It’s a beautiful thing, the excitement of learning alongside a peer. The trust and community that develops by believing in one another. True for adults and children, staff and students.
Shared learning experiences build community and relationships. The beginning of Regie Routman’s Literacy Essentials focuses on developing trust, “Get to know students, and help them get to know each other” (p. 14). Without prioritizing the establishment of trusting relationships, teaching efforts are likely to fail. Not only on the first day of school, or when welcoming a new student into the room- throughout the year, trust matters. By creating opportunities for students to work collaboratively together, they will support one another as learners, help one another as friends, and respect one another in the community. There are many names for the topic of this post: Peer learning, collaborative learning, cooperative groups, shared learning, buddies, partner work. Whatever you call it, I hope it fosters joy, trust, and engagement in your classroom.
“Puzzle Partners” were a time-saving way to create the groups, remind students of their partner, and keep me accountable to using peer learning strategies often in my classroom. I used a pack of decorative puzzle piece cut-outs with students’ names on the front, magnet on the back, and they were always on display along the top of our board with partners’ pieces fitting together. Sometimes the partners were set up before the students entered the room, chosen with the question, “who will this student learn best with?” It was not about levels, behaviors, or just following directions. The key was that they would learn from one another, their personalities a match, and a ‘good fit’ for all the pieces to the learning puzzle. Other times, pairs were random. Puzzle partners usually stayed connected for a week before they were regrouped. And this strategy could fit with any shape or material, with the big idea that the groups are always visible- so the students know, and so they’re used often. As part of teaching social skills necessary to make partner work successful, I set expectations and modeled with students how to (and how not to) be a partner. Use of Regie’s Optimal Learning Model is excellent teaching (p.137-140).
Great ways to get the students to work together and get to know each other as learners, leading to discussion in pairs/groups, observations of each other, opportunities to explain and to listen, are “no wrong answers” activities: object sorts (misc. Items of all shapes and sizes- pen cap, leaf, buttons, toy parts, misc game pieces, etc. sorted into at least 2 categories), analysis or creation of photos and artwork, poetry partners, tree studies, community service cleanup, recess play. “Just as a culture of high trust is essential for the adults in schools, the same must be true for our children” (p.114). Teach kindness.
I recently pulled some favorite resources off the shelf looking for more research to support this tried-and-true strategy. The most relevant reason to “give more time and value to small group work” (p.156), is that “oral communication and the ability to work well in a team are the top two qualities employers seek, as well as the top two predictors of success” (Referenced in Literacy Essentials p.150*). Here are some others:
- Dick Allington in What Really Matters in Response to Intervention wrote, “Engage in daily partner reading as an alternative to round robin reading” as a strategy to making learning accessible for all readers (p. 98).
- In Strategies That Work (2nd Edition) Harvey & Goudvis said for paired reading, “the listener has the most important job: pay attention, think about, and respond to what the partner is reading” (p.55). This, along with a class created chart on ‘things you can say/ask during partner reading’ sets the expectations.
- The motherload of research, Visible Learning for Literacy, notes the effect size for cooperative vs. individualistic learning is .59 (learn more about Hattie’s work and effect size here). And in Visible Learning for Mathematics p. 153, they suggest 50% of class time each week be devoted to communication, collaboration, and interactions with peers. This book also provides resources for accountable talk and sentence frames. A reminder, “students don’t always need support from the teacher” (p. 64).
But Regie Routman says it best in Literacy Essentials: We must value teacher research, including our own. Allington and STW gave inspiration, but I know puzzle partners, reading buddies, and shared learning works because I’ve seen it work wonders. Students’ reading improved, confidence multiplied, their love of books grew, and the kindness towards supporting others spoke for itself. For many years, teaching friends and I set up time to bring our students together almost weekly to read with their buddies (Third with Kdg/1st graders). The bond the kids formed with their same buddy all year was awesome to witness. The kids would read and teachers would talk- it was wonderful for everyone really. My students made cards and wrote stories for their buddies, chose books for their bins just because they knew their buddy would like it, played on the playground together, even joined community service projects. As reading role models, they shared in the joys of learning together. What an amazing way to build a community!
What peer learning experiences are you excited to bring to your students this year? Here are some other peer learning ideas that worked well for us: word study buddies, nonfiction topics of study, co-authors writing, poetry partners, audiobooks, shared book recommendations, & math problem-solving with hands-on manipulatives
*Erik Palmer, Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2014), p.22, citing the National Association of Colleges and Employers (2012) and a Stanford Business School study.
Jamie Cicconetti is the Director of Special Education for Southeast Local in Apple Creek, Ohio. She has a passion for meeting individual student’s needs while holding high expectations for all learners. Recent professional development around the topic of Social Justice has deepened this fire, and she supports positive changes in education towards these goals. Previously, Jamie taught second and third grades and found joy creating a love of reading in her students. “I am married to an amazing husband who supports my time and passion for education, and we have an adorable three year old dinosaur son who keeps the adventures coming this summer break!” Check out Jamie’s blog Lessons Learned: what my students have taught me