by Justin Miera

Students As Teachers

At first blush, this notion of students as teachers may seam contradictory. After all, if the students are teaching then why pay the teachers? To understand this notion we must explore the traditional roles of both students and teachers. These roles apply in both social and academic contexts. We can then look at how these roles could be altered to provide meaningful, long term learning experiences. For the purposes of this paper, the primary means of altering the traditional roles is through cooperative techniques.

"Traditional classrooms" is the phrase that will be used as a simplified construct. It will generalize the dominant school paradigm of the recent past. There are exceptions to all generalizations, and variations on every theme. Still, there are definite threads that have run through most classrooms for many years. Two such threads are the roles that teachers and students have held. These roles many not have been consciously constructed, but they are commonly encountered. We do what we are taught, or more accurately, how we are taught. If our teachers did it, then that is likely how we will do it. The traditional roles have worked for many of us. Obviously, there are tens of thousands of people who have succeeded, by the popular measure of monetary gain. There are thousands of others who have dropped out, both physically and mentally. Some became drifters of the road, others, drifters of the mind. Which is more disconcerting, to choose not to participate, or acquiesce and choose not to choose?

In the traditional model, students are passive recipients of information and instruction. They are compliant to the will and whims of the teacher. Students must follow the rules expressed by the teacher or face punishment. They can not dictate the content or the context of their evaluation. In this model, students are powerless to shape the direction, application, and presentation of their instructions. They succeed by doing what they are told and supplying the "right" answer.

The traditional role for teachers is that of the all knowing, omnipotent power. Traditional teachers have complete authority over social context and academic content. Teachers set the rules, and enforce them when, and how they deem necessary. Who sits next to each other, and when they can talk. Control is complete, from what is discussed, how long it is explored, to the method of its demonstration. In this model, the teacher has the final say about who and what is important and valued.

The cooperative model for both teacher and student does not negate either the positive, or negative notions of the traditional classrooms. Instead it creates a new perception where the teacher helps students to become focused inquisitors.

Cooperative Student Role

There are several cooperative teaming methods which encourage students to take the role of teacher. Each has varying degrees of success in helping students to master material, disseminate information, and develop leadership.

Jigsaw is a teaching method that starts with a class divided into equal teams. Each team is given the same problem. Members are assigned a specific piece of the problem to study. Each member with the same piece is regrouped together and they study that piece in depth. These members return to their original group and teach the others about that specific piece of the puzzle. Jigsaw can sometimes lead to the listing of facts. These student experts tend not to elaborate, especially with simple material. Students also lack the subtle skills to spin relevant hooks into their mini lessons, or develop questions and dialogue. Jigsaw does establish an even hierarchy among students. The information from each expert is equally important. No one person can sway the discussion or direction of study.

Group Investigation, and Co-op Co-op, are less teacher directed than Jigsaw. Both allow the student groups to self form, and then self divide into tasks. Students choose who will study which piece of the problem. Then, they all work as a group to find the relevant connections between the pieces. Students also determine their own vision of presentation/evaluation. Therefore, even if each group chose the same problem, every project and it's specifics would be slightly different. The dynamics of these groups encourage weaker students to contribute because every member is vital to the overall task. Groups will also develop their own hierarchy and thereby manipulate the direction of study. Some students gravitate towards the leadership roles and set the direction of overall exploration, as a traditional teacher might. In both methods, the experts on each sub topic present to the group. This allows for a cross examination of the expert's information. It also eliminates the potential for facts and lists. Instead, this questioning requires all members of a group to understand each piece of the puzzle. The members of the group then decide on the method of presentation and teach their lesson to the whole class.

In all of these cooperative models there are many opportunities for students to take on the role of the teacher. In some cases they set the tone and direction of study. In all situations they are the imparters of information. The environment of the classroom changes with each model. The teacher must therefore envision, in advance, what type of class they hope to cultivate, and then apply the appropriate method.

Cooperative Teacher Role

The teacher is definitely not discarded in this cooperative pedagogy. As shown above, it is the teacher who will set the ultimate outcome of the class based on their enlightened initial choices. It is in the minutia of exploration that the teacher has little control. Instead, students guide the process according to their needs and desires, creating the ultimate in relevant educational experiences.

What else does the teacher do besides set the initial stage? Because the students are occupied with exploration it gives the teacher time to freely move around the room and interact with individuals, and teams. The teacher can now target guidance as a tutor might. Spencer Kagan elaborates: "Typically, the teacher consults with the groups, suggesting ideas or possibilities to be explored. The teacher must ensure an equitable and reasonable division of labor in the groups, but this is often done by asking a question of a group rather than by taking over the decision making" (Slavin et. al., 1985, p. 89).


A significant part of the learning process is evaluation. How much has the student learned from their experience, and to what extent can they apply it? Traditional teachers design evaluation content, and medium, based on the short and long term goals of a course. Once the students fully understand those goals then they can help design other systems of evaluation. Their evaluations will be based on varying observations. Some observations will come from the perspective of the team mate trying to clarify new information for the final presentation. Others will come from the class analyzing the presentation. The criteria could be informal questioning, or objective references to a preset rubric. The rubric itself could be teacher designed, or constructed with the input of the class.

In any case, students begin to assume the responsibilities and insights of teachers. They envision the long term goals, and the steps needed to reach those destinations. To share new information with others, the students must first understand the content for themselves; they have truly learned content. By working in cooperation with fellow students there is both support and accountability. Teaching provides students with the kind of power that Glasser encourages. Through this power, students understand the intrinsic, relevant motivations for learning.


Glasser M.D., William (1986). Choice theory in the classroom. New York: Harper & Row.

Slavin, R., Sharan, S., Kagan, S., Hertz-Lazarowitz, R., Webb, C., Schmuck, R. (Eds.). (1985). Learning to cooperate, cooperating to learn. New York. Plenum Press.

A review of literature in partial fulfillment of the course Student Directed Content Application, MLS 654 I, Course Consultant is Mona Gardner, Ph.D., REGIS UNIVERSITY, April 8, 1999.

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