Why it Works: The Peer-to-Peer Learning Model

Ever since I left my full-time job to immerse myself in nonprofit work, I have been watching the energetic youth here in northeast Ohio. I have had countless opportunities to listen and learn, and reflect on the great things that are happening in Cleveland and nearby suburbs, thanks to hardworking teachers, peers and mentors.

It all began with one of my first projects, learning about the work of the ID Alliance at Case Western Reserve University. It involves the work of Dr. Amanda Healen, who developed a youth mentoring program over in the Glenville neighborhood.

This peer-to-peer model allows teens to teach teens about sex education. In her research here in Cuyahoga County, Dr. Healen discovered that there is a high incidence of HIV and HPV among older teens and young adults. So in her desire to change these stats, she developed a learning model where teens teach teens about safe sex and how to get tested to stay healthy.

Thanks to her pilot program, a lot more teens are learning how to avoid sexually transmitted infections. The program has been such a success it’s gotten a lot of great press, and the peer mentors are developing a lot of skills they can use out in the real world.

Last November, I watched a group of these students in action during the 5th annual “We Are the Majority” youth summit. The event is sponsored by The Youth Advocacy and Leadership Coalition of Cuyahoga County (YALC), a civic leadership program that is affiliated with 4-H Youth Development and The Ohio State University Extension. The conference was very spirited and the sessions were run primarily by youth. Few adults. Limited interference.

It was eye-opening to see how these kids are managing, leading, and affirming what they do in their own worlds, despite their economic and personal hardships. Here they were in the classrooms and hallways at Cleveland State University, sharing some sensitive topics with friends, mentors and a lot of new faces.

They also acknowledged what they’ve learned out on the streets, too.

This is exactly how peer-to-peer instruction should work, and this conference is an example of how it can be used successfully. It would be great for all classrooms in Ohio to bottle this energy and enthusiasm, but we’ve got to give young kids the forum to do it.

It doesn’t matter what their age — or what they’re learning — kids enjoy teaching other kids and learning from each other. If it’s done in a safe space, without a lot of hovering or hand-holding from adults, you will see some significant learning take place.

teach14I watched this happen a few weeks ago when I spoke to a group of students at Berea High School. Science teacher Mary Draves invited me to stop by her class and talk about my zebra mussel shell composting project.

The seniors in Mary’s class watched my presentation. They asked a lot of good questions and suggested how I might improve the experiential learning process for the youth over in Ohio City. As we talked about environmental science and how it impacts our future, there was something that took place after that class that really intrigued me.

After class was over and just before lunch began, the students hopped on their bicycles and rode less than a mile over to Coe Lake. This beautiful facility is situated just outside the Berea Library near the campus of Baldwin Wallace University.

Thanks to a program initiated by Draves and another educator, Berea High students are given an opportunity to study at the park and share their knowledge about wildlife habitat and native plants to other students in the school district.

teach4On this particular day, I shadowed these high school youth and watched them teach a group of elementary school students in this beautiful outdoor classroom. Not only did the students hone their public speaking skills, they felt comfortable teaching the students about science, coal, renewable energy, windpower and habitat restoration.

This is really a well-thought out program that could be easily replicated. Plus, it’s not only successful, it can lead to greater things down the line. For example, while I was at Coe Lake on that beautiful sunny day, I had a chance to meet two of Mary’s students. They had graduated from Berea High years previously and had continued their studies at Allegheny College. So on the Tuesday I was there, they happened to be walking along the lake and saw Mary with her other students. They spent time getting caught up about life in college and some projects they were working on. One young woman told me she had written a paper about how to get kids interested in farming.

Women in science are a rare breed, indeed, so to me, this was another promising idea that shows how this model continues to spin off into many different directions. If Mary is teaching students something that stimulates their interest, she must be doing something right.

Consider the challenges. If Ohio has close to 400 underserved schools throughout its 640+ school districts, a lot of work needs to be done. This means, there are 400 schools where students don’t have the same privileges as other urban and suburban students. Plus, I know there are dozens of Cleveland city schools that could benefit from peer educational learning that also meets ODE standards, too.

Our governor is certainly aware of these problems, as are the team of leaders he has working for him. I say we invite him to one of these youth summits, or over to Coe Lake, and encourage him to see what we’re doing here, north of Columbus. Why couldn’t we siphon some of the administrative dollars at the top of the pyramid and trickle them on down to the schools, students and programs that need them the most?

I think it calls for a meeting with the teachers union and state legislators, too. Isn’t it about time we do something about learning and replicate the educational models that work?