When I was in undergrad, on top of a full course load each semester because my major was Psychology and Pre-Med and I participated in the Honors program, I worked 30 hours per week–20 hours in the Bursar’s Office and 10 in the Tutoring Center. I started working in the Tutoring Center the summer after my first year as a Chemistry tutor at the recommendation of my Chemistry professor. At first, the idea of tutoring was terrifying because I felt I was in no way an expert in Chemistry and I did not know how to convey the information any better than Dr. Sinski. Even after attending tutor training (our Center required every tutor be at least Level 1 certified by the College Reading and Language Association), I did not feel much more confident. Of course learning about active listening and learning styles and types of difficult students was interesting, but none of it seemed to relate to what actually happened in tutoring sessions. Yes, I had students with different learning styles and some were “difficult” students and I listened to them actively, but I wanted tips for actually making my specific material easier for them to comprehend.
Eventually, I realized I wasn’t going to get those tips from any training, but from experience with what worked and what didn’t. I had the tools in my toolbox to get students thinking–the Socratic method, scaffolding, etc.–and I could build rapport with students such that they would be honest and tell me. That was when I realized that the mantra from tutor training that always seemed the most annoying–“you are not a teacher, you are a peer learner”–was perhaps the most important. The point of being a peer-learner was that you should not re-teach the material as you are not an expert, you should simply guide students to the correct answers and better learning by providing tricks for studying and remembering. However, this realization made me think that perhaps everyone would learn better and have a better classroom experience if teachers considered themselves peer learners.
A teacher as a peer learner would be the classroom facilitator, but they wouldn’t just lecture. They would lay a groundwork and then let the students guide the course, just like we would let tutees guide our tutoring sessions. In Contemporary Pedagogy class, several voiced how students do not do the reading before class, so it is difficult to have meaningful discussion. However, I feel like this stems from the fact that students expect that the teacher will lecture on the material regardless and they will then have all the information to do as well on the test as they feel they need to do. But what if we undermined this expectation by changing the way that readings are used for class–not as materials to be taught for adequate knowledge as obtained by testing, but as materials for completing learning activities in the class. For example, in two readings for this week’s Contemporary Pedagogy, A New Culture of Learning and Setting Students’ Minds on Fire, the authors mention how basing the course on an active learning paradigm, such as having a show and tell aspect demonstrating projects created using the skills from that week’s readings or playing a Reacting to the Past game where every student has a role in a debate making history come to life lead to students reading materials not assigned and engaging with fellow students about the course. By working on these projects with students, the teacher can act as a peer learner.
As a chemistry tutor, I eventually did find those tips about how to better get the content “point” across to students, but it was by working through problems with them and making mistakes. When a mistake is made, and you work to learn how to fix it, you never make the same mistake again. Eventually I felt like I learned all the pitfalls to solving Chemistry problems (I didn’t, but by final year tutoring, I had found all the ones my students would come across). And I had accumulated many tips for making content easier to remember (I had a great 30 minute spiel about how to name compounds properly and a flowchart for any conversion problem), but I did not develop them by myself. As a teacher now, and in the future, I don’t want to teach in the traditional sense. I want to be a peer learner. Even in my own field, new research will continue to develop and I will never be a complete expert in the sense of knowing everything there is to know about psychology (or even my niche within it, biological psychology). So, because as a peer learner you are humble and accept help from outside sources, the idea of having a digital aspect to the class is welcome, rather than something to worry about as a distraction. We’re all human, we all get bored, and some content just doesn’t excite us no matter how much our peer learner tries to show us how it relates to our life and interests (believe me, the beauty and importance of chemistry is challenging to get across to students who only seem to care about running track). But we can try to make it fun, and inclusion of games is just one way. I often directed my students to Sporcle for chemistry practice, and I frequently use Kahoot in presentations for seminar classes in grad school. Our students should want to win. Like the students at Quest to Learn, if learning is focused on developing practical skills to solve more problems (learning like occurs in video games, where you do not move onto the next level if you are not ready to learn it–like scaffolding in tutoring!), then school work becomes not only much more exciting, but also much more practical for doing jobs in the digital age.
One final point: because our students are digital learners, even if it is difficult (for example, I myself am terrible at games and coding and most things related to technology), we need to embrace digital resources. That’s also part of being a peer learner–you have to meet the tutee where they are. You can only be helpful if you can keep up and make the material applicable to how they live. Truly, technology can make all the difference. I often think back to when I attended Thrivals 3.0 at the IdeaFest in Lousville. The readings for this week aligned so perfectly. A researcher there spoke about how kids could teach themselves as demonstrated by his Hole-in-the-Wall project. Basically, he just stuck a computer in a wall with no instructions for use in a slum and kids quickly learned by working collaboratively how to use it. As a teacher who is also a peer learner, we can both be the provider of the “computer” and one of the kids learning from the group.