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Student as Teacher

John Simkin

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This article originally appeared on the History Forum. The responses can be read at:


Research has been recently carried out at the United States National Learning Lab in Maine to assess the most effective way that young people can learn. The researchers employed a variety of different teaching methods and then tested the students to find out how much they had learnt. From this the researchers were able to calculate what they called the Average Retention Rate. The results were as follows:

Teacher talking to a class (5%)

Student reading a book (10%)

Student watching an audio visual presentation (20%)

Student watching a teacher demonstration (30%)

Students taking part in a discussion group (50%)

Students involved in an activity that is related to what the teacher wants them to learn (75%)

Students teaching others (90%).

These research findings do not surprise me. I once carried out some research on a group whom I had taught over a period of six years (11 to 17). The information they had retained from their history lessons reflected the findings of US National Learning Lab, in that the most effective learning was related to the amount of active participation from the student.

However, it seems to me that the majority of teachers spend much of their time using teaching methods which, according to US National Learning Lab, are fairly ineffective. I suspect the main reasons for employing traditional instructional methods are as follows: (1) this was the way that the teachers were taught when they were pupils at school; (2) this was the way that teachers were trained to teach; (3) this is the accepted way of teaching amongst colleagues - i.e. peer group pressure; (4) teachers enjoy being performers; (5) the teacher feels more in control of the situation when traditional instructional methods are used.

Tradition is the great enemy of innovation. One of the advantages of using the Internet in the classroom is that it encourages teachers to think again about teaching methods. One of the fears that I have is that teachers producing materials online will attempt to duplicate the methods they use in the classroom.

The idea that students should play an active role in their learning is not a new idea. In the 1960s educationalists like Jerome Bruner argued that people learn best when they learn in an active rather than a passive manner. He used the example of how we learn language. It is claimed that this is the most difficult thing we have to do in our life, yet we learn it so young and so quickly – so easily in fact, that some experts in this field have argued that language is, to a certain extent, an inherited skill.

Bruner argues that the reason we learn language so quickly is due to the method we use. As we are introduced to words, we use them. We test them out. Words immediately became practical. We can quickly see why it helps us to know these words.

This method is very different from the way most subjects are taught at school. The student is usually a passive receptacle trying to take in information that they will need for some test or examination in the future. To complete this task effectively depends on students employing what sociologists have called deferred gratification. This is something that most young people are not very good at. They want their pleasures now, not in the distant future.

In his book, The Process of Education (1960), Bruner argues that it is possible to teach any topic or subject using the same methods that we use when learning language. This involves structuring the material so that the student can test out and use the information in a practical way.

Bruner’s ideas on learning helps to explain why the Learning Lab researchers found that the highest Retention Rate occurred when students were given the opportunity to teach other students. As teachers we have all had the experience of having to teach something we do not know too much about. How quickly we learn when we know that the next day we will be faced by students asking us questions about the material.

It is fairly straightforward to set up situations where students teach other students. For example, the class could be divided into two. Each group is given a different topic to teach. When the material has been prepared the children are paired up with someone from the other group.

Another strategy is to get the students to prepare teaching materials for another class to use. I saw this approach being used successfully by one of our members, Richard Jones-Nerzic, at the International School of Toulouse.

A student in a traditional teaching environment can be very passive or docile but when he or she has to take on the role of teacher and instructor, the student is empowered. The “student as teacher” can prove to be an extremely positive and liberating experience for both the student/teacher and the class that makes up the audience.

Anybody who has read the novel A Kestrel for a Knave (by Barry Hines) or seen the film Kes (directed by Ken Loach) will remember the scene where Billy Casper teaches the rest of the class about kestrels. Billy Casper undergoes a transformation in this scene because probably for the first time in his life he has been given the opportunity to share his knowledge and expertise.

How can we as teachers create similar situation to the “Billy Casper effect” in the classroom? I would like to finish off by looking at one practical example of how it could be done.

The example concerns the subject of the Home Front. During the war the British government was constantly monitoring the success of its various policies concerning the Home Front. The government was also aware of the possibility that it might be necessary to introduce legislation to deal with any emerging problems.


