Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Experts and Novices: A Peer Teaching Technique

Every now and then, I am in the middle of teaching a lesson and I step back and actually "see" what is happening in the room around me. Today was one of those days, and I have to say, I liked what I saw. We are in the middle of learning measurement conversions- customary AND metric. If you've ever taught this skill, you know it can be a doozy. There are so many conversion factors to memorize and then there's the whole business of knowing when to multiply and when to divide by the right factor. It makes kids' heads spin, and teachers' brains hurt.

After many years of trial and error, I have a pretty reliable method for teaching conversions. It involves conversion cheat sheets, calculators, the mnemonic "King Henry Died Unexpectedly Drinking Chocolate Milk", and memorization of this simple concept - "Smaller unit to larger unit means you divide, and larger unit to smaller unit means you multiply." It takes LOTS of practice, but most of my students can successfully convert between different units of measurement eventually.

Today was Day 3 of our measurement unit, and I noticed that some students were really starting to master conversions, while another distinct group was not making consistent progress. I decided to fall back on a tried and true technique I call Experts and Novices to narrow the learning gap.

My students are already used to self-assessing their understanding. We've been doing it since the beginning of the year. When we are learning new content, we'll stop periodically and rate our understanding using this scale:

It took repeated practice and a lot of relationship building to get to a point where I feel confident my students are making honest assessments and taking true ownership of their learning, but I do believe my kids are truthful for the most part when they rate their understanding.  On an occasion when I suspect someone is not being honest about what they know, I call them on it. It doesn't happen that often, but sometimes I have to remind a child whose pretending to know something they really don't understand that they are only hurting themselves if they are dishonest.

After practicing metric conversions together on, I had the kids do a quick rating of their understanding. Next, I used their self-assessments to make Expert-Novice partnerships. I usually let the students who are not confident in their understanding choose the "expert" they want to work with. This time, no one rated himself a 1, so I let the 2's choose the 5's they wanted to work with. Then, each 3 chose a 5. That left some 4's who partnered up quickly, and we were ready to roll.

There are two secrets to maximizing the effectiveness of Expert-Novice partnerships, and I am going to share them with you. First, the experts have to put their pens and pencils away. In our case, it's usually dry erase markers, but you get the point. This strategy works best when the novice does all the writing and calculating. Secondly, the expert can give directions and ask questions, but they can not tell the novice the answer. This may all sound very simplistic to you, but it is actually a very powerful peer teaching technique. An added bonus is that the kids really like it, both the experts and the novices.

Today, I was reminded just how effective Expert-Novice partnerships can be. While my kids were in pairs working on conversion problems from, I experienced that moment where I stepped out of the lesson and really watched what was happening from the perspective of an outside observer. What I noticed was that every single child in the class was 100% engaged and on-task. There was tons of learning-related conversation going on. Students were supporting one another and cheering each other on. The positive energy in the room was palpable. And most importantly, rapid clarification and new learning was occurring. 2's were quickly changing their rating to 3's, and even an occasional 4. Likewise, 3's were claiming to be turning into 4's as the practice progressed. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that Experts and Novices exponentially increases your ability to reach students who are struggling with new material. It's like you can be in 10 places at the same time. Each child who is struggling gets 1:1 support. But, the novices are not the only ones who benefit from this activity. The experts get an opportunity to refine their learning even further as they watch their partner work, and they have to  look for the breakdown in their understanding. Then, the expert needs to communicate the necessary information in a way that is understandable to the novice. This is a very natural and purposeful way of providing enrichment for students who excel.

I hope I've done a thorough job of explaining this peer teaching technique, because it is one of those strategies you'll find yourself using over and over again if you can implement it successfully.

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