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Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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When students start teaching others, they often only abstractly understand what they are teaching and think of the teaching material as bits of information separated from our classes.” But by teaching them to others, students start seeing how the materials fit together; the abstractions become more concrete and the “student teachers” also develop better relationships with “their students.”


The posting below looks at the benefits of having students spend some of their time teaching to each other. It is by Tim Murphey, English Department, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan ( in the book Exploring Innovations in Language Teacher Education. Switzerland; Springer.pp. 251-268, Gregersen, T. and MacIntyre, P. (eds.). Copyright Springer International Publishing, AG 2017.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: (Institutional) Purpose: Who Are You? Why Do You Exist


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle


“Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it” (Shulman 2004 p.36-37).

This chapter seeks to describe how we can make teaching and learning more “public and communal” so that we all (teachers and students) learn more. It also suggests that we all learn more when we actually try to teach things that we may not have fully understood yet, and that we could make this a regular part of learning in our classes. I am suggesting that teachers ask their students to teach others whatever they learn in class, and in so doing learn more themselves about things expansively beyond any one teacher’s control (i.e. getting the jungle to cultivate itself). I have five years of “class publications” available online with students’ short case studies describing their teaching to others out of class to support this idea. I also offer a recent pilot survey that provides data showing that the more you are involved in teaching others the more you seem to learn. But most heartwarming of all is that many of these students, through this innovation, become altruistically enchanted through what I call the well-becoming through teaching/helping hypothesis. While this may be the beginning of teacher training for many students who get excited at helping others to learn, I contend that it is also a major activity for all teachers who wish for their students to learn better themselves through helping others learn. Ultimately, teaching can often become humanistic altruism at its best and creates an outward mindset (The Arbinger Institute, 2016) that is healthier and more productive for all concerned. 


Too often first time teachers, and even many experienced teachers, work much too hard preparing too much material for their classes to fill the allotted time. I myself confess to over-preparing and planning too many activities and materials. But over the years, I have drastically reduced the amount of my teacher talking time and materials (cf: Meddings and Thornbury’s Teaching Unplugged 2009) and raised the amount of active student time in my classes and found that it not only makes classes more interactive and playful, but that students seem to learn much more and more expansively:

“At the beginning of a process of expansive learning, the object is only abstractly mastered as a partial entity, separated from the functionally interconnected system of the collective activity. By ascending to the concrete, an abstract object is progressively cultivated into concrete systematic manifestations and transformed into a material object that resonates with the needs of other human beings as well. These phases often require the subject to struggle and break out of previously acquired conceptions in conflict with new emerging ones (Sannino 2010). This process opens up multiple possibilities for the learner to creatively experiment with new solutions and innovative ideas” (Sannino and Ellis 2014 p. 8). 

When students start teaching others, they often only abstractly understand what they are teaching and think of the teaching material as bits of information separated from our classes. But by teaching them to others, these abstractions become more concrete and they start seeing how they fit together, and also help them have better relationships with “their students.” Because teaching requires a change in identity, students as teachers sometimes “struggle and break out of previously acquired conceptions in conflict with new emerging ones” (Sannino and Ellis 2014, p. 8) as teachers. The students often are thrilled with the new roles and the innovation needed to fill them. This also corresponds to giving students real experiential learning through teaching others (Dewey 1910, 1963).

Several years ago, I found students seemed to learn so well by teaching each other in class that I assigned them the everyday homework of teaching what they were learning in my classes to others (friends, classmates, workmates, family, etc.) outside of class as well. Doing this made me think twice about the material I was using to teach them English. I asked myself if the material would be interesting to others outside of our classes, as well as to the students. Later I asked them to write short reports of their efforts in their action logs/ notebooks (Murphey 1993, 1995; Murphey, Barcelos, and Morales 2014), both successes and failures, and I later started asking them to use spaced repetition with the people they were teaching and follow-up quizzing. This evolved into many student-centered class publications (Murphey 2014) showing how students taught and learned through teaching and enjoyed interacting with others using our learning materials. An overwhelming number of students have been reporting that their teaching 1) helps them to learn the material better, 2) deepens and broadens their understanding of the material, 3) enhances their relationships with their "students", and 4) makes them feel good because they are helping others learn things. This is what I have called the Well-Becoming through teaching/helping hypothesis (Murphey 2015) that so many of my students have reported.

I think that most teachers become teachers because they want and like to help others, what I call the altruistic turn in SLA (Murphey 2012). If they find they cannot help students in the classroom, many burn out and change jobs. It is a rush to be able to help someone learn, and when we cannot help, we tend to obsess about those few students who are not yet excited about the material and the things we are offering. I have found that giving students this "teaching rush" helps them to learn more deeply and expansively with more agency, and yes, live a more meaningful life, one of gratitude and altruism.