The students have to imagine they are living in Britain in December 1941. The students are asked to write a report on one aspect of government policy (evacuation, rationing, refugees, etc.). The web page provides work on a total of 36 different topics, so it should be possible for each student to have a different topic.

Every student has to report back to the class about the topic he or she has investigated. (1) Each student has to provide a report on what has been happening in their assigned area since the outbreak of the war. (2) The student then has to make proposals about the changes they would like to see in government policy. (These proposals are then discussed and voted on by the rest of the class.)

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Guest ChristineS

I am glad that are posting about this. I totally agree that one of the best things we can do for a student is get them to teach other students what they know. It certainly focuses their minds on making sure they know the subject and they soon get better at organising their material and selecting what is meaningful, so it is not just associated with the content they need to know, but skills too (skills such as organisation and relevance; developing understanding of audience and purpose; expressive skills etc.).

I like students to deliver seminars in 6th Form, which is pretty standard, and I like them to demonstrate materials they have researched and even devise activities for other students to undertake. I like students doing the Editorial paper at A level to select the material, give it to others students to turn into a text, then collect it in and mark it by the criteria (as recommended by the writer of the Editorial Writing in the Living Language Series). If they haven't put the effort in in collecting it, they soon know - and they also learn about the topic whilst collecting it and marking others responses to it. I also used to make memeory maps for my students as a memorising tool, until I discovered tbney can make their own to give to other classes or groups, thus killing two birds with one stone.

There is also that standard group work technique. Set out a Home group; it may have a question to answer, for instance. Regroup so one person from each home group is in a new group which becomes the 'expert' group on a particular aspect of the topic in hand. The expert group then sets out to become expert at that topic area: perhaps through trying out something the teacher has introduced, or by investigating something themselves in some way such as on the Web, or just looking at a text like a poem in class. They then regroup as Home group to share the information. If it needs developing, the Home group synthesises the information in some way; perhaps by preparing it for delivery to the class.

Recently I discovered what a great learning opportunity getting them to make power point presentations to deliver to classmates is. I don't need to know anything about Powerpoint because the IT department teach it to our students as a matter of course, which is fantastic for me and I am learning about it from my students now. I am also looking forward to our school web site being developed so that perhaps the students could prepare a web presentation of what they have learned for other students or even the parents.

I have asked a colleague at work to show me how to do flash presentations because I want to teach my students how to do them as a way of presenting what they have discovered about particular poems. Has anyone ever done this with students?

The more ideas the better. What have others done?

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Flash is a powerful tool but not available in all school due to cost.

I encourage students to use PowerPoint as an animation tool.

Have a look at this one produced by an A level chemistry student.


Another favourite piece of sofware of mine that allows students to construct their own knowledge is Inspiration (and Kidspiration).

Question Tools is a great piece of free software for the creation of self marking quizzes and tests. It is a bit like hot potatoes. Download it from questiontools.com and get your students to create tests to match the learning objectives.

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Another favourite piece of sofware of mine that allows students to construct their own knowledge is Inspiration (and Kidspiration).

Question Tools is a great piece of free software for the creation of self marking quizzes and tests. It is a bit like hot potatoes. Download it from questiontools.com and get your students to create tests to match the learning objectives.

Have you got website details of Inspiration and Question Tools?

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Guest ChristineS

Hi Nick. I shall put this down on my list of things to learn about and I will get round to it, although heavens know it could be at a snail's pace with coursework for two GCSE classes and two different GCE courses now coming up. If I need help when I do get to it, I shall email you on here!

I still haven't found time to sit with my colleague who is going to show me Flash. I shall have to ask her how she manages to do it. I got the impression there was some free package, but clearly I won't know until I sit down with her.

That site and presentation - do I have to download anything to make it work? (Yes, I am that ignorant of much to do with these things; I only know what I have been shown to do, if you know what I mean. Means I have huge gaps in my knowledge. All attempts to tell me anything new have to be in words of one syllable and given at the typed equivalent of very slow! :rolleyes: )

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