How Tutoring Works (Cooking With The Grandkids)

My wife, Nancy, and I have three grandkids: Adaya (4 ½), Leo (3 ½), and Ava (8 months). They all live in Baltimore, so we see quite a lot of them, which is wonderful.

As with most grandparents and grandkids, one of our favorite activities with Adaya and Leo is cooking. We have two folding stepladders in the kitchen, which the kids work from. They help make pancakes, scrambled eggs, spaghetti, and other family classics. We start off giving the kids easy and safe tasks, like measuring and pouring ingredients into bowls and mixing, and as they become proficient, we let them pour ingredients into hot pans, scramble eggs on the stove, and so on. They love every bit of this, and are so proud of their accomplishments.

So here is my question. What are we making when we cook with the grandkids? If you say pancakes and eggs, that’s not wrong, but perhaps these are the least important things we are doing.

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What we are really doing is building the thrill of mastery in a loving and supportive context. All children are born into a confusing world. They want to understand their world and to learn to operate effectively in it. They want to do what the big people do. They also want to be loved and valued.

Now consider children who need tutoring because they are behind in reading. These kids are in very big trouble, and they know it. All of them understand what the purpose of school is. It is to learn to read. Yet they know they are not succeeding.

The solution, I believe, is a lot like cooking with people who love you. In other words, it’s tutoring, in small groups or one-to-one.

The effectiveness of tutoring is very well established in rigorous research, as I’ve noted more than once in this series of blogs. No surprise there. But what is surprising is that well-trained, caring tutors without teaching certificates using well-structured materials get outcomes just as good as those obtained by certified teachers. How can this be? If tutoring works primarily because it enables teachers to adapt instruction to meet the learning needs of individual students, then you’d expect that students who receive tutoring from certified, experienced teachers would get much better outcomes than those tutored by teaching assistants. But they don’t, on average. Further, a U.K. study of one-to-one tutoring over the internet found an effect size of zero. These and other unexpected findings support a conclusion that while the ability to individualize instruction is important in tutoring, it is not enough. The additional factor that explains much of the powerful impacts of tutoring, I believe, is love. Most tutors, with or without teaching certificates, love the children they tutor in a way that a teacher with 25 or 30 students usually cannot. A tutor with one or just a few children at a time is certain to get to know those children, and to care about them deeply. From the perspective of struggling children, their tutor is not just a teacher. She or he is a lifeline, a new chance to achieve the mastery they crave. Someone who knows and cares about then and will stick with them until they can read.

This is why individual or small-group tutoring is a bit like cooking with your grandparents. In both settings, children receive the two things they need and value the most: love and mastery.

My point here is not sentimental or idealistic. It is deadly practical. We already know a lot about how to use tutoring effectively and cost-effectively. Yet there is a great deal more we need to learn to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of effective tutoring. We need to find out how to extend positive effects to larger numbers of students, to learn how to maintain and build on initial successes in the early grades, how to successfully tutor upper-elementary and secondary students, and how to reach students who still do not succeed despite small-group tutoring. We need to experiment with adaptations of tutoring for English learners.

We know that tutoring is powerful, but we need to make it more cost-effective without reducing its impact, so that many more children can experience the thrill of mastery. To do that, we have a lot of work to do. Let’s get cooking!

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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