Efficient peer teaching, starting in India, brought literacy to the modern world

A child who’s a little older teaches two other children, demonstrating efficient peer teaching[1]

A child who’s a little older teaches two other children, demonstrating efficient peer teaching

Efficient peer teaching was described in India in 1623

Peter Della Valle in 1623… “entertained himself in the porch of the Temple, beholding little boys learning arithmetic after a strange manner.” The method used a combination of four children gathered together “singing musically” to help them remember their lessons, and writing number bonds in the sand, “not to spend paper in vain . . . the pavement being for that purpose strewed all over with fine sand.” In the same way, they were taught reading and writing.

Peter Della Valle asked them, “If they happen to forget or be mistaken in any part of the lesson, who corrected them and taught them?” They said they all taught each other, “without the assistance of any Master.” For, “it was not possible for all four to forget or mistake in the same part, and that they thus exercised together, to the end, that if one happened to be out, the other might correct him.” It was, wrote the explorer, “indeed a pretty, easy and secure way of learning.”

…the “conditions under which teaching took place in the Indian schools were less dingy and more natural” than in Britain.

“When the whole are assembled, the scholars according to their numbers and attainments, are divided into several classes. The lower ones of which are placed partly under the care of monitors, whilst the higher ones are more immediately under the superintendence of the Master, who at the same time has his eye upon the whole schools. The number of classes is generally four; and a scholar rises from one to the other, according to his capacity and progress.”

Efficient peer teaching was learned in India by British Rev. Dr. Andrew Bell around 1787

Rev. Dr. Andrew Bell… arrived in India in 1787… to teach the abandoned progeny of British soldiers and native women. He found that the (expatriate) teachers in the asylum “had no knowledge of their duties, and no very great love for them.”

But then he had his moment of insight: “One morning, in the course of his early ride along the surf-beaten shore of Madras, he happened to pass a… school, which, as usual with Indian schools, was held in the open air. He saw the little children writing with their fingers on sand, which, after the fashion of such schools, had been strewn before them for that purpose.” He also saw them peer teaching, children learning from one another rather than from their masters. “He turned his horse, galloped home, shouting, ‘Heureka! Heureka!’ and now believed that he… saw his way straight before him.”

Bell first tried an experiment. He got one of the older boys who knew his alphabet to teach one of the classes that “the master had pronounced impossible” to teach. But this boy managed to teach the class “with ease.” Bell appointed him the class’s teacher. “The success exceeded expectation. This class, which had been before worse, was now better taught, than any other in the school.” He tried it in other classes, and it worked again. So Bell sacked all his teachers, and the school “was entirely taught by the boys” under his supervision.

Efficient peer teaching, popularized by Dr. Bell in London in 1797, rapidly boosted literacy in Britain

Bell returned to London in 1797 and published the description of his “Madras Method.” Following that, he was in great demand to introduce the system in British schools. First was St. Botolph’s, Aldgate in East London, followed swiftly by schools in the north of England.

…Joseph Lancaster, who created the famed Lancastrian schools across Britain—and with whom Bell was to have a furious dispute about who really invented the system— introduced peer learning in his first London school, in Borough Road, in 1801.

[Bell’s] method was adopted by the new National Society for the Education of the Poor in 1811.

…James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill, wrote in the October 1813 Edinburgh Review: “From observation and inquiry… we can ourselves speak decidedly as to the rapid progress which the love of education is making among the lower orders in England. Even around London, in a circle of fifty miles radius, which is far from the most instructed and virtuous part of the kingdom, there is hardly a village that has not something of a school; and not many children of either sex who are not taught more or less, reading and writing.”

How were such schools funded? Predominantly, it turns out, through school fees. These were very much private schools for the poor, in Victorian England. Mill noted: “We have met with families in which, for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”

By 1821, 300,000 children were being educated under Bell’s principles.

Efficient peer teaching, described further by Dr. Bell in 1823, rapidly spread across the world

As it became widely emulated, Bell was asked to write an extended outline of the system, which he published in 1823. His ideas were adopted around Europe, and as far away as the West Indies and Bogotá, Colombia; the educational reformer Pestalozzi was apparently even using the Madras Method.

The system transformed education in the Western world and was arguably the basis by which mass literacy in Britain was achieved. But in its fundamental, “economical” principles, it…was based precisely on what the Rev. Dr. Andrew Bell had observed in India.

For England and Wales… “When the government made its debut in education in 1833 mainly in the role of subsidiser it was as if it jumped into the saddle of a horse that was already galloping.”

  1. “Peer teaching at the Marlboro Montessori Academy.” 30 Sept. 2014, marlboromontessori.blogspot.com/2014/09/peer-teaching-at-marlboro-montessori.html. Accessed 30 Apr. 2017.
  2. Tooley, James. The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into how the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves. Cato Institute, 2009, Scribd pp. 330-348.



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