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A Tutor for Every Child

Individual attention from teachers can boost student engagement and increase learning. Is it possible for schools to provide children with...

Individual attention from teachers can boost student engagement and increase learning. Is it possible for schools to provide children with more of it?
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For all the words spoken, books published, and legislation written about them, teaching and learning aren’t all that complicated. Teaching is simply the process of one person helping another person understand something. And learning is the process of figuring out what something is, how or why something works, or how to do something. Why, then, do so many children struggle in school? After all, our schools are filled with people who are trained to teach, and students who are, for the most part, ready and willing to learn. I’ve thought for some time that a key factor is the number of students assigned to a teacher.

Recently, I met with a former student we'll call Janelle, for a mentoring session. Janelle is a high school junior planning to take the ACT in April, and we have spent considerable time preparing for the test. She already scores slightly above the national average, and improving that score by a few points should put her in good position to gain acceptance to a top-40 university. Math was Janelle’s weakest section on her first four practice tests—here she has been scoring a few points below the national average—so I asked a statistician friend to meet with us and provide some expert tutoring. I was hoping she could spend an hour or so reviewing with Janelle some tough problems from a previous test. What happened was more than any of us expected.

For the next four hours, they sat side-by-side working through 45 algebra, geometry, and trigonometry problems. They didn’t take a break to stretch, or chat, or go to the bathroom; they just spent four hours doing math. Educators often talk about the importance of student engagement—keeping kids focused on and interested in their work. Well, Janelle was completely engaged the entire time. Even though she was facing a large window that looked onto a busy street, not once did she stray from the work in order to people-watch. She paid attention, wrote out her work for each problem, asked questions when she didn’t understand something, and expressed her thoughts on what she was learning (“Ohhhh, I see.” “I should have gotten that one right.” “That makes sense.” “That’s not as hard as I thought it would be.”). After they finished the last problem, Janelle announced with a big smile, “I feel educated.”

What kept Janelle so engaged? First, any time Janelle had a question, my friend had an answer. This is crucial, because students want to know that their teachers understand what they’re talking about. A teacher’s ability to quickly, confidently, and correctly answer questions gives them credibility with a student. Second, her tutor knew how to explain concepts in various ways. A good teacher knows that her teaching is only as effective as a student’s resultant understanding. Third, her tutor was extremely patient, willing to go step-by-step through every problem no matter how long it took. She also kept a calm demeanor and offered encouragement along the way. Students often take cues from their teachers, so a teacher who becomes frustrated when a student struggles likely will undermine that student’s confidence and motivation.

There is no doubt that my friend's skillful teaching had plenty to do with Janelle's remaining focused and interested. But the reason this great teaching was possible has to do with the context in which it occurred: Janelle was given individual attention for an uninterrupted block of time. In a typical classroom, a teacher’s talent can be undermined by the fact that their attention is divided between two dozen students. I highly doubt Janelle would have taken away so much from this interaction if her tutor had been working with an additional 20 students at the same time.

When students fail to learn, teachers often face criticism from parents and the public. But should they? Although myriad reforms have been instituted with the intent of improving schools—from merit pay to charter schools to new curricula to longer school days—one thing that seems be assumed is that students should spend every day of their 13 years of elementary and secondary schooling in classrooms with large groups of students. (Even research and reform on smaller class size assume this, as reduced-size classes generally have been no smaller than 15 students.) Is it realistic to think that a majority of students will learn at high levels when they have very little one-on-one time with their teachers?

With some imaginative scheduling, I believe schools could set aside a percentage of time for tutoring. For example, a school could designate one day per week (or per month) as a tutoring day, when students would sign up to meet with one or more teachers individually for a period of time and spend the rest of their day working individually or in small groups with expert tutors. There are countless ways to design such a program, but in any case the point would be to increase students’ access to their teachers’ knowledge, and increase teachers’ access to their students’ questions.

This idea doesn’t show up on any reform agenda that I know of, and people will be able to find plenty of reasons—from cost to logistics to lack of time—not to do it. But if we think about the basic elements of teaching and learning, increasing the amount of one-on-one time students and teachers have together is a logical step to take. If implemented correctly, it very well could lead to more students leaving school each day saying “I feel educated.”

Photo (cc) by Flickr user Eisenrah


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