Instead of an adult teacher, a hoodie-clad schoolmate. They’re our buddies, say kids who are tutored by older students. From Aktualne.cz.

It’s a common enough scene in a Czech primary school. A teacher is explaining something, and while some of the pupils can’t keep up, for others the pace is too slow. The idea of having two teachers or several assistants in a class is utopian – there are not enough people available. What can aid such a situation, however, is peer-to-peer instruction between older and younger children. While this idea is being advocated for timidly here, it is delivering results wherever it is introduced. Each child in the early grades is taught by an older schoolmate who gets to try their hand at taking an active approach, being accountable, communicating and being creative.

A small group of seventh-graders is sitting at their desks in a primary school in Roudnice nad Labem. Some have fake money, others a small cash register, others plastic fruit, vegetables or other fake food items. Third-graders are doing their best to ask them, in English, how much the food costs and then trying to pay for it correctly. 

“What would you like? Can I help you?” one of the seventh-graders asks a small girl in English. “Wait, you were already here, weren’t you?” she continues in Czech. “No, that was my twin,” the little third-grader holding a shopping basket says with a smile. Her friend cannot remember the English word “corn.” The older girls say she has certainly heard a similar word if she has ever bought a certain snack at the movies. “Popcorn!” the younger pupil shouts. “Well almost, but just part of that word,” they say to assist her. “Pop?” she guesses. The seventh-graders playing the role of her teacher smile and say: “Not that part.”  

This English lesson is based on peer-to-peer instruction, or the Buddies Program, as they call it at the private Smart Primary School in Roudnice nad Labem. The idea of friendly pairings of older and younger schoolmates has been a favorite instructional method in Australia and the United States for decades already. The idea was introduced to the Smart school in 2016 by the head teacher for lower primary education, Marie Kozakova, who was inspired by an Australian primary school near Melbourne where she spent time as a volunteer teacher.

“The Buddies Program helps cultivate a good atmosphere in the school,” principal Klara Koubska says.

Elsewhere in the Czech Republic this method is used occasionally, for example, in Montessori schools that teach several grades together in one classroom. At some schools they assign a buddy to be a guide, for example, to a child who is a foreign national, or to a child with a learning disorder or other disability. In Roudnice nad Labem, each pupil from the fifth through the eighth grade has a younger charge to tutor in the classroom several times a month and to assist with whatever is necessary. During lockdown, for example, these buddies explained to their younger charges how to master online instruction, or sometimes they just spent time online with them. When the classes take field trips or go to the swimming pool, the older pupils help the younger ones on those occasions as well.

The Smart school was established in 2014 by Klara Koubska, now the school principal, and other parents who could not find an appropriate school for their children locally. The town of 13,000 in the Litomerice area is not just known for its extensive historical center, its castle and its chateau, but is also known for its complex social situation. As much as 10% of the population is in debt and undergoing at least one collection proceeding, with an average number of five such proceedings per person. There are also several small poor neighborhoods in town, officially termed “excluded localities.”

Today 140 pupils attend the school with a maximum of 16 children per class. In the beginning the parents had to subsidize the school and the teachers worked there more or less as volunteers. When, at the end of that first year, the Czech School Inspectorate’s visit was a success, the school was able to request full funding from the state. It took five years for the school to become self-sufficient and today it breaks even. In 2020 the school won the prestigious EDUin prize, awarded for innovative approaches to education, for its Buddies Program.

Inspired by her experience in Australia, teacher Marie Kozakova introduced peer-to-peer instruction to the school in 2016.

“This is a small town, it’s not Prague, we don’t have so many educated parents who would seek this instruction method for their children, but even so the school has made a name for itself and interest in it is growing,” Koubska boasts about the constant demand for places at the school, which exceeds what the school can offer. 

Even though there is an eight-year college preparatory school (gymnazium) in Roudnice nad Labem, many pupils stay at the Smart school even after fifth grade. At the end of the 2020-2021 school year nobody transferred away, even though several pupils passed the entrance examinations for the eight-year institution, while at the end of the next school year just two children planned to transfer there. 

