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By teaching, he is best taught

One of the main focus points on my school’s development plan this year, is how to better create independent learners. The phrase ‘spoon feeding’ has been thrown around in many staffrooms, meetings and conferences I’ve attended in my teaching career, but what does this actually mean and what does it look like in practice? This is something I started to consider carefully when in a mild panic over my Year 10s in their mock exams last year. Have I prepared them adequately enough with both the skills and knowledge to tackle exam questions, without me being there to walk them through it, armed with a highlighter and guide sheet? Have I transferred my knowledge of exam technique to them or have I created dependency? The result was reasonable mock grades for the majority but still a lot of work to be done – by both them and me, before waving them into the Sports Hall on that (hopefully) sunny day next May.

This is where my research focus has changed since my last blog post. No longer am I researching how to prepare KS3 for the demands of GCSEs, but now I am looking at how peer tutoring can impact the confidence levels of Year 11 students when answering exam questions. This then translating to an increase in understanding of exam material and so impacting the end outcome for their GCSEs. Creating an atmosphere and ethos of interdependence within my classroom so although I am there as the expert, the students are taking more ownership of both their learning and the learning of their peers.

The notion of peer tutoring is not something new. In the 18th Century, Andrew Bell introduced peer tutoring when he was appointed Superintendent of a school for orphaned children of soldiers in Fife, Scotland. The reason for this at the time was practical, as resources were in short supply so to maximise teaching time, the more able in the school were tasked with teaching the academically less able. Bell noted ‘By teaching, he is best taught.’ (Topping 1988; 13) Further research on this topic has also highlighted how the tutee benefits from the arrangement by having a peer explain concepts in language that can be more accessible to them.

For my research, the Year 11s they have been divided into two groups, the Tutors and the Tutees. The Tutors are the students who over the past year have demonstrated an ability to grasp concepts and skills to a good degree. The Tutees are a range of students who have not yet made the progress I would expect for varying reasons. The choice was given to the students who to pair up with and a lesson was given to the class about how best to conduct the lunchtime peer tutoring sessions. This included discussing the ‘no hierarchy’ approach. Even without labels of ‘Tutor’ or ‘Tutee’ it would be obvious to most in the class who was more able out of the pair, but this was not a point to dwell on. All students needed to revise in more depth so the pairing was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

A questionnaire was given at the start of the research, highlighting what I had predicted. The Tutors held more confidence in answering questions in class than the Tutees, but when it came to feelings concerning the final exams and how much they felt they could remember for it, the divide grew smaller. The majority of the class reported an openness to the idea of peer tutoring as a revision concept, with a few concerns being shared about how best to approach information both students did not fully understand. I helped ease their fears as I would be present in the sessions, so if they required clarification on the material I was there to ask.

It has been early days for the peer tutoring scheme so no conclusions can be drawn as of yet. I am planning to interview both groups of students before the Christmas break to get a more in depth picture of how they are feeling at this stage. This will be supported later in the year with two more questionnaires and interview sessions. One near the pre-public exams (just before the Easter break) and one before their final exam in May.

My hope is that peer tutoring becomes embedded within our department, if not school, and the days of teacher led revision comes to an end. Surely, revision should be learner led as it is them who need to practice their knowledge and skill recall more than the teacher! Teachers need to prepare them over the GCSE years with the course content and skill set required, but students need to practice what is being taught come revision time. So this year, my Year 11s will not get intensive revision sessions where I lead the learning. Instead, they are in charge with me acting as the ‘guide from the side.’

There’s so much more I could discuss; the issues raised, the potential benefits, the wider application of peer tutoring within the classroom… but I will leave it there for now. As I say, it’s early days and both my students and I have a lot more to learn.

Kim White

Notley High School

Reference: Topping. K (1988) The peer tutoring handbook. Promoting co-operative learning. Massachusetts. Brookline Books.