Picture a dynamic classroom. A class that feels exciting, engaging, and active. A class that students genuinely want to take part in.
Where are the students? Where is the teacher? Are these positions static or shifting? Who is at the front of the room? Who is the center of attention?
One fantastic strategy for energizing our classrooms is to put our students, quite literally, front and center – to have them teach each other. This approach carries several major positive impacts:
- It helps the “learners.” A longstanding body of research has shown that learning from fellow students “fosters deep understanding of the material and a positive attitude toward the subject matter” (Jessica Lander, “Students as Teachers”).
- It helps the “teachers.” Coming up with a way to effectively convey what they have learned to their peers helps students deepen and reinforce their own understanding. (We teachers know this intuitively, but research has also confirmed it.)
- It encourages student ownership. When students are visible taking the lead in class, it reinforces the sense that the class belongs to them, that student voice matters, and that the teacher is not the sole gatekeeper of knowledge.
- It builds valuable skills. Asking students to teach challenges them to practice planning and project management as they prepare lessons, and gives them the opportunity to work on public speaking techniques when they present. These are skills that carry across content areas and into future professions.
- It fosters empathy. As the “teachers” assume responsibility for helping their peers understand the topic, they have to practice taking on someone else’s perspective. Meanwhile, the “learners” get to practice respect and active listening as they encourage their peer “teachers,” knowing that they will be in the same position eventually. (And maybe, everyone develops a little more empathy for us – the actual teachers – as they get a sense of how hard this job really is!)
Getting students “front and center” can take a variety of forms. Maybe students are appointed as discussion leaders in small groups, tasked with generating questions about a text and facilitating conversation. Maybe student teams research different assigned topics and then present to each other to build background knowledge before reading a novel. Or maybe, as a long-term project, students are challenged to choose their own topic and design a full-fledged lesson of their own.
All of these approaches are valid, all of them are valuable, and all of them are POSSIBLE.
But what if they’re bad at it?
As teachers, we know better than anyone that teaching takes WORK. It takes practice. It’s not something anyone should expect to be great at on their first try. So the first thing we should acknowledge if we’re going to pursue this strategy is that OF COURSE they’re going to be bad at it… at first. And that’s okay. Learning is still happening even if student presenters are struggling, even if some “lessons” seem to fall flat. In fact, these moments of apparent “failure” can be powerful opportunities for helping students buy into a growth mindset.
Knowing that students are going to struggle though, there are some concrete steps we can take to support them – to scaffold their ability to teach and learn from each other. What follows are a few ideas for empowering students to lead and creating conditions in which they can be successful.
A student’s first experience with leading the class should NOT be a full lesson that they develop and present on their own. Instead, we should build skills and confidence with teaching opportunities where there’s low risk and lots of support.
The teachers in my PLC do this brilliantly. Early in the semester, they review basic grammar concepts with incoming freshmen by putting them in small groups and asking them to create a 2-3 minute presentation on an assigned part of speech. Student teams are given a short list of online resources to consult for background knowledge. Clear written instructions lay out exactly what students have to include in their presentation (a poster or powerpoint slide with a graphics, a memorable definition, at least three sentence examples, etc.). The instructions also require students to make their presentation FUN, and my colleagues offer concrete examples for how they can accomplish this: open with a short skit, write a rap or song, make the class mimic hand motions. Students get a block of time to prepare and rehearse in class, and then groups deliver their presentation in quick succession.
What works so well in this approach is what I’d recommend for any activity introducing students to the practice of teaching each other:
- The student “teachers” know exactly what they need to cover,
- They are dealing with a small amount of information,
- They have the support of teammates,
- The time frame is short enough that holding their peers’ attention won’t be an issue,
- There is an explicit focus on being engaging and creative,
- And all students present on the same day.
These conditions help to alleviate nervous pressure, encourage playfulness, and allow students to see multiple examples of teaching strategies from their peers. I would recommend running several exercises like this before challenging students to conduct more sustained and self-directed lessons on their own.
Define “Good Teaching” Together
Students know what good teaching feels like, but they may not be able to articulate its qualities. One way to get them thinking about how they can improve as presenters is to give them some models to analyze. Maybe you could rope a few colleagues into recording short videos. Have some of them showcase 1-2 minutes of awesome teaching and some of them act out a brief example of purposefully bad teaching. Then, view these videos with students and ask them to identify positive and negative examples of:
- Body language
- Eye contact
- Tone of voice
- Use of visual aids
- Interaction with students
From there, have student groups construct a T-chart that delineates characteristics of “Strong vs. Weak” Teaching. These could form the basis of a common rubric that students will use to give feedback on each others’ presentations. Involving students in setting the criteria for evaluation will help them be more aware of those elements in their own work – and you could build on that awareness even further by requiring students to evaluate themselves in a short written reflection composed after each teaching experience.
