Why not Children as Teachers – not just Learners?

This morning I glanced occasionally at a range of adolescent orangutans engaging in problem-solving play and stick-based learning with, and from, each other on an Animal Planet show. They were teaching and learning together as mammalian young have been wont to do across time. It reminded me of an I-search question that’s been on my mind for a while. What if we set up school communities to more formally and informally situate children and adolescents to teach and learn together in multi-age opportunities as they’ve always done? What might be different and why? And does the rationale still make sense for sustaining our current paradigm for single-age learning communities, a paradigm that only developed in the early years of the 20th century?

Orphaned orangutans, Borneo, Andy Bingham

While visiting Irish educators and observing in multiple school settings with @irasocol, our conversations often centered upon how highly effective and supportive use of multi-age classes leads children to learn from other children. We dropped in on a range of multi-age learning communities from large, diverse urban to tiny, 2-teacher Gaeltacht primary schools (K-6 in U.S. terms.) Despite my experience with some multi-age classrooms when I was an elementary principal, it was eye-opening to witness the ethos of multi-age learning that’s so deeply embedded in Ireland.

In this class, level 6 routinely teaches Level 2

In Ireland, primary teachers have a difficult time envisioning a single grade classroom and they consider deep literacy acquisition and the nation’s high literacy rate as related to multi-age opportunities to build vocabulary, learn concepts, and scaffold learning across disciplines. They also saw this model as creating a culture that socially advances appropriate behaviors at work and play by and among children, causing significantly less devotion of time to teaching children “how to do school.”

Versions of this comment also surface from local teachers in our very few systemic multi-age settings, such as a K-1 classes, as well as from teachers who loop up with children to the next grade.Teachers in multi-age  communities  or those that stay together for more than a year seem to spend less time enforcing rules and more academic time working with children – in Ireland or here. This seems important given the concerns of educators about never having enough time.

Since May, I’ve also had the chance to watch multi-age, really multi-age communities from 7-18 years of age attending #coderdojos in both Thurles,Ireland and Albemarle, Va. In Thurles, my friend and colleague, Pam O’Brien, @pamelaaobrien, provided an opportunity to experience my first #coderdojo. This summer, I was in and out of a local school observing #coderdojo participants over four days in my own district. In both cases, children relished the opportunity to play and work with each other, often in antithesis of the stereotypical images of tech learning and learners. Instead, girls taught boys and younger children helped older ones code in Scratch, HTML, and with Lego robotics design software. Age was not the greatest variable. What the kids knew and could do was though. Sometimes the adults were the teachers. And, sometimes children taught the adults.

a younger and older elementary student working together on a laptop

#Cvillecoderdojo: kids teaching kids

When six-year-old Sean in Thurles was asked what he did when he got stuck creating a Scratch game, he pointed to an 11-year old red-head, Steven. When I posed the same question to Steven, he turned to a 20-year-old college student and said, “she helps me when I need a hand.” At our local #codedojo here in Virginia, the teaching team started out with 4 relatively age-based coding rooms. By the end of four days, the kids were working together with as much as ten years difference in age to search, connect, communicate, and make.

As a result of thinking about the possibilities of multi-age teaching and learning, I was drawn back to reconsider the “hole in the wall” project of Sugata Mitra’s. In this educational “experiment,” Mitra, in 1999, first placed secure computers in walls and made them accessible to children who have no schools in their community. Then, he watched. Over time, the children worked, played, and figured out how to use the technology, connecting to the Internet, creating music, and playing with applications. Then, they began to teach and learn with each and from each other. Outside school. Outside adult teaching.

These observations of recent have led me to consider how little we advantage learners by creating opportunities for them to learn together, with and from each other, as storytellers, writers, readers, problem-solvers, creators, builders, designers, engineers, producers, makers, researchers, and decision-makers. How might opportunities to teach and learn from each other more deeply facilitate all young people to remain curious, passionate, engaged, connected, and futuristic in their thinking and doing?

3 students working on math problem-solving on the floor

working together to problem-solve maths

Adults are the first models for learning.  By nature, they’re also teachers in the home as parents and by profession as educators. However, children, too, in their DNA are teachers and learners, too.  Mammalian young learn from each other with the same ease as  taking their first breath. So, why do our U.S. schools, in general, not take advantage of that versus trying to isolate children from each other in the learning process? In the natural world of orangutans what scientists label as learning from each other; we, in the education world, label as cheating.In Ireland, I saw children share their project work with each other and use it to scaffold and advance their own work- a very different way of thinking about learning than we practice here.

