Peer Instruction with a Twist of Innovation and a Social Studies Teacher


In our first post of 2014, Peer Instruction Network member, Mr. George Phillip, describes how he moved from a thoughtful teacher to someone who is innovating in his social studies classroom with Flipped Teaching and Peer Instruction. While his unique twists on Peer Instruction evolved from a 5th and 6th grade classroom, they have implications for use in a range of classrooms.   JAS 

George Phillip

George Phillip

Guest post by George Phillip
Social Studies Department Chair
5/6 Social Studies Teacher
The Stanley Clark School
South Bend, IN

How did I come about teaching using Peer Instruction?
Many of us have seen this scenario: students dazed, staring off into space, and sleeping at their desks.  It is a recognizable scene, with a teacher standing at the front delivering a great lesson. The teacher asks questions along the way, but the students aren’t answering. They are disengaged. If you’re like me, you’re imagining the scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Ben Stein is lecturing about economic policies. If not, you can see this scene in almost any school across the country. This old style of teaching is an epidemic that continues to lurk in our school systems. Why? Many schools and teachers are evaluated by the standardized tests their students take. Teachers are required to teach a certain amount of curriculum before the standardized test. The classrooms where this cycle occurs tend to be very teacher-centric and student learning is stifled.

Looking for something different for my students
I have been teaching middle school social studies for six years.  When I was in college, I knew I did not want to be the kind of teacher depicted above. In my first few years of teaching, I tried to limit my role in the classroom. I did not want to be Ben Stein’s character. I wanted to observe more student-centered learning. At least that was my intent. When I first began teaching, a typical class would look something like this: during the first 15 minutes, I answered questions posed by students, go over homework, and give instructions. Then, I allowed my students to work in groups on various worksheets or notes.  In the last 10 – 15 minutes of class we would go over any unanswered questions. To keep the students on their toes, I would throw in movie clips, primary sources, audio clips, and projects. I noticed that when the students were working together, they were more engaged. So I kept going with this teaching style because I thought it worked with my students. However, my students were not as fully engaged as they needed to be. I was looking for something more dynamic. I would find it in the movement called Flipped Teaching.

Flipping Flipped Teaching
The basic process of Flipped Teaching has been around for some time; other monikers include inverted instruction, inverted learning and reversing instruction. In Flipped Teaching, each instructor pushes what would normally be done in class through direct instruction out of the classroom and into the individual learner’s space. Students can digest instructional content at their own pace. In the community space (class), students spend more time applying what they have learned outside of class in meaningful ways. As I developed my own Flipped Classroom, I also found Ramsey Musallam’s process, called Explore, Flip, Apply.

Explore, Flip, Apply
While exploring new teaching pedagogies, Ramsey found that using an “inverted classroom” (Lage, Platt, & Teglia, 2000) was not satisfying the needs of his students and his inner scientist wanted a way to have inquiry drive the learning. Thus,  Ramsey developed Explore-Flip-Apply based on the work of Robert Karplus’s Explore-Explain-Apply. In the Explore-Flip-Apply model, teachers use inquiry to elicit curiosity in students, to engage them in a way that will motivate them for future learning. Students spend time exploring concepts and applying knowledge together in class.  That night, Ramsey creates a short video over the misconceptions the students encountered during class time. Students continue working on application in class the following day, with a quiz at the end of the cycle. To read more about Explore-Flip-Apply see

Ramsey’s method hooked my attention right away. Using maps, images, video clips, audio clips, and primary/secondary sources, I also try to create an environment of curiosity by withholding information from my students.  My first unit of study in fifth grade social studies is the Five Themes of Geography. To begin, I show the students a video of a family who owns and operates a large commercial farm. The video shows the students all five themes without labeling them. After the video, I ask the students to work in groups to come up with the five themes. Usually my students get two or three without having done prior study. Their homework then is to watch a video I create explaining the phases they missed. The the real magic in my classroom happens. During the Apply phase, I use Peer Instruction. 

Peer Instruction with a few Twists
I use Peer Instruction in my 5th and 6th Grade social studies class in a number of ways. Here are five examples.

Traditional Peer Instruction
The first way I use Peer Instruction in my classes is through questioning. I display a question using a slide, have students answer that question individually using their hands, or occasionally software on the school’s iPads, and then I review the results. If too few students answer the question correctly, I cue them to find someone who has a different answer and try to convince them that their answer is correct. I notice that during their discussions their learning is deep, rich, and dynamic.

Teacher for a Day
Since social studies does not apply itself to equations, formulas, and theorems, I also have my students answer many different question types, including open-ended/”what if” questions about the events or topics we are studying. My goal is to create an environment where students practice thinking more like someone from the time period we are working on, or a historian. For example, one of our units covers ancient Chinese history. I break the unit down into smaller topics including geography, philosophy, empires, and the impact of the Silk Road. Through vegetation, climate, and population density maps, we explore why the earliest people settled where they did.

Revisiting the Five Themes of Geography, after my class has studied the themes, they have an opportunity to be a teacher for a day. I have them build a lesson to teach one of the Five Themes to the second grade class. To help their second grade peers, my fifth graders have created matching games, board games, puzzles, and even a scavenger hunt to help teach the themes.

Walking Gallery
One of my favorite learning activities where I put a twist on the traditional implementation of Peer Instruction is the Walking Gallery. Instead of posing a question on a slide, collecting student responses, and cueing students to turn to their neighbor and discuss, I ask students to draw pictures of a particular concept, topic, or idea. We then hold a Walking Gallery with the purpose of having students learn from each other’s drawings. I cue students to find someone who drew their picture differently from their own and instruct them to try to explain why their drawing was correct. As we move through the gallery, if I overhear a misunderstanding, I give a quick mini-lecture (no more than two or three minutes) to provide resolution.

Philosopher for a Day
During our philosophy section in 6th grade, we examine the works of Confucius, Daoism, and Legalism. After providing students with the necessary background material, I ask them to choose a philosophy that best suits their own understanding. I then cue them to find another student to pair with. I use clock partners with students to help with pairing so they do not always work with the same person. In their pairs, students answer a few questions based on key ideas in Chinese history. I rotate through the room and listen. If there are any misconceptions in class, I give a quick lecture to help move them toward my learning goals.

Emperor for a Day
When 6th grade students study about the emperors, Shi Huangdi, Liu Bang, and Wudi, we start by researching documents, listening to readings, and study artwork from the emperor’s time period. While these emperors never faced each other, they are linked as pioneers in China’s history. After analyzing the information on philosophies and the emperors’ themselves, students put their conceptual understandings of the emperors to work. Again, I pair students and ask them to take on the persona of one of the emperors and cue them to discuss topics such as education, war, expansion, and the Great Wall of China. Students learn a great deal through their conversations with one another – indeed they are teaching each other! I see this as the critical element in Peer Instruction: students learning from students instead of me. As a teacher, I have noticed that while I may teach a concept using the same words as one of my 5th  or 6th graders, oftentimes they can explain it and use examples in a way that is more understandable.

By putting my own twists on Peer Instruction and mixing it with an inquiry-based approach, I have been able to challenge my students more. The most exciting thing is to see that when I use these methods, my students’ passion for Social Studies explodes.  

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