It’s the first week of October, so no denying it any more: school’s back in session. Shit has gotten real.
I know I’m in the fortunate chair this term, on sabbatical. (Nope, I don’t plan to stop mentioning it anytime soon. Sorry!)
But that doesn’t stop me feeling the autumn vibe through friends, neighbours’ kids, and through the growing chill in the air. Which is why, when the latest Tomorrow’s Professor post, on encouraging students to teach each other, rolled across my desk Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice how ideal it is for just this moment in the term – when stress levels are rising, the thick of the marking and the prep is looming, and the chaos of midterms is starting to glance over the parapet.
The author of this particular post, “Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle,” is Tim Murphey, who teaches in the English Department at Kanda University in Japan. It comes from his chapter in the book Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education (Springer, 2017).
It’s normal for me to get inspired by TP posts throughout the academic year, but it’s not typical for me to base an entire post of my own around one. In this case I’m making an exception, though, because Murphey’s insights and evidence from his teaching experiments echo my own, very positive, anecdotal experiences with different forms of peer teaching in theatre and performance studies classrooms.
I’ve long felt peer teaching to be an essential means of activating deep student learning, especially when it comes to applying and extending complicated theoretical concepts. Put bluntly, students learn way better when they have to explain stuff clearly to each other; it means they have to internalize, vocalize, share, and collaborate – even if they kind of hate doing it in the moment. (And of course they do. Sitting at the back and sort of listening to the prof while actively cruising Facebook or Snapchatting with friends is way easier, duh.)
Murphey’s research concurs with this assessment of peer teaching’s impact on student outcomes, but his article also notes more, and deeper, benefits.
First, he talks about how valuable peer teaching can be for teachers, both in terms of saving us time AND in terms of making us better at our jobs.
Second (and throughout, actually), he focuses on how important the practice of peer teaching is as an ethical, and a democratic, practice – for students, but also for faculty. Everyone benefits, he argues, when we share the hard work of making sense of our world, together.
Which also feels crazy timely to me, ya know?
Herewith, then, a bit more from Murphey, and me, on each of these terrific ideas.
1. Peer teaching helps teachers teach better. It teaches us to give up a bit of control, and to get comfortable with the idea that maybe we don’t know everything and that’s ok. It also encourages us to reduce over-prep and spend our teaching time more wisely – working ideas through in the classroom, in the moment.
Just in time for early October, Murphey opens his introduction with this slightly painful truth:
Too often first time teachers, and even many experienced teachers, work much too hard preparing too much material for their classes to fill the allotted time. I myself confess to over-preparing and planning too many activities and materials.
I’ve also overprepped for years. (I call it “prep creep“.) Worse, I’ve been actively working NOT to over-prep for years, and yet, still, there’s that voice in my head. That voice that says…
You’re going to get to the end of the prep and have no more to say and there will be 10 minutes to go and everyone will look at you and know you suck and are an imposter.
Friends, that voice is wrong. It is an asshole, that voice. Total douchebag.
First, under no circumstances will you ever run out of stuff to say. I’m pretty sure that you got your degrees because you like to talk about your research and stuff, right?
Second – and this is The Great Paradox of Teaching – the more you write stuff down to say it, the easier it is to *actually* run out of stuff to say. The more activities you program for your active classroom, the more rushed everyone will likely feel. You will be anxious. The students will become cross and confused.
Nobody will be happier, or will have learned more, because of the excess stuff on your pages.
Here’s where peer teaching is a genius short-cut to help us get in the habit of more classroom improv, less over-prep. Yes, of course, helping students learn how to teach each other well takes careful set-up, and regular practice. You need to decide what the students will work on figuring out together, and you’ll have to give some thought to how they will get from point A to point B. You’ll need to offer some guidance along the way.
But a lot of that guidance will happen in the moment, and will be dependent on what the students say, and what they find they need as they unpick the problem you’ve set for them. You can’t prep for that; what you need is to develop confidence in your role as a guide. That takes practice in real time, in front of anxious or bored or anticipatory faces. It’s risky. It means being willing to mess up quite a bit. But it gets better and easier with time – it really, really does.
We might think it’s our job to stand up and spit up the knowledge, but that’s a ruse; in fact, our job is to be the expert learner in the room, not the person who has completed the journey of learning.
Which is, of course, the other reason peer teaching is so worthwhile: because it reminds us that we, too, are always on that journey with our students.
2. Peer teaching is just basic democracy. It’s sharing the knowledge and the challenges knowledge poses. It’s getting to the bottom of complicated things.
I don’t know about you, but as I read the headlines these days, I mostly think to myself: these skills, the ones that teach you about not being afraid to think hard, and to confront things that do not make sense, and to talk to other human beings about those things, and to work toward some kind of provisional answers, and then to toss them out and try again, just as hard and without losing heart…
… these skills are the only skills that matter right now.
Murphey quotes from Lee Shulman’s book Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education (2004, pp 36-7) in his epigraph, and I’ll rehearse the quotation here because it’s remarkable in its clarity and insight on the public and ethical and democratic value of shared teaching:
Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it.
Shulman’s framing of learning as property is exceptionally timely, as the endgame of neoliberal consumption practices loom, warlike, into view. Knowledge can’t be owned; it must be shared. When we try to own insight we produce tyranny, and tyranny is the enemy of further learning, of the freedom to debate, discuss, and disagree.
The only way we can help our students understand this is to share the process of making knowledge with them, again and again, messy though that process might be. We need to model knowledge-sharing practices in our classrooms, urgently, precisely because they seem so very far away these days, when we open Twitter, or click the news links in our Facebook feeds.
And then, once we’ve fumbled through the peer teach, and hit all the roadblocks, and struggled to find the answers, we need to talk with our students about why the messiness of sharing knowledge is a social good, and not a thing to be loathed and feared.
My sincere thanks to Tim Murphey for inspiring this post with a very compelling article. Please follow the links embedded above to purchase the two books referenced here, either for yourself or for your school’s library.
Meanwhile, if you use peer teaching practices in your classrooms I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments – models are always very welcome.