But, think of the potential to maximize learning in schools with a “many to many” rather than “one to many” teaching and learning approach. While commonplace in both the 1800s multi-age schoolhouses of America and in the “hedge” schools of Ireland, the multi-age community disappeared in the United States as we modernized our one-room schools into factory schools that became ubiquitous in the 1900s. As in most of Europe, Ireland’s commitment to multi-age learning did not.

a one room school house made of logs I wonder to what degree the single grade nature of our current factory-driven, teacher-directed elementary classrooms has contributed to the social and academic learning gaps with which we are concerned today. Does the single grade system that we use really make us more efficient or effective to borrow from the business language that emerged from the work of Frederick Taylor and Elwood Cubberley? Or not?

Teaching and learning together occur naturally in children’s tree-house building projects in community backyards. However, such informal multi-age “play, teach, learn” experiences seem to be fast disappearing from our culture, just as multi-age learning evaporated with the advent of 20th century schools.  Watching the Olympics, I think of all the games that older children have taught younger children to play, naturally and without much adult intervention. Given our historical and evolutionary dispositions to play, teach, and learn in multi-age communities, why would we be so surprised to see contemporary children teaching and learning together, whether abandoned in the mean streets of India or dropped off at a #coderdojo by their parents?

After observing multi-age communities in Irish classrooms and coderdojos, adolescent orangutans in Borneo, and Mitra’s “hole in the wall” child-teachers, I wonder why we wouldn’t begin to redesign our schools to take advantage of this natural capacity of young people to teach, not just to learn?

In what ways could we create multi-age learning opportunities in our schools? Why not set that as a goal this year? It could be a game changer for contemporary learners – and you.

In this classroom everyone is a student everyone is a teacher

6 thoughts on “Why not Children as Teachers – not just Learners?

  1. Pingback: Quotes of the Week, August 13 « 21k12

  2. This is definitely the way forward. My only suggestion would be to flesh this approach out a bit more so that there is a view of society and our ultimate set of values in terms of which the pedagogy makes sense. Children can be teachers. Yes. Workers can be bosses. Why not? Media viewers can be media makers. Why not? This is a pedagogy for a radically democratic society. Let’s push for change in the classroom, and let’s also push for change outside it.

  3. As is usually the case I found my head bobbing up and down as I read. I have been rolling this idea around in my head for a while, and my conversation with Ira a month ago has kept it at the forefront of my thinking. I actually presented the idea for our new learning spaces being built this summer to function as a preK-2nd grade space. Without a concrete model for people to see the idea died as an interesting idea on my office whiteboard. As is the case with a number of my ideas for the future of education and those things you continue to pose that resonate with me….how do we find places that will allow us to let these ideas get a foothold? The more I talk with educators, parents and the community the more I find that it is extremely hard for society to imagine a new reality around school. How do we share what these ideas look like in reality. If we don’t find a way to take ideas from the theoretical to the concrete in growing numbers the status quo will continue to hold and we won’t truly be able to meet the needs of ALL kids.

    • Dave,

      We tend to filter possibilities by seeing our schools through what we know and what has been. We have few alternatives out there to consider that make sense in the context of public schools. I think we have to become explorers of the relatively unknown, borrowing from that which is available to push us to consider different. I have a number of “go to” people who do that for me- some inside the district and some outside who are deep thinkers and doers. We educators tend to want to find expertise inside ourselves and operate from a perspective that those on the “outside” couldn’t possibly offer much to us. I think they do. We need to make sense of that as teams together – I also think we spend way too much time dwelling in the land of “yea, but” and not nearly enough exploring the universe of “what if.” Thanks for sharing some thinking. I believe our ideas take root when we give permission, offer support, reinforce positive and directional shifts to contemporary work. Those folks are out there- we need to leverage them to help the work go viral.

    • A second try: Is it really possible in our society for schooling to meet the needs of all kids? In the UK over 12,000 children are excluded from school because of expulsions. Is blame for that to be laid at the feet of the schools? Schools inevitably tend to represent the system that they belong to and that they ultimately serve. If the system is dysfunctional, it will be impossible for schools to meet the needs of ALL kids. I heard a yound man in a different part of the world say: “If you live here you have three choices: you work hard for a miserable wage, you leave the country or you join a gang.” If those are the alternatives that young people see facing them after they leave school, how can school properly meet their needs?

      Of course, with any particular school, we can always find room for improvement, and encouraging words will always be welcomed, and it is great when people like Sir Ken Robinson come round and give their pep talks, and everyone feels inspired. But if we take a few steps further back, do we not see the current systemic limits to the perfection of schooling?

  4. As I read this, I thought, “if only…” and had to stop myself. It’s so easy to say, great idea, won’t work here. As a former middle and high school teacher, and now as a teacher of pre-service educators, I have seen first hand the power of student collaboration. In particular, my undergraduate and graduate students are multi-generational; digital natives mentoring digital immigrants on topics relating to technology or those older students bringing their numerous life experiences into discussion makes for such deep learning. Right on!


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