Shulman (2004, p. 36) cites David Ausubel’s (1968) beginning epigraph in his textbook Educational Psychology a Cognitive View, “If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.” This discovering what students already know is of course the foundation of scaffolding procedures and the opening of someone’s ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development, Vygotsky 1978). However, this requires the development in teachers of a wide range of adjusting capability, a ZPA (Zone of Proximal Adjusting, Murphey 2013d). This is probably best learned in action while teaching; it is not something we can absorb from reading a textbook. Thus, we might as well get student-teachers started early by inviting them to teach others daily.

Shulman also argues for “active, collaborative, reflective reexamination of ideas in a social context” (ibid) which corresponds to Vygotsky’s ideas of remediation, or more recently Swain et al’s (2009) call for more “languaging” and active engagement with learning material. Having the task to teach someone some material and then write about it are instances of remediation and re-learning on the part of the teaching-student, as well as innovating new identities.

Let me repeat Shulman’s quote above: “Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it” (Shulman 2004, p. 36). I need to stress this communal aspect a bit more here as it is part of the well-becoming through teaching/helping hypothesis. Teaching and helping others, and feeling good about it in a group, instills belonging and gratefulness, creating a sense of community. As colleagues and I have written elsewhere, concerns with belongingness and relationships should actually precede or accompany learning (Murphey, Prober, and Gonzáles 2010) and continue to enhance it. 

More and more I am becoming enamored with not only tasks but publicly communal tasks. Tasks in the classroom are somewhat teacher mandated and controlled. Tasks of teaching others out of the classroom are more open-ended agentive tasks, innovative and improvised, controlled by the student doing it, and thus more inviting of expansive learning. I believe when they do such tasks out of the classroom students tend to take it to a deeper level which allows them to remain more task focused, as well as altruistic in their goals. Tomasello (2009: xiv) says much the same, “Teaching is a form of altruism, founded on a motive to help, in which individuals donate information to others for their use.” Thus, students given such teaching tasks, rather than just learning themselves, move to deeper involvement and interaction with the material and others in expansive ways which keep them more task focused, and in flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990), rather than slipping into a negative self-focus (figure 2.1). Leary and Guadagno write that, “quieting the self can increase prosocial action” (Leary and Guadagno 2011:140). The inverse, I believe, is also true: by increasing the prosocial tasks (like teaching others), the quieting of the self is more likely, along with an altruistic teaching rush (cf: Murphey 2016 for more discussion on this). (1617 words)

Teachers become teachers usually because they love learning.  This love of learning is what pushes us to teach others. Of course at first we do not call it loving or teaching, we are just sharing information, some of which may be very valuable to our friends and families. When it is, we feel gratified. Teaching is a giving/helping act and is not done by only official “teachers” but by all of us continually throughout our lives.  Moreover, as Shulman says, it should be public and communal so that more can join in and contribute to everyone’s learning more. Then it becomes expansive learning and we learn things that we never intended to teach or learn in the first place.

Too many teachers work too hard thinking they must “perform” in front of their students and that is how students will learn. Students do learn a bit by watching teachers perform, but actually they learn exponentially more by performing and teaching each other. So the main innovation is for teachers to stop talking so much and get students to teach each other, and others in their social networks.



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Murphey, T. (2012). Autonomy, agency, and social capital: Surfing the altruistic coral reef cafés on a 40-mile layer of life! In K. Irie & A. Stewart (Eds.), Proceedings of the JALT Learner Development SIG Realizing Autonomy Conference, [Special issue] Learning Learning, 19(2), 4-17. Retrieved from

Murphey, T. (2013d). Adapting ways for meaningful action: ZPDs and ZPAs. In J. Arnold & T. Murphey (Eds.). Meaningful action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp172-189.

Murphey, T. (2016). Teaching to learn and well-become: Many mini-renaissances. In Peter McIntyre, Tammy Gregerson, & Sarah Mercer (Eds), Positive psychology in SLA Multilingual Matters: Bristol, UK. Pp 324-343.

Murphey, T., Prober, J., & Gonzáles, K. (2010). Emotional belonging precedes learning. In: A. M.  F. Barcelos & H. S. Coelho (Eds.). Emoções, reflexões e (trans)formações de professores e formadores de línguas [Emotions, reflections, and (trans)formations of language teachers and teacher educators]. Campinas, Sao Paulo: Pontes Publishers. Pp43-56. (Book chapter).

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