Students Teaching Students

The highlight of my first year of teaching came Monday morning when the kindergarten kids came into my computer lab. I was working part time at two schools and between them I saw grades kindergarten through grade 8. It was a crazy schedule but the kindergarten kids started my week off. Kindergarten students are excited learners. Not only do they think teachers are wonderful people (they’re right of course) but they think just about anything new is wonderful. Plus they are fearless.

Fearless did not exactly describe me the first day the kindergarten teacher and her full-time professional aide brought 24 students to my lab which was outfitted with 12 Apple IIe computers – and left me alone with them. How am I going to do this? I wondered. I had some cute little educational game which had been purchased by previous teachers. But you see there were words on the screen that told students what to do and the first week of school few if any of these students knew how to read. I had visions of running from student to student, non-stop, telling each student what to do next. Fortunately the reality was much different.

I quickly learned two things about kindergarten students. One is that they figure things out quickly. The second was that they share knowledge with their peers at an amazing rate. I mean really amazing. I doubt that I explained the same word more than three times to the whole class and never twice to the same student. Students sat two to a computer and helped each other out. They self-organized – yes kindergarten students – and took turns using the keyboard with one student helping the other make the right things happen. In fact in hindsight what they were doing looks a lot like pairs programming.

The Lifelong Kindergarten Research Group at MIT’s Media Lab has some important insights into learning that makes some of my observations seem reasonable. A note from their home page.

We develop new technologies that, in the spirit of the blocks and fingerpaint of kindergarten, expand the range of what people can design, create, and learn

A lot of what we do with kindergarten students, sort of out of necessity, actually seems to work a lot better than things we do later because we think students are “ready for new ways.” One of these is having students work together. Teachers are starting to adopt pairs programming in teaching computer science. There is some research coming out that suggests this works well but many people still resist this because we tend to associate students working together with students cheating. I think though that is some cases this attitude results in less learning rather than more.

We tend to assume that in any team one person will carry the work and the other will coast and not get any (or at least not as much) benefit from the activity. In some cases I think that is because of a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of both student and teacher. We talk so much about that happening that students assume that is the way it is supposed to be. We appear surprised when teams work out when if we look at how things work in the very youngest grades we should be surprised when it doesn’t work.

Interestingly enough, when I do workshops for teachers there is always a lot of “student helping student.” Teachers think nothing of helping their peers learn. No one thinks “Those teachers are cheating!” We recognize that these are people helping each other learn. We know that this helping results in all participants learning more. And yet somehow we don’t think it works that way for students. Seems a little silly if you look at it that way.

Pairing up students to work on labs and exercises and perhaps even larger projects is an idea that is really starting to get me excited. Perhaps it is my lack of professional education training but I think more in terms of how much do students learn than how do I give out grades. (joke – I think) But learning is what teachers are all about right? So if pairing up students results in more learning isn’t it worth trying to do? That’s where I’m leaning.

So have you tried pairs programming in class? Or small teams for projects? What’s your experience with this idea?

Comments (2)

  1. Charley Williams says:

    I never used pairs programming, but I did stumble upon great results with some team projects.  After a unit introducing classes and objects, I had 3-person teams (chosen by me!) build simple games requiring 3 or more small classes to be created.  They each created at least one, and then had to work together to integrate them.  So each student "owned" part of the project, but they also had to understand what the others were doing.  (And the project didn’t work until ALL classes worked, so they had incentive to help each other!)  The first time we did this, I defined all the specifics of each class.  When we tried again later in the year, they did more of the design work.

    I agree teens and even adults can learn best with some of the same methods used in kindergarten.  For this to happen, there needs to be an environment with lots of enthusiasm for learning and discovering.  Somehow much of that enthusiasm can get lost as we go through school.  Great teachers, coaches, and parents can bring this out and keep it alive, but it’s never quite as awesome as the "pure" enthusiasm of a kindergartener.

  2. judy says:

    I’m a teacher at the University.  I like teaching and my students.  To be a good teacher I need constant working at myself, new and interesting materials for my lessons. And off late have been using pairs programming ls in the class room and children are very enthusiastic about learning.To keep up with the technology have been using <a href=""&gt; e learning platforms</a> where students can create flashcards and videos related to subjects together and learn.This method is really effective.


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