Students teaching students: What can we learn?

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After reading the last two posts on pre-service teacher education (here and here), I began to reflect on an experience I had before any formal knowledge of teaching. When I was in college, I spent several summers teaching with Summerbridge Hong Kong (SBHK), an English summer program that provided a low-cost English immersive experience to low-income local students.

Like many overseas language programs, SBHK hires relatively inexperienced high school and college students from the US, UK, and Canada to help local students improve their English skills and increase their exposure to international cultures. Unlike many such programs, SBHK focuses on the development and empowerment of its teachers as much as of its students.

Looking back, after graduate study and several additional years of teaching, I continue to wonder what more I can glean from the program’s philosophy of education and model of teacher training.

Rather than prescribing a curriculum, the program’s administrators scaffold teachers towards designing and delivering their own 4-week lessons. Before arriving in Hong Kong, teachers work with a prior SBHK teacher as a “virtual mentor” to begin developing a final project for their class. Once they arrive, they participate in a series of training workshops designed to introduce them to basic principles and techniques of teaching, as well as to help them break their final project into 3-5 themed “mini-units.” Each mini-unit focuses on a skill that students will need to complete the final project. Throughout the summer, teachers use a similar backwards approach on a smaller scale to develop individual lesson plans, each of which works towards the focus of the mini-unit as well as the final project for the class.

Every step of the way, the Dean of Faculty, an experienced teacher or graduate student in an educational field, provides feedback that is intended to support teachers in meeting their own and students’ goals in the classroom. Just as students are encouraged to think of English as more than just a school class, teachers are encouraged to think of teaching as more than just a job. This is facilitated by encouraging teachers to try new strategies and techniques and to learn from their mistakes rather than fearing consequences. Celebrating such attempts allows teachers to develop as teachers and to take pride in their teaching.

Despite its seemingly loose structure, this program transforms some 300 low-income Hong Kong high school students from disheartened English language learners into dynamic language users who by the end of the summer communicate with confidence on stage in front of hundreds of people. Over 90% of program graduates consistently pass the HKCEE (Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination), compared to the 65% average of all Hong Kong students. While there is no such quantitative survey of teachers’ progress, in my years of working with this program I have yet to meet a single teacher who has described a negative experience. Regardless of how unrealistic it seems, such a model seems to work, at least for language education.

While there are obvious limitations to duplicating this exactly in the K-12 setting, structuring an environment in which teachers and students alike are encouraged to take ownership of their own classroom and education seems both productive and intuitive. Such a program can be structured enough to prescribe end goals for students and teachers through a semester, while remaining flexible enough for individual teachers to develop strategies optimum for their own classes or contexts. However, doing so requires parents and administrators to treat teachers as professionals and afford them the trust and respect such status deserves. In the same vein, it encourages the implementation of policies that increase teachers’ resources and confidence and encourage them to engage students and facilitate learning to the greatest degree possible.

However, such an approach is impossible to standardize. While every student in the country certainly deserves to benefit from the best teaching methods on hand, standardization assumes that there exists a singular optimal approach to teaching regardless of region, student demographic, income level, familiarity with US culture, etc. Standardization and scripted lessons can result in lost learning opportunities because such segues deviate from the script or in inefficient teaching methods that neglect students’ personal interests or previous knowledge. One of the most memorable and enjoyable lessons I ever taught was on body parts and illnesses to a night class of adults, each of whom had multiple tattoos and piercings.

Encouraging teachers to adapt their teaching to fit their own contexts rather than penalizing them for doing so provides spaces in which they and their students can have agency – and interest – in their own classrooms.

 

Geeta Aneja

ganeja@gse.upenn.edu

 

 

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