Why On Earth Is Tutoring So Effective?

Last month I reported on the fledgling research into the mechanisms of tutoring which suggests that it’s the most powerful of all learning mediums.

Controversially, it seems that the power of one-to-one tutoring lies less in the instructional ‘moves’ of an expert tutor, and more in the constructive contributions of the student themselves. In other words, tutoring works because it provides a framework for students to actively construct knowledge by themselves.

Last Saturday, the Guardian Money section ran a feature on home schooling. In contrast to the social, philosophical and ethical points raised by most respondents, Mairead Patton instead drew readers’ attention to the pedagogical benefits of home learning – and pointed us in the direction of recent research which echoes the research into one-to-one tutoring. The research in question was published last year in Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison’s book How Children Learn at Home. In Mairead’s words,

The authors discovered that home-schooled children absorbed information mainly by “doing nothing, observing, having conversations, exploring, and through self-directed learning”. They liken the “chaotic nature” of informal learning to the process that leads to scientific breakthroughs, the early stages of crafting a novel, coming up with a solution to a technical problem, or the act of composing music.

Thomas and Pattison’s work is accurately researched. It is particularly strong on the way home schooled children are self-directed in their learning, and how they can acquire literacy and numeracy effectively. In the publisher’s description, the book provides “not only an insight into the powerful and effective nature of informal learning but also presents some fundamental challenges to many of the assumptions underpinning educational theory”.

This book, together with Micki Chi’s research into how tutoring works, challenge the orthodox understanding of the learning process. In the words of one reviewer,

The children concerned learn almost by accident through their everyday experiences, when they feel like it and are ready for it. Some of them receive input from their parents, while others learn with complete autonomy.

The families and the authors describe how the majority of the children observed are actively engaged in their own learning and, therefore, establish their own learning agendas guided by what suits them best. The removal of competition, restrictive curricula and the time-wasting built into the school day create the space for children to develop their self-motivation and thereby enable them to learn more efficiently.

As a retired teacher with thirty years experience, I find that this book provides me with evidence of the value of home schooling and throws out a powerful challenge to the skeptics.

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