Peer Tutors Creating Social Change
Project Sparks supports musically-gifted, disabled young people to work alongside arts specialist teachers to teach music and dance to Keystage 2 classes in primary schools in Northern Ireland. Eamonn McCarron, who co-founded the programme, explores the strengths of their peer tutoring model.
Owen Coyle is a 19-year-old from Derry/Londonderry. He describes himself and the other young people at Liberty Consortium’s Project Sparks as “music tutors who are a wee bit different.” As an autistic musician who was born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus, he says that, “People might wonder how we can teach if we have learning disabilities. Well, we know what it’s like to struggle. We have the youthfulness and passion it takes to inspire kids to get into music”. So far, Project Sparks’ young tutors have taught over 1,000 children across Northern Ireland. As the second and third-order effects of the coronavirus pandemic unravel across the education sector, there has never been a better time for organisations working with young people experiencing disadvantage to follow their lead and tap into the power of peer tutoring.
What is peer tutoring?
Peer tutoring advances a young person’s skills, knowledge or understanding as they are guided through a task by another more experienced peer. Peer tutoring can be beneficial across a spectrum of subjects, and while same-age peer tutoring research studies have shown promise, the most convincing impact is evidenced where older tutors work with younger tutees. However, we cannot assume that all young people, irrespective of their abilities, will tutor effectively. But, when young people who want to make a difference are given the right kind of training and support, deeper learning can be unlocked for the peer tutors and the tutees they teach.
What’s in it for them?
Peer tutors are uniquely placed to build trust with students who are difficult to reach, because they often share similar frames of reference. The tutor can relate to the tutee because their levels of competency tend to be close enough for the tutor to recognise the tutee’s confusion from a clear perspective. This can form a relationship where the tutee feels safer disclosing their confusion than they might to a teacher. The peer tutor makes new cognitive connections as they deconstruct their knowledge and adapt their approach to fit the learning needs of the tutee. This dynamic and unpredictable process of supporting a tutee’s understanding can act as a crucible for the peer tutor by pushing them beyond the all-too-common tendency to merely ‘study for the test’. SJ, an 18 year old dance-tutor at Project Sparks, encapsulates this by saying, “I feel free to be adventurous and use different techniques to help the kids. I wouldn’t have the confidence I do if I didn’t teach.”
A different kind of tutor
The symbiosis that can be created by peer tutoring is particularly relevant as we begin a school-start like no other. Recent studies estimate that children from families of fewer means participated in 30% less learning-time during lockdown, which places added urgency upon the UK government’s National Tutoring Programme. While professional tutors will form an important part of the recovery curriculum, the achievements of the young people at Project Sparks tell us that peer tutors who have built remarkable talents against the odds may have the empathy that children need, now more than ever. The obstacles placed before disadvantaged or marginalised young people may actually give them an edge in transforming children’s beliefs about people who are different to them. The peer tutor’s ability in music, sport or any other pursuit can be the catalyst to cause tutees to take notice and think, “I want to be able to do that”. If disadvantaged young people can accompany their expertise with solid teaching-skills and an open mind, they will become the ambassadors that cause children to see them and others like them as resilient role-models.
How can I use peer tutoring?
At Project Sparks, we can provide consultation to educators and youth workers who want to train their young people to tutor others.
Here are some tips for those looking to get started:
- Peer tutors learn most through experience, not words.
Peer tutors can become overwhelmed when given lots of instructions. Instead, set up short role-plays that allow tutors to experience success early on before giving them more challenging scenarios to navigate.
- Encourage failure.
Peer tutors can benefit by recognising that their role is not to show off their knowledge, but to creatively collaborate with the tutee. It is important to help them create clear expectations of their role, making sure they understand that the goal is not perfection, but to embrace failure as they find their style.
- Allow autonomy.
While simple teaching tools can be invaluable to tutors, it is important to feel that they are not running a script, so encourage them to experiment as they explain concepts, ask questions and give feedback.
Extensive research shows that peer tutoring can be an immensely powerful tool for both tutor and tutee. Right now, the arts may be the perfect medium for schools and youth organisations to explore its potential. What’s more, by training young peer tutors who have faced discrimination or difficulty, organisations can make them ambassadors for their particular social group, enabling them to positively shift the preconceptions of the tutees they inspire.
Eamonn McCarron (M Ed, PGCE, BA Hons) is the co-founder of Liberty Consortium’s Project Sparks. As well as working with disabled young people and primary school children, Eamonn and his colleagues enjoy helping non-musician teachers use music to enrich the entire primary school curriculum. Eamonn is currently completing a PhD in peer tutoring at Queen’s University, Belfast.