How much should children help each other learn? Peer tutoring, or peer-assisted learning, is trendy. Search the literature and it’s all over the place, although much of the research involves peer tutoring in higher education.
When does peer tutoring cross the line? How much tutoring should a child do, or get? Is the tutee (child being tutored) always well-assisted when a classmate tutors them? How does it help the tutor?
Tutoring in school is nothing new. Teachers have always put children in groups where they could work together (collaboration), or they have paired students in class.
In 1979, an article in Reading Horizons asked the same question I’m asking here. The author looked carefully at the studies at that time and determined that, in order to have students be good tutors, teachers needed to work with them first to show them how to do it well. This took a lot of time and effort on the part of both teacher and student.
Also, tutors were usually students who excelled in school. Tutoring may have boosted their self-esteem, but they didn’t get the kind of education they needed from school.
That’s a big part of the student tutoring problem today. Most parents want their children to learn something new in school and not be playing teacher.
They also want real teachers teaching their children. Sometimes tutees resent the tutors which could create social problems for both students involved.
Lately, tutoring is made to sound like a vital part of instruction. But an increase in peer tutoring especially at this time is worrisome for several reasons.
- Students might be used as tutors during a so-called teacher shortage.
- It’s cost-cutting to use tutors but not established as a good teaching method.
- Tutoring goes along with classes dominated by technology.
- A teacher with a large class size might enlist student tutors to help.
- Students with learning disabilities might be given tutors instead of a qualified special ed. teacher.
- Tutoring could be seen as a way keep gifted students busy, especially if they don’t have a gifted program.
- Student self-direction and tutoring would appear to fit together while excluding the teacher.
- Flipping classes, where students do the bulk of the work at home and discuss it at school, may lend itself to more student tutoring.
In a new University of Vanderbilt and Stanford University study, children given the responsibility of tutoring children virtually, through a program called Betty’s Brain, seems to indicate that children can teach themselves through their own tutoring. This appears to be more about children working at their own level. (Note: You can find more articles about Betty’s Brain at the bottom of the Betty’s Brain link.)
It is disheartening to see students relying so diligently on screen work. In several of the articles about this program, children are also critical of books. Why must technology be at odds with reading books? There is talk of data mining and self-regulating behavior–worrisome features of Betty’s Brain.
Here’s more about Betty’s Brain–how to teach Betty.
Doug and Lynn Fuch teach at Vanderbilt and are supporters of peer tutoring. They have also played a leading role in the development of Response to Intervention (RTI) and its implementation in public schools across the country. RTI is controversial. Here .
They have a program called PALS Peer Assisted Learning Strategy. There are products to buy with their program and costly inservice training for teachers to learn how to help students tutor.
Douglas H. Fuchs is mentioned in the Vanderbilt article about Betty’s Brain. It looks like they see this as a program to train tutors for students with disabilities.
Douglas H. Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt and developer of Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies, a popular reciprocal-learning program, said he has seen similar benefits in his own studies of real-life students involved in peer tutoring in math. In those studies, high-achieving students, as well as tutees, benefited, which Mr. Fuchs said could mean “there really is something important for the ‘teacher’ if the context is smartly set up and children are provided with appropriate training, guidance [and] direction.”
Many fear that corporate reformers are looking to replace teachers with technology. Using students to teach each other needs to be watched carefully, especially when it comes to students with disabilities.
If a student is doing peer-tutoring or being tutored regularly, here are some questions to ask.
- Is a qualified teacher monitoring the tutoring?
- How much time during the school day or week is a child tutoring or being tutored?
- Is the class dominated by technology?
- Is the teacher called a facilitator, or some other term that lessens their teaching authority?
- What is being taught and how?
- How much has the tutored student learned? Has their work improved?
- What has the tutor learned?
In general, I don’t think parents mind if their child tutors or is tutored—a little.
And no one can argue about the importance of peer-to-peer collaboration. But too much tutoring should raise concerns.
Every child deserves a well-qualified teacher who understands the developmental age of the group they are instructing, and who has studied, earned a degree from a reputable university, and obtained legitimate credentials in the subject being taught.
Children tutoring other children will never be an adequate replacement for a real teacher.
Howell, Helen. “Peer Tutoring: Learning Boon or Exploitation of the Tutor.” Reading Horizons. 19(3): 237-39.
Iwata, Kazuya and Danie S. Furmede. “Are all Peer Tutors and their Tutoring Really Effective? Considering Quality Assurance.” Medical Education. 50: 380-397.