Learning from Peers

by Erin Campbell, PhD

Peer learning can take many forms.  Those discussed here include learning from peers by observation and imitation, peer tutoring, and collaborative learning.  This type of learning is inherently a part of Montessori education.  Children in Montessori schools are free to work together, and often do, especially as they become older and more socially inclined. 
Research shows that children often learn from observing and then imitating others.  In one study, toddlers were shown how a special stick could be used in a particular way to retrieve an object from a tube.  Children as young as two years old could then repeat the precise actions necessary to retrieve the object.  Other findings demonstrate how effective subliminal modeling can be, such as observing and then imitating yawning or scratching. Even thinking about particular things leads people to behave in particular ways. 
The hands-on nature of Montessori work enables learning by observation and imitation. Children learn, by observation, the steps taken with the materials.  By manipulating these concrete objects, the children are led to discover more abstract concepts.  Many children entering a Montessori pre-school or 3-6 year old classroom spend a lot of time watching older children work.  By observing and imitating others, children eventually gain an understanding of the concepts associated with specific materials.  Studies have also shown in multi-age classrooms where interaction with different age peers occurs, children benefit greatly in terms of motor, cognitive, communicative and overall development.  The three-year age grouping in Montessori schools offer a wide spectrum of ability level in peers from which to observe and imitate. 
Educational research has found that situations in which children learn from their peers, via peer tutoring, are beneficial to both the tutor and the child being tutored.  In a study comparing a peer tutoring model to a standard teaching method, children who participated in the peer tutoring program performed significantly better in reading, math, and language than those participating in the standard method of teaching.  Studies have also found that students who expected to tutor or teach gained a better understanding of the topic, as well as becoming more actively engaged and more interested. 
Peer tutoring occurs naturally in Montessori classrooms, both formally and informally.  These types of interactions are built into the structure of the classroom.  Informally, children learn from peers by asking questions while watching them work.  More formally, at the teacher’s discretion, children can teach one another a specific lesson.  As children work together, as they often do in the Elementary Classrooms at LMS, there is ample opportunity to teach and learn from one another.   
Another way to learn from peers is through collaborative learning, where a group of two or more children work together.  Several studies have shown that people learn better when working together than when working alone.  Researchers have found that children participating in collaborative learning programs engage in higher levels of reasoning and learning and score significantly higher on conceptual understanding than students in traditional programs.  Additionally, research has found that children learn the most in collaborative exchanges when they collaborate with those whom they have a deeper and more positive relationship. 
At LMS, children in the Elementary Program often choose to work with others on topics or projects that mutually interesting.  These topics can be inspired by a prior lesson, or motivated by an interest outside of the classroom.  Whether these children are working on classification of plants, constructing models, researching animals, mastering multiplication facts, or analyzing the grammatical structure of sentences, they are often working in self-formed groups of two to four children.  The structure of the classrooms and the design of the materials are extremely conducive to working and learning together. 
In summary, children at LMS have a wonderful opportunity to learn from their peers by observing and imitating others, tutoring one another and working collaboratively.  
Educational and psychological research has shown that these situations provide an excellent environment for development and learning. 
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