the football field. “Because I go for football training, in school I also teach my friends what I’ve learned from my coach.”

Children often ask their classmates questions after the class so as not to draw attention to themselves by disturbing the class and asking the teacher. “My class teacher is very open to questions and when we miss classes she takes the time to help us catch up. But sometimes our doubts are small, and it is just easier to ask a friend. And if they don’t have the solution either, then we ask the teacher to go over the concept again. Often though, the smart students in class have the answers and help me figure it out,” says Sanjana, a student in class 9 at an international school in Hyderabad.

“How does it feel to ask a friend a doubt?” I ask. She replies with a smile, “Well at times, they tease you about not understanding something so simple, but after that they explain it, you find it simple too!” And does she teach her friends? “I make sure my notes are up-to-date and I make note of all the key points and mark the areas that I’d had doubts. So my friends come to me for notes, especially before the exams.”

Madhumati had studied ‘Special education in visual impairment’ to be able to teach her son Sai Teja at home. With her personal experience and her degree, she began teaching in a school for children with visual impairment. “My students have fun learning when Sai Teja visits. They talk to him about topics that they haven’t broached with me. And when I ask them why they hadn’t, their reply is simply that Sai Teja understands them better. How can I argue with that?”

According to Madhumati, students are more “free” with each other and are less wary of asking “silly” questions. While the class strength doesn’t allow for one-to-one interactions, students are encouraged to teach and learn from one another after class. Students are also asked to assist the newcomers and slow-learners. About her own learning, she says, “I’ve learned a lot by observing our principal teach in the classroom. Her guidance and tips have made our teaching methods more effective. She knows the importance of adult education and has meetings where the teachers discuss and share their insights.”

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“Peer learning depends on ones’ attitude,” says Sriparna, a teacher with over 15 years experience. Peers – teachers and students – have to be open to learning from others and not let ego and authority get in the way. “I am infinitely grateful to the many teachers who have shaped my understanding of teaching and learning approaches and have been an inspiration to me,” she says. To encourage peer learning in the classroom, teachers have to act as facilitators. In Sriparna’s class students were often asked to share with others what they had learned. This not only reinforces their learning but in this way, she was also be able to assess how well they had comprehended the topic. Sriparna adds, “Through group discussions and activities, students would motivate each other, raise questions and critique work done by other groups and also learn how to give sensitive feedback.” With students working together, they alternate between the roles of student and teacher. While class strength, group size and composition, time and other factors come into play, working in groups draws on both motivational and cognitive approaches to collaboration.

Class observation and regular staff discussions are some of the ways teachers can learn from one another. In her school that did not follow a fixed curriculum, subject teachers would meet every week to discuss the topics and approaches to be taken. Teachers would also make the time to discuss the work and progress of each student and share their perspectives on how to improve the learning process for the child. According to Sriparna, “Collaboration and rapport are important aspects of peer learning.”

With classroom observation however, there are times teachers get uncomfortable with others entering what they consider to be their private space. One way to deal with this, Sriparna suggests, is to initially invite only the teachers whom you are comfortable with, to observe your class. You are then more open to their feedback. Teachers need to be adequately prepared to learn from one another, and schools need to create the conditions where learning from colleagues might be possible.

Rajkishore, a mathematics and science teacher, talks about the “Buddy system” his school had put into practice. Within this system, seniors would tutor juniors, and classmates would assist one another. The result of such a system was a greater sense of responsibility inculcated in the students and an increased willingness to help. The system helped empower the students. With students collaborating with each other, the over-enthusiastic students had a means to channel their energy and those lagging in the classroom found the motivation to work better.

Rajkishore also shares his experience with “co-teaching”, where two teachers collaborate with each other to teach a class of students at the same time. “Doesn’t it get confusing for the students? What about clashes between the teachers?” I asked. Rajkishore found that the students benefited from two different styles of teaching. And there were no clashes between the teachers, with the teachers in fact, complementing each other. He admitted that a lot of planning and thought goes into organizing a session like this. About his experiences with peer learning among teachers, Rajkishore shares, “While I’ve learned a lot from interacting with my colleagues, this particular incident comes to mind. I had been struggling for almost two terms to enthuse this one student about chemistry. One day I happened to mention this to a colleague and his suggestion really helped. I had been looking at it from the point of view of the subject and his suggestion to approach it from her point of view made a huge difference! With this new approach and a focus on visualization, the student not only understood but went on to enjoy learning organic chemistry!”

When teachers are aware of a student’s interest and progress in other subjects, they can work together to come up with lesson plans suitable to the student. Rajkishore says, “During the holidays, each teacher makes education plans for every child. These are then interwoven into a single narrative that is put into practice in the following term.”

With the Internet, teachers and students now have access to peers across the globe. “Until recently, teachers were mostly using the net as a source of information. A gradual shift is occurring towards adapting the content available and learning from peers online in various domains,” says Rajkishore. With the number of online platforms and professional learning communities available for teacher interaction, like Teachers of India (www.teachersofindia.org) for instance, teachers now have a place for dialogue, shared learning, deliberation, and debate. And there are platforms for students as well. In fact, in his TED talk on teaching to a global classroom, Peter Norvig talks about peer instruction where students are often the best teachers because they had had the same doubts. With online classes and discussions, students across the world now have the opportunity to engage and grapple with concepts together.

I had read somewhere that in Norwegian the verbs “to teach” and “to learn” are etymologically inseparable. In Hindi too, the words used are Sikhana and Seekhna. When it comes down to it, isn’t it that simple? Everyone is a teacher and a learner!

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