Peer teaching in World ORT schools

A proposal in light of distance teaching in the Coronavirus era

Prof Sidney Strauss, World ORT Academic Advisory Council.

Branco Weiss Professor of Research in Child Development and Education (Emeritus), School of Education, Tel Aviv University.

When we educate our youngsters, we teach them important knowledge and also how to be in our world, how to be a mensch.

Teaching is a noble profession, one where teachers pass on precious cultural knowledge, that has accumulated with hard work over the millennia, to others who know less, our pupils. That passing on of knowledge is at the core of teaching.

Teaching does not happen only in schools by licensed adult teachers. For instance, what about you when you taught your own children or maybe even your grandchildren when they were young? You may not be a licensed teacher who teaches in school, but you’ve taught. And there’s teaching in small-scale societies, like modern hunter and gatherers in Brazil and Africa, who live in small groups where there are no schools. They teach, too.

And, to the point of this brief essay, sometimes the usual understanding of teaching gets reversed. Adults aren’t the only ones who teach. Children teach, as well. You may have had the experience of your child or grandchild teaching you how to, say, download an app on to your smartphone.

Many research studies show that children age 3 teach. They are not great teachers but they do manage to pull it off. And 5-year-olds are fine teachers. Teach them how to play a game. Ask them if they want to play it with a friend and as soon as their friend comes over, the friend gets taught by the one who several minutes ago was the learner.

Another place where young people, university students, teach is when they cram with friends a little before their examinations. And what do they do? They sit around and go over the course material and when someone doesn’t understand a point, others explain it. That’s teaching. You may have had that kind of experience.

So what does this tell us? It could be that teaching is a natural ability for humans. We all know how remarkably complex it is but, as we now know, children by the age of around age 3 already know to teach without anyone having taught them how to teach.

This amazing natural ability children have can be harnessed in school situations. In addition to adult professional teachers teaching subject matter, children can teach each other.

And not only will they help their friends learn, they will also come to better understand what they are teaching. In one, among many research studies, the following was done: a class of university students was divided into 2 groups. Both were taught the same course material about the Crimean Wars. One group was told that at the end of the 2-month course, they will have an examination. The second group was told that at the end of the course, they will be asked to teach another person about what they learned. Both groups were given an identical exam at the end of the course. The results were most interesting: those who were told that they would teach had more extensive knowledge, had better command of details and their knowledge was organized much more deeply than those who were told they’d have an exam at the end of the course.

What do we learn from this? Even just telling someone that they will be asked to teach material to others encourages them to think about how to organize it for others by taking into account others’ understandings when teaching them. This line of research tells us that, when teaching, teachers learn a lot about what they teach.

And teachers, even if they are children, are likely to be formidable teachers for their peers. They can pass on their information, knowledge, understanding, skills (IKUS), etc. when tutoring other children in their classrooms, in their schools and in classrooms around the globe.

But teaching is not only transferring IKUS. At the heart of teaching is also the mensch part mentioned above, its interpersonal connections. When teaching goes well, there are moments that feel as if they are touched by a spark of spirituality.

You, the reader, hopefully had at least one memorable teacher. And it’s likely that that teacher, who you remember to this very day, was memorable not because she (or he) taught using one teaching method or another but because she touched you emotionally, by something she said to you and maybe because of her personality. And a friendship was forged between you and her.

That teacher was almost surely someone who took her responsibility seriously for the learning and well-being of others. In short, she was an ethical person.

By definition, there is an imbalance between a teacher and a pupil. The balance of power rests in the hands of the teacher. An ethical teacher does not abuse her authority and that engenders trust.

And that teacher was most likely a caring person, and you felt that in your interactions with her/him.

Friendship, responsibility, ethics, trust, care. These are central mensch ingredients for teaching that goes well.

When reading these words about teachers being a mensch, you probably imagined adult professional teachers teaching children in schools. Right? But given what was written above, they need not be restricted to adult teachers. They are also part and parcel of children’s natural teaching.

And even more than that, teaching has potential to foster those interpersonal connections in children. When children teach others, their interpersonal relations of friendship, taking responsibility for others, being ethical and caring and engendering trust may become better honed. By our asking children to teach their peers, we are helping them become more empathetic and helpful people.

What can all of this mean for World ORT schools?

Can we make peer teaching an integral part of daily life in ORT schools? This means:

  • telling our pupils that they will be asked to teach
    • their classmates
    • children from other classes
    • children from other schools
  • having time earmarked for pupils to teach each other
  • having adult teachers observe peer teaching and possibly intervene to help bolster interpersonal mensch interactions


And last, given schooling in times of the Corona virus pandemic, with considerable distance teaching being done by platforms such as Zoom, how do you think we can use the ideas I just presented for World ORT schools can be implemented in distance teaching?

For those who want to delve further into what I wrote above, here are two short anecdotal chapters.

One was written after a small conference I attended at the Vatican. Some of the above is fleshed out and other parts are added, in particular the education of the 250 million children who are not in schools around our globe.

The second was written with my colleague, Bhavani Rao, about peer teaching in quite isolated villages in India.