Non-traditional teaching in Roudnice nad Labem

Tuition at Smart Primary School costs approximately 3,000 Czech crowns ($120) per pupil per month, a price that includes extended instruction in English with a native speaker, English-language instruction of other subjects, and after-school childcare that includes activity groups. Parents pay extra to send their children here because there are just 16 pupils per class, the pupils and teachers have friendly relationships, and detailed feedback is given to the pupils about their progress instead of grades. 

Teacher, Adviser, Friend

Each new first-grader is assigned a buddy at the beginning of the school year. Their fifth-grade friend will aid the younger pupil for the next four years with school and will tutor some subjects twice a month or attend an event outside of school with the younger pupil. The buddy is the first person the child goes to if there is a problem at school.

This older friend accompanies the younger one until he or she becomes a fifth-grader, at which point he or she switches roles and becomes a first-grader’s guide. The older pupil, now starting ninth grade, must fully dedicate himself or herself to preparing for secondary school. For those who successfully pass their secondary school entrance examinations, the school finds a way for them to perform some beneficial activity for the community for at least two weeks, for example, in nursery schools or senior citizens’ homes.

From the outside, Smart Primary School looks like a typical Czech school.

Peer-to-peer instruction also has its pitfalls. Teachers don’t get to know their new pupils until enrollment, when they note their preferences and do their best to find an appropriate buddy for them. However, the pairs do not always get along. For that reason, at the end of each school year the teachers ask whether the children want to stay together or change.

“It sometimes happens that the older pupils say they are doing their best to establish contact with the assigned child, but the younger one never responds to them. At other times we put two silent types together by mistake, so we change that for the next year,” principal Koubska says.

It’s April, Will We Huddle by the Stove Again?

The seventh-graders came up with the shopping-in-English idea for the third-graders themselves. They put together several stands, some displaying worksheets for the younger ones with pictures and the English names for the items, others with bingo cards on the subject, and then the model shop with its cash register, fake money and goods for sale.

“I like the buddies because we are taught by people who are our same age. They talk like we do,” says Elias, a third-grader. “My buddy is also my friend. When we had distance learning, he taught me how to work in the Microsoft Teams program,” he adds.

A fifth-grader helps his first-grade buddy learn to read.

After 45 minutes the seventh-graders return to their own classroom and discuss how the lesson went. They relate how they prepared everything themselves. They decided who would have what at which station and got the materials together. Sometimes they had to improvise, but they agree that they probably managed it.

They decidedly do not insist that everything happens on its own somehow. The students agree that the Buddies Program is hard work, but they can do it. It helps them to recall that they were little once, and they remember what didn’t work for them and what they liked. 

In another class, the fifth-graders are aiding the first-graders with reading Czech and with completing words that are missing from a text. Sometimes the pairs are of different genders, so for example a burly fifth-grade boy wearing a hoodie is assisting a little girl in a dress and pigtails. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the proverb,” he tells her. “Try to read it and you’ll see which words fit: ‘In March round the stove we …’  – “Huddle? Is that how you say it?” asks the little girl. – “Yeah, and ‘April, we will still …’ – “Huddle again?” – “Well, almost. What else rhymes with that?”

“When the older pupils answer the younger ones’ questions, they are clarifying for themselves the problem being reviewed, and they are able to activate the younger pupils by asking them questions in return. It has been repeatedly confirmed that pupils perceive the various solutions to problems more easily and faster from their peers. The advantage is that children speak the same language and effectively transfer both content and skills,” says Jana Kargerova Poche of Charles University’s Faculty of Education, explaining the advantages of peer-to-peer instruction. 

The Roudnice nad Labem teachers praise the peer-to-peer program for helping children learn mathematics as well. Teaching children how to count and reason logically is approached with games and activities such as pacing off steps or counting stairs or animals. To introduce younger students to science, eighth-graders may show the fourth-graders their experiments in chemistry and physics. “They don’t explain the essence to them, but they demonstrate how it works as an illustration,” the principal explains. 

Seventh-grade boys use a computer app to teach English to their younger schoolmates.

