Another post from the student side – or from sitting on the fence, anyway. Again, it’s inspired by the free MIT online course I’m doing via edX (great, eh – free education and two ideas for blog posts!)
I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone who’s met me via the OU that I am rather inclined to be active on forums (!) It’s been the same on the MIT course – if I see a query I can answer, I jump in there. Realised this week it had been noticed by the guys in charge – got an email (as did three other students) inviting me to be a “Community TA”, which basically means a student who is relied on to talk some sort of sense on the forum, and is given some moderating powers, and a little tag after their name to show they are “approved”.
It’s an interesting concept, isn’t it? I was quite curious to see which of my fellow students were also included in this list. Two of them are, like me, people who have a fair degree of background knowledge in the subject and/or related ones, and often help people out with explanations; the third, however, doesn’t have any particular academic background and is not a particularly high achiever, but is very good at giving sensible advice (and knowing when she can’t help), taking a positive, constructive attitude and generally being a force for good.
I then started to wonder how my fellow students are going to feel about this. Are people going to be thinking “so why are they so special” and feel resentful? Or are they going to start trusting what we say more than they should? (we’re students, after all, not experts). I’d like to think that if I were one of the other students, I’d have been fine about it, but I suspect I might have felt a wee bit disgruntled. Presumably MIT do this normally, though, so it must work…. we will see.
It also started me thinking whether a similar scheme would be workable in school. In an informal way, it kind-of does at times. For example, a few years ago, I had a particularly talented pupil who could not only finish her own work very quickly, but also had a gift for explaining concepts to her peers, and helping them to do things for themselves, rather than telling them precise methods or answers. I was quite happy for her to go round the class helping people, and it worked very well for both her and her classmates; they never seemed to resent her, and were grateful for her efforts, and she loved helping them. As she moved up the school, she also helped out mentoring younger mathematically gifted pupils as well as supporting her less talented peer group.
There are also kids who are very good at being constructive, sensible and supportive, and are a great influence on their peers, even if they aren’t academic high-fliers. Kids like that can make a tremendous difference – I’ve seen them motivating others to really give things their best shot, supporting their peers through social problems even if they’re not particular friends, and sometimes managing to persuade people to actually tell us about very bad stuff going on in their lives , so something can be done.
So I guess I’ve given kids in either of these categories a sort of semi-official “trusted” status. But would it have helped to make it formal – to make them officially “peer-mentors”, socially or academically? I’m not sure. Peer-mentoring in schools is often, I think, done by an older pupil (and a very good and successful thing it is too). But does it work with pupils of the same age, or would the “peer-mentor” or equivalent tag actually reduce the huge force for good such kids can be? Quite a bit of food for thought there.