(Below is extracted from a recent article on tutoring)
Tutoring: A Tool for the Masses
If I could give you a silver bullet to improve your child’s learning more dramatically than anything else, would you be interested? Would you be even more interested if I told you that it required no specialist skills?
Independent research out last week from Edge Hill University revealed that over 2,500 of the lowest achieving six-and-seven-year-olds in England achieved four times the normal rate of progress in maths after only a 20-hour educational intervention. The intervention itself is almost deceptively simple: one-to-one tuition.
Edge Hill’s positive findings not only lend support to the government’s £468m national one-to-one tuition programme for underperforming 7 to 16-year-olds, they also confirm the belief of many parents that paying for private tutoring is necessary in an educational arms race that shows no signs of slowing down. It is plain to parents that tuition has both emotional benefits (increased motivation and self-esteem) and demonstrable cognitive outcomes. It also makes sense intuitively that individual tailor-made learning will work, since this type of instruction can access what the educational psychologist David Ausubel termed ‘the most important single factor influencing learning’: that is, what the learner already knows. In Ausubel’s phrase, ‘Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.’
But wait. The actual mechanisms by which one-to-one tuition achieves its effects have only recently been explored, and the results are startling and counter-intuitive. Research undertaken by Micki Chi and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh refutes the traditional assumption that tutoring is effective because of the skills of the individual tutor per se. Neither a tutor’s adaptiveness to perceived needs nor their instructional ‘moves’ (such as scaffolding, explaining and providing feedback) actually seem to have much influence on the learning taking place. If Chi is right (and the evidence is compelling), it is rather the constructive contributions of the students themselves which are responsible for their progress. This is confirmed by the intriguing finding that pairs of students collaboratively observing a video of another student being tutored can produce the same learning outcomes as a real one-to-one tuition session.
This small but growing body of research into tuition should serve as a wake-up call to many. Firstly, the evidence shows us that it is probably the most effective medium for learning anything, and that it achieves its effects in extraordinary and unexpected ways. Secondly, tutoring is essentially a medium of instruction and not a political, social, moral or class issue. It is rather the ends for which it is used that have become controversial. For example, research demonstrates that tutoring is incredibly time-efficient. With this in mind, whether it is a million-pound government programme or a parent’s decision to hire a tutor rather than helping their child themselves, it should be possible to perform a cost-benefit analysis without class-ridden angst or references to sinister tutors robbing children of their free time. Finally, an understanding of the essence of the tutoring process should help policy-makers, teaching professionals and parents make sensible choices regarding its use. The research suggests that so-called expert tutors may well be superfluous; a novice tutor (or parent, sibling or friend) with a good grasp of the subject could instead achieve excellent results through very simple means.
Henry Fagg is the author of Tutoring: The Complete Guide, available for free download from www.thetutorpages.com.