Most of the older pupils enjoy the work. “I’m glad when I can aid the younger ones with a problem,” fifth-grader Klara says. In addition to her own first-grader, she is also helping her Ukrainian classmate Polina, who learned to speak Czech during annual visits to her grandmother in Roudnice nad Labem and so did not have to join the adaptation group for new pupils from Ukraine. Polina joined the Czech fifth-grade class right away.

Not everybody is enthusiastic about the program, though. “I don’t like it but I’m glad to help,” says fifth-grader Jenda. The head teacher for the lower primary level, Kozakova, warns that the program doesn’t necessarily suit everybody and some pupils may directly refuse to participate in it.

“We had one case like that. A pupil told us it didn’t suit her and she didn’t want to join. We respected that and she read books during program time,” Kozakova says. She adds that there is no point in coercing a pupil to participate. If an older pupil were to be forced into performing this advisory role it would not assist their younger schoolmate’s learning process.

Big Kids Protect the Little Ones

At first glance it might seem that it is mainly the younger pupils who chiefly benefit from the peer-to-peer instruction, but Koubska mentions that the older ones acquire many skills by performing this role. They learn how to formulate their sentences so as to be comprehensible, they learn patience and respect, and they also develop their own creativity. If their younger friend doesn’t get something, they do their best to present the problem from another perspective. Expert Kargerova Poche sees this similarly. “Peer-to-peer instruction develops the skill of collaboration and communication, it contributes to the children’s personal and social development. They learn how to show consideration when negotiating with somebody else, how to give and receive aid,” she says.  

Moreover, according to Koubska, the program brightens the atmosphere in the school. “The little children communicate with those who are four years older, they are not afraid of them, they consider them their protectors. We have no problems with undesirable behavior,” the principal says. This teaching method is also quite effective, she adds. Every younger pupil benefits from one-on-one instruction, whereas “It would take one educator 15 hours to hold 15 one-on-one sessions,” she says.

Kozakova points out that older pupils who have problems with learning can also improve through the peer-to-peer experience. Thanks to the buddy role they “grow and come alive.” The feeling that even a weaker pupil can aid younger peers usually pushes such a pupil forward. “The older guides have the chance to develop their own self-confidence, self-fulfillment, and self-esteem,” Kargerova Poche says.

The very first ninth-graders are now leaving the Smart Primary School after competing with children from mainstream primary schools during the entrance exams to secondary schools. The principal says most of them passed the tests and are able to attend the secondary school of their choice. 

“We have also succeeded from the standpoint of their knowledge. What’s more, I have feedback from the preparatory courses for secondary school – the instructor tells me that our children know how to analyze problems and come up with solutions to them,” Koubska says. Kozakova, the lower primary head teacher, adds that the pupils showed good communication skills during their classes to prepare for the exams. “They don’t ‘over-respect’ us, we consider them our partners, we teach them how to discuss things with adults,” she explains.

Koubska maintains that the Smart school’s Buddies Program could also be introduced at a mainstream primary school. The system could work even in classes of 30 children, she says: “They would just have to be split into two groups so they could fit into each classroom.” She recommends starting the program with first-graders, for whom everything about school is new, pairing them with fifth-graders. “It seems to me that the deciding factor is the educators’ enthusiasm. Interesting things can then be done,” she declares.

Schools that are inspired to try peer-to-peer learning are advised to thoroughly prepare the teachers and the older pupils tasked with devising activities for particular subjects.

“I really like the Buddies Program. I’m glad when I can aid the younger ones,” fifth-grader Klara says.

“You can’t just say one morning: ‘Let’s do buddies.’ All of this has to be agreed to in advance, prepared, and the older pupils have to be trained,” Koubska continues.

Kargerova Poche of Charles University warns of another pitfall. Because peer-to-peer instruction is directed by the pupils themselves, there is the danger that children will refuse to collaborate, or will judge their younger schoolmates, or will abuse their psychological vulnerability. For that reason, it is important that the educators follow the buddy system closely and assess it as it happens, she says, adding, “The teachers intervene invisibly, but their actions are actually quite important.”

Zuzana Hronova is an editor and reporter at the Czech news site Aktualne.cz, where this article originally appeared as part of the Clever Czechia series on the challenges facing the country’s education system. The series is supported by the Ceska sporitelna Foundation.

Republished with permission. Photos by the author. Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.