410. Children Teaching Children

It will never cease to amaze me how well children can sometimes teach children things that we adults have to figure out how to teach. I’m pretty sure I understand why – it’s easier to help someone follow a path if you’ve just followed it yourself. You know which shortcuts work and which ones lead you into trouble. Children can sometimes explain things in the language of someone who doesn’t get it, because they only recently got it; they still remember what was so hard about it, and what made it easier.
But it doesn’t work all the time. If it did, adults wouldn’t be as important in children’s education as they are. I’ve witnessed children attempting to teach, not noticing some misunderstandings, and getting quite frustrated with their pupils. Some obstacles to understanding are too formidable or subtle for children to consistently see. I’ve heard children answer “Why?” with “It just is!” Such an answer does not represent the best in pedagogy. Sometimes it takes a while to understand something well enough to teach it, and a child who has just learned it isn’t always the best one to teach it.
Still, it’s great when it does happen, and good teaching (by adults) sometimes involves knowing when to set up situations where it will happen. Ideally, a patient child who has recently figured something out helps a child who sincerely wants to figure it out. I’ve seen that happen many times, and when I’ve been able to see and hear that kind of teaching, I’ve been able to learn from it. Not that I return to childhood, but that I recapture some of the perspective I lost by growing up.
For example, I once heard a teacher explain that a solar eclipse occurs when earth’s moon moves into a position wherein it prevents sunlight from reaching a certain part of earth. (Forgive me. Most teachers I know don’t talk to children that way, but that example will help me make my point.) The teacher asked a child to repeat the explanation, and the child said, “We can’t see sunlight because the moon gets in the way.” Children may not have much experience wherein they can’t see object A because object B moves into a position wherein it prevents light from object A from reaching them, but they know all about not being able to see something because something or someone is “in the way.” The concept is the same, but the explanation makes more sense to children.
There’s another good reason to let children teach children (besides the possibility that they may do it more effectively than we would). Sometimes a child just needs to know that a certain concept is possible to understand, and it’s easier to believe that if a peer has recently figured it out. Preferably not a child who has a reputation for being the class “brain.” Sometimes the “brain” is seen as an undercover adult, and it doesn’t help at all to know that THAT child understands. Well of course SHE/HE understands!
But a well-chosen peer is sometimes the ideal teacher, and sometimes the best we adults can do is let/make that happen.

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