In my thirty years as an educator, I have had the formal titles (but never at the same time) of “teacher” and “tutor”. I have certainly done a fair amount of teaching as a tutor, and I have deployed tutoring methodology as a teacher. Despite the obvious crossovers, I remain convinced of the fundamental differences between teaching and tutoring, and of the value of both approaches to every student’s learning journey.
In the context of this discussion, I am using “teaching” to refer to the classroom model, where the teacher imparts knowledge and skills to a number of students who are grouped mostly according to their age. “Tutoring” is the process of working with an individual or small group of students, facilitating learning in as personalised and flexible a way as possible. I am not suggesting that there is no personalisation or differentiation within the classroom. Nor am I suggesting that no teaching takes place during a tutoring session. The key to the distinction between the two approaches is the nature of the student/educator engagement and the impact this has on student learning.
Beyond the obvious structural differences between a classroom of 25 to 30 students and a tutoring session containing a single or small group of students, the imperatives behind the interaction are different. Attending school is, after all, mandated by law for students under the age of 15 (16 in Tasmania), while tutoring is a voluntary process determined solely by the needs of the student. Both teachers and tutors focus on the curriculum, but academic targets and standards for the class are likely to be set by the school and the state. No matter how supportive the classroom environment and teacher may be, there is still a competitive structure built into the classroom model. At Cluey, we hear all the time how students seek out tutors because they are embarrassed to ask questions in class in front of their peers. Given the frequency of this complaint, it is not the fault of individual teachers or schools, but more a result of the way in which the classroom model of education operates.
The aim of tutoring is to provide the academic support that each individual student requires, and so adaptability and individualisation are at the heart of the tutoring process. However student-centred a school’s pedagogy may be, tutoring is always and, by definition, student-centred. And that means that the relationship between the tutor and student is different from the relationship between a teacher and each student in their class. As a tutor, I take my lead from my student, adjust the pace of instruction and constantly check for understanding and provide (and accept) feedback. It is a highly interactive process, with active listening one of my most valuable tools. Some schools adopt methodologies, like the Dalton Plan, that create space and time in the timetable to enable these regular one-to-one interactions, but in most cases, teachers feel a split focus between the needs of the group and the needs of each member of the group. As a recent Grattan Institute report identified, a myriad of administrative demands as well as large class sizes have made it extremely difficult for most teachers to devote sufficient time to address the needs of the individual students in their classrooms. Add to that the fact that, given the wide variation in students’ current levels, teachers may be required to teach across five or more curriculum grades in a single classroom.
The same pressure is, of course, not a component of tutoring. And this means that not only can the tutor spend the time that is necessary to address the needs of the student – whether they be to catch up, keep up or excel – the nature of the relationship between student and tutor is fundamentally different to that of student and teacher. The tutor becomes a coach or mentor to the student, even while their role also incorporates direct instruction and assessment. They understand their student’s struggles and can adapt explanations and tasks to find that sweet spot where the student has both enough prior knowledge and enough challenge to embed and stretch their skills. It is not surprising that the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which summarises the global evidence base to identify the most effective approaches to lift learning outcomes, identifies one-to-one tuition, peer tutoring and small group tuition as highly effective strategies (one-to-one tuition and peer tutoring contribute 5 additional months of learning progress while small group tuition contributes 4 additional months of progress).
At Cluey, we have been impressed by the positive impact of what we call “near-to-peer” tutoring programs for our high school students. This is where we match students in their final years of school who are preparing for their ATAR examinations with a university student who performed very well in the same exam only a few years ago and who is also studying an aligned subject at university. Of course, Cluey’s experienced Education team provides the sequenced and programs and differentiated content, but these tutors have recent lived experience to draw on and share with their students, and can also model the benefits of excelling in the subject in terms of its application to tertiary studies and to a future profession. In our collaboration with the University of NSW’s Gateway program, for example, we match school students who may be the first in their family to aspire to university with a university student who can not only explain the concepts they are studying and provide important exam tips and tricks, but also demystify the university experience and build their students’ confidence.
The experience of being tutored is different from the experience of being in the classroom, and that is one of the key reasons that tutoring plays such an (increasingly) important role in contemporary education. As our expectations of education and our ability to gather important learning data increase, so do the pressures on the classroom, which in turn can lead to negative impacts on student learning (not to mention teachers’ professional satisfaction). This systemic situation is, of course, why the British government and various state governments in Australia introduced tutoring into school to address COVID-related learning loss. And this is why so many families seek out tutoring for their children, whether they require remediation, a focus on special learning needs or extension. It is time to talk about the best way for teachers and tutors to work more closely together, to build a hybrid learning model and exploit the differences between these two approaches to learning for the benefit of all students.