Not all tutoring services are created equal. Or so say Hock et al. in their 2001 Education Leadership article, “The Case for Strategic Tutoring1.” Their brief assessment of afterschool tutoring opportunities points to tutoring as an important tool in closing the achievment gap between high performing students and those who struggle in school but cautions that [“g]ood instruction does not automatically happen in one-to-one tutoring.” Despite the work being over a decade old, its assertions still ring true with those familiar with today’s educational environment, indicating that signficant positive change has yet to be achieved.
“The Case for Strategic Tutoring” argues that, like classroom instruction, there is a corpus of agreed-upon best practices for tutoring that are research-based and that predicate success. The absence of these practices can often lead only to short-term gains and hinders, rather than helps, students on the path to becoming independent learners – the primary goal of the educational endeavor. Hock et al. criticize tutoring that focuses only upon content mastery and/or homework completion and advocate what they call “strategic tutoring” based upon sound teaching practice defined by four phases; which, in this author’s opinion, serve as yet another iteration of backward design models of problem solving and planning for effective learning.
Their phases focus upon teaching the student learning and problem solving strategies and are a follows:
- Assessing the student’s understanding of the material/task by eliciting description by the student of how to go about successful completion of the task.
- Constructing for and suggesting to the student an improved-upon model for completion of the task, integrating the student’s original ideas.
- Teaching the student how to apply the new model through demonstration.
- Transferring the strategy to the student by working out a plan for its independent application.
In addition to following these steps, the authors of “The Case for Strategic Tutoring” present several other criteria for successful tutoring programs. As with any project, they argue that the goals of the program must be clearly articulated. Specific to tutoring, they say that the targeted outcome should be learner independence, not mere homework completion. Hock et al. also cite research calling for intensive training for tutors, even for those who are certified reading and/or special education teachers. Finally, they make the seemingly obvious observation – supported by research – that students must regularly attend sessions over a sustained period; one-off or short-term programs being unsuccessful at producing students with the necessary learner indepdence to succeed over the course of their academic careers.
To any experienced pedagogue, none of this is new, at least in theory. Even established models such as McTighe and Wiggins’s Understanding by Design2and Pollock’s Teaching Schema for Mater Learners3 serve merely as recent manifestations of what most teachers have always known and what good teachers have always practiced. The fact that Hock et al. felt it necessary to make a case for strategic tutoring indicates what we have mentioned in a previous article, “Online Solutions to the Problems of Education”: that the traditional classroom and many, if not most, tutoring services simply cannot meet the needs of every student. This is not a call for the downfall of schools – far from it. Most parents simply do not have the time or resources to pursue the feasible option of home-schooling; and home-schooling can often mean no-schooling for families without the proper motivation and diligence. However, this article does indicate that schools need help in pursuing their mission and that schools and parents must look at learning support services with a discerning eye.
The fact that the research cited in “The Case for Strategic Tutoring” advocates up to sixty-five hours of training for even certified teachers should be a good indicator to parents and schools that inexpensive or free tutoring services that rely on untrained professionals or college students are often a poor solution to the challenges faced by many students on the path to sustained independent learning. That is not to say that there is no benefit in such pro bono programs; the author himself began his teaching career as a volunteer tutor while in university. But the efforts of the untrained, no matter how noble the intentions motivating their work, can rarely match the results that can be achieved by conscientious and experienced teachers with deep understanding of how to achieve the learning outcomes demanded by a quality education.
Also significant in this article is its advocation of sustained tutoring over a longer period. Again, this is a seemingly obvious statement about learning of any kind. Even studies in teacher learning in the form of continuing professional development (CPD in the UK or PD in the US) have demonstrated that short-term or one-off PD sessions result in short-term gains and little to no change in sustained and improved teaching practice4. Still, despite the research, the practice of schools and tutoring services indicates either ignorance or willful denial of these principles. Most educational institutions still provide only short-term training for their teachers in the form of one-off seminars, and a perusal of online-tutoring offerings shows an emphasis on assignment completion and even academic dishonesty on the part of many organizations. Most online tutoring services do little more than a cursory check of familiarity with content before adding tutors to their databases; which are, more often than not, merely freelance marketplaces with no real checks in place to ensure quality instruction.
Despite the presence of so many poor programs and the persistence of pretenders in the field of tutoring, Hock et al. and this author still believe it to be an essential tool for many learners. As with any craft, however, a job well-done is predicated by the quality of the tools used in its completion and the compentency of the craftsman. We have already mentioned some of the characteristics that schools and parents should look for in a quality online tutoring offering in “Online Solutions to the Problems of Education,” and we will continue to explore, in future articles, how schools, parents, and learning support organizations can work together to help every child reach his maximum potential.
1. Hock, M.; Shumaker, J.; and Deschler, D. “The Case for Stategic Tutoring,” Education leadership, Vol. 58, No. 7. April 2001. Accessed Online at http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr01/vol58/num07/The-Case-for-Strategic-Tutoring.aspx 21 November 2013
2. McTighe, J. and Wiggins, G. Understanding by Design, The Association for Supervison and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA, 1998.
3.Pollock, J. Improving Student Learning One Teacher at a Time, The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA, 2007.
4. See Addison, Yahya Developing Professional Development (unpublished research paper) 2009.