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Those Who Understand Teach - How Peer Teaching Can Be Used Effectively In A Biology Class
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It is Aristotle who is quoted as saying "those that know do, those that understand teach". Whilst those outside the teaching profession have come up with a less complimentary version of this quote, those who have experienced the joys and frustrations of teaching know exactly what Aristotle was talking about.

Peer teaching is an often under-utilised strategy, though one most often chosen as the form of differentiation. For example, "I do differentiate the curriculum in my lesson - when the faster students are finished, they help the slower students." This is a reasonable strategy for every now and again, but doesn't quite get to the heart of either differentiation, nor the benefits of peer teaching.

There are many research based tasks in Biology. One of the most common ones is the selection of an infectious, or non-infectious disease for research or a group presentation. For this sort of concept it can be useful to break the material down into as many pieces as there are peers in the group. It doesn’t mean all students must have exactly the same answers, but it does mean each student must learn their section well enough to explain it to someone else so they understand it.

Be clear about the distinction here. You would not consider my teaching very effective if I dictated from a textbook and expected students to remember those notes. Likewise there are less marks available for a student who submits an assignment that was just a copy of a text they, or someone else in their group, had read somewhere else.

Reading through something, then explaining it to someone else requires a greater depth of understanding, particularly if your learners ask you questions. It is an important part of the research process. Very few biologists work in total isolation so this is a valid and helpful step for teaching students about one aspect of the scientific method.

An example I have used is to ask each group to prepare a 5 minute lesson for their peers based on their particular disease (cause, symptoms, treatment, prevention, etc). If it is already familiar the process will be a little easier. When students are being given the ‘lesson’, encourage them to try to ask questions, both to extend their knowledge and challenge the ‘instructor’. For the students giving the lesson, don’t be afraid to look for more information to answer a question. Learning is a process. It takes time and engagement. The more you want to learn, the more you will learn. We also don't need to say everything we know about a particular topic right up front.

The key to this process is the empathy that is gained by being in both roles. As a teacher, you realise how much deeper your knowledge needs to be and how your explanations can be precise and clear or just lead to more confusion. As a learner, you can take an active role in the learning process by asking questions and encouraging the teacher to draw on their knowledge. This deepens both their understanding as well as your own.

Web 2.0 technologies have made much of the peer teaching process so much easier. Student can communicate ideas to one another in a blog and use a wiki to organise their information. Online photo sharing and presentation tools can give the presentation a more professional look and students may even want to podcast their 'lesson' if they are feeling particularly brave. There are so many technology tools for educators that it is simply a matter of deciding which ones you want to use and how you want to assess their use and then let your students go for it.

Varying your teaching strategies and approach maintains a novelty element for students and helps to increase their motivation for your subject. The web has any number of teaching tools for educators that avoid you needing to reinvent the wheel. So the next time you want your students to really understand a concept, why not takes some of Aristotle's advice and ask them to teach it?

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