When Students Become Teachers: Peer to Peer Learning in School

It was around 10:35 AM on a Friday, and Ms. White’s 3rd grade science class was starting in 10 minutes. I was waiting in the empty classroom with a sixth-grader named Josh* before twenty-four 3rd graders flooded through the doorway.

Little sprouts in the greenhouse

“How do you feel about helping me teach today?” I asked Josh. His teacher had excused him from class that morning to assist me in leading my first 3rd grade lesson.

“Good,” he replied, a gap-toothed grin breaking out on his face.

I pulled out a copy of the food diary worksheet for our lesson. “Today our class is going to start using these food diaries to keep track of what they eat. Do you know what the purpose of this exercise is–why it’s important?”

“So they know which foods they eat are healthy and are unhealthy?” Josh answered.

“Exactly!” I told him, excited he caught on so quickly. Before I knew it, Josh was standing in front of a class full of third graders, leading a smooth Q&A session on the importance of their food diaries and diets. It was the first week of implementing an experimental peer to peer learning system, and Josh completely swept me away. “You were so awesome today!” I told him, impressed by his self-confidence and subject mastery.

One week later, Josh and I were in the same empty classroom, again waiting for class to begin; he was slightly less animated this time. “Progress reports came out, and I’m failing,” he confessed. Josh then opened up to me about how he had frequently been written off as a class clown. I was shocked. The same student who was failing in one subject had absolutely shined during our time together.

That same Friday, and for a number of Fridays that followed, he continued to command the attention of 24 eight-year olds. Every time we led a lesson together, I would tell Josh how amazing he did.

Ashni and students in the greenhouseOften, he would report back to his teacher: “Ms. Mathew said I did a good job today!” 

A few weeks later, I checked in with him about his grades. “How’ve you been doing in school, Josh?”

“I’ve been doing better!” he told me, beaming with the same confidence I saw pour out during our third grade classes. I was proud of him, hoping this leadership role was helping him feel more empowered in all areas of his life.

Josh is only one of several 5th-7th grade students who participate in our peer-to-peer learning system–each of whom I’ve seen evolve uniquely. For some, taking ownership over this role gives them space to be creative, engage with, and inspire younger students, who get hyped about seeing the familiar and relatable faces of their older peer mentors. One of my quieter 5th grade students, Leah*, who admitted her shyness guiding class discussions, has demonstrated an incredible level of personal development. With a little nudging, her voice has gotten louder, and she continues volunteering herself to teach with me.

When I initially proposed the idea of this peer to peer learning system, I had no guarantee how well it would work, if at all. In a sense, it was parallel to sowing a seed in our garden and not knowing with certainty if it would take root. Yet through this process, I’ve realized that students–just like seeds–sometimes need to be believed in, to grow.

Student filling out worksheet about the garden