Share Some Strategies
One of the best Principals I ever worked for used to share a “Strategy of the Week” based on Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion techniques. He gave a brief explanation of the strategy with concrete examples and then challenged the whole faculty to implement the strategy in their teaching that week. Explicitly naming those techniques – things like “Cold Call,” “Wait Time,” “Do Now,” and “No Opt Out” – made my colleagues and I much more conscious of our teaching strategies and more reflective about our own practice.
What if we did something similar with our student teachers and presenters? With each new teaching “assignment” we could give them one simple, concrete strategy that they have seen us use in our own teaching – something like a “Turn and Talk” – and ask them to implement it somewhere in their presentation. Because the whole class would be familiar with the strategy, the student audience would be more likely to play along and help their peers use the technique successfully. And as the year goes on, students would develop a bank of teaching strategies they can pull from for longer lessons.
Check out this handy placemat created by Jillian Robinson to see all 62 Teach Like a Champion techniques.
Let Them Copy-Paste You
Though we obviously want to encourage original thinking, imitating models is one of the best ways to develop an unfamiliar skill. To help build students’ capacity for leading in the classroom, give them small, familiar chunks of your own lesson – elements that are standard and routine – and ask them to take over.
I usually start class with a short, skill-focused warm-up in which students read a brief excerpt from a text and then answer 2-3 questions. Students know the drill: a volunteer reads the excerpt aloud, students write silently for a couple minutes, there’s a quick chance to check in with a group, and then I Cold Call individual students to share answers. The whole routine is done in 10 minutes.
I have handed the reins over to students for this part of class many times with great results. Sometimes I give students the warm-up the day before and ask them to prepare to lead it, but other times I’ve called students to take over on the spot. What I’ve found is that they seem to enjoy pretending to be me. As they give instructions or cold call their peers, they mimic my mannerisms and copy my most-used phrases, often to beautifully humorous effect.
It’s not only kind of flattering – it actually helps them practice things like stage-presence, questioning, and engaging the audience without feeling too self-conscious. Leading the room through my pre-made content and routine functions sort of like a paint by numbers exercise, giving them a feel for teaching structures that they can apply to presentations of their own.
Keep the Audience Engaged (and Accountable)
We can also support the success of students teaching and presenting by working on the other side of the equation: their peers in the “audience.” Hopefully, developing evaluation criteria together, and the fact that all students will be playing the “teacher” role at some point, will ensure that students are empathetic and respectful to their peers at the front of the room. Still, it’s a good practice to reinforce expectations for the audience each time student presenters take the stage.
Just like you worked with students to define “good teaching,” construct a class definition of “Active Listening.” What does it look like? What kind of body language demonstrates engagement? What habits would be distracting or discouraging to the presenter? After we’ve determined these guidelines, I usually review them via a few bullet points on the screen whenever we’re about to have a presentation.
It’s also helpful to give the student “learners” a job. This could take different forms depending on the activity. Maybe students have a set of notes that they will only be able to complete by listening to all of the other groups’ presentations; maybe there is a quiz after all groups have gone. This strategy would work well when student teams are presenting short chunks of information in quick succession, as with the Parts of Speech activity I described earlier. Alternatively, you could ask the student “teachers” to create guided notes or a quick formative assessment to go along with their lesson.
Or maybe you have the audience focus on giving peer feedback. When one of my colleagues and I were teaching a High School Seminar course, we used to conduct mock job interviews with every single student. This took several class periods, but we managed to keep the observing students engaged the whole time by asking them to fill out a quick Plus-Delta chart for each of their peers on an index card. After each interview, we collected these notes and handed them to the student interviewee. Not only did the students up front receive powerful and immediate feedback, but the students waiting for their turn had a chance to reflect on how they could improve their own performance.
Whatever task you set for them, it’s important that student “learners” feel accountable for what they’re doing while their peers are presenting. Make it very clear that what the student teachers are sharing is valuable and that their voices matter.
Okay, But How do I Actually Start This?
Turning our classroom over to students can feel scary at first. There’s some risk involved – but the rewards are worth it! And remember that Starting Small really is the way to go. You don’t have to commit to students being front and center regularly. You don’t have to design some major capstone presentation that students work towards all year. You really can just give it a try by asking students to run a warm-up or closing activity, or by assigning groups to make a one-page anchor chart on a simple concept. Just tossing small opportunities for students to lead, teach, and present into what you’re already doing is a great way to change things up and keep the energy flowing.