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The Responsibility of Older Learners

September 20, 2012

Students share their patterns with kindergartners.

Today my sixth grade students Skype’d with a kindergarten class to teach them about patterns. We started with a focus on ABAB-type patterns and as the students got those right, the sixth graders created patterns of a higher-level difficulty. We ended the Skype with one of my students writing 9, 18, 27 on the board and groaning when one of the kindergartners said, “It goes up by nine.” When asked how he knew, he said he figured it must have because the first number was nine and then he added nine to nine. The reasoning of this five year-old was spot-on and I know the sixth-graders were able to learn something from him, even though they thought they’d be in the driver’s seat the entire time. If they didn’t already realize it, they realized after the Skype that we can all learn something from someone else, regardless of age. It was also fun to watch the excitement as they tried to create new patterns and show them to the kindergartners before realizing that these kids would not be stumped. When the call ended and the kids said their goodbyes, I reflected on what had just happened: a group of 12 year-olds just delivered a lesson to a group of 5 year-olds with two teachers present who only jumped in when necessary.

Another observation I was able to make was that the sixth-graders were thinking about how the kindergartners were learning as they created their patterns. They were able to see that once they understood a certain kind of pattern, they were ready for the next level of difficulty. Once they mastered the ABAB, students threw in ABCABC or AABAAB, intuitively knowing that was the next logical step, as opposed to 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and stumping the kids. Even if students aren’t working on a concept they will be tested on at the end of the year, what teacher can argue that they don’t want their students participating in a lesson that has them engaged in how people learn and how to teach others where they’re at?

This kind of learning needs to take place more. It often doesn’t, because teachers of older kids need to stay on track with the pacing guide, obligatory pre-assessments, and other obstacles that get in the way of real learning. In no way am I arguing that older kids should teach younger kids all day, but what I am arguing for is that all older students need to take time to work with younger students, whether it’s a group of high schoolers delivering a writing lesson to middle schoolers or middle schoolers teaching kindergartners about patterns. That kind of learning and responsibility needs to be embedded in our teaching because students would often rather learn from each other and usually kids can teach a concept in kid-speak, which has to increase retention. Unfortunately, this kind of teaching is more of an exception than an expectation at this point.

I’ve heard a lot about some schools in Ireland who teach multi-age classrooms, which puts older kids in a leadership position on a daily basis and sends the message to younger students that they, too, will be leaders of the class one day. While those types of classes probably won’t be happening in the United States anytime soon, what we can take away is that we need to think about the types of situations our students are in on a daily basis. Are they consumers, sitting in class, digesting information, and spitting it right back, or are they more of a combination, learning, collaborating, and creating at high levels that not only gives them a deeper understanding of the curriculum but also improves their communication, collaborative, and higher-order thinking skills at the same time?

The sixth-graders will definitely be delivering more lessons in the future to younger learners, but I also hope to connect with some older students and have them be able to work with the sixth-graders. It would also be great if some of the younger classes could teach us about what they’re learning. Every kid needs to know they have skills and talents to help others, and if they truly believe that, it makes learning happen for everyone while knocking down the traditional confines of their classroom.

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