The Purest Form of Teaching

One-on-one tutoring.

I was thinking about that while mountain biking with Lev Vgotsky in Capital Forest recently. Well not literally with Lev, figuratively.

Literally, I was cycling with Lance, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Sometimes though even the nicest guys have a devious core. Lance took me on a trail clearly outside my zone of proximal development.

He said it was a relatively mild Cap Forest trail which means I really suck. I went down twice, once I laid it down fairly gently into the dense shrubbery lining the super muddy 18″ wide trail and another I went over the bars. In this pic you can’t really appreciate how much blood is flowing from my knee and ankle under the layer of caked on mud. Badass, I know.

Blud and mud

I told mi esposa, una professora de Espanol, it was like dropping a Spanish 1 student in the center of Mexico City.

One of the central challenges of teaching well is adapting one’s curriculum and methods to students’ widely divergent preexisting knowledge and widely divergent skills. That is what non-educators don’t fully appreciate about teaching.

For example, take a high school swim team with 45 swimmers, 15 or so who swim on a club year round, 15 or so who only swim during the season, and 15 or so who are starting from scratch. What do you do? “Excellence” advocates might suggest cutting the “bottom thirders” but public school teachers don’t have that liberty. So what do you do when some seventh graders read, write, and ‘rithmetic at a 2nd grade level and others at the 12th? Then, for good measure, add in English Language learners, students with special needs, and well, maybe teaching is harder than it first appears.

In one-on-one tutoring it’s easier to figure out what the student knows and can already do, and therefore, it’s easier to adjust one’s material and methods in light of their zone of proximal development. Given that, maybe we should redesign our middle and high schools based upon one-on-one tutoring.

Probably unrealistic because people are so resistant to change. People would protest: we can’t have students coming and going from campus all the time; we can’t have students lose in the community; scheduling would be impossible; we can’t expect administrators, district bureaucrats, and parents to pitch in; we can’t expect students to be responsible and work more independently; we can’t redesign report cards; and we can’t do anything that disadvantages our students in the college application process.

Here’s how it might work. We wouldn’t need nearly as many administrators dealing with crowd control and discipline issues. So we take most of their walky talkies and deputize the majority of them as tutors. Same with district bureaucrats. We also deputize responsible adults in the community to both supervise student interns engaged in service-learning and to serve as tutors. We also ask parents to sign on as tutors in an academic, voc-ed, or life-skill area of their choice—Spanish, math, construction, baking, tax preparation, bicycle repair.

Some parents either won’t be qualified to, won’t be available to, or won’t want to participate, others may volunteer to tutor not just their children, but others too. For citizens that volunteer regularly, we could reduce their property taxes like Colorado did for seniors who volunteered in schools. Minimum expectations for community-based tutors could be detailed and teacher-leaders could design internet-based “how to tutor” modules and train them.

At high schools at least, we would also add in a layer of peer tutoring. Every student would be guided through a process of picking an academic subject (writing persuasive essays or solving algebraic proofs), extracurricular skill (competitive debate, swimming), or vocational ed set of skills (cooking or basic car maintenance) that they would be expected to teach a few of their peers. Again, teacher leaders could design internent-based “how to tutor” modules for students and teach peer tutoring first thing in the school year.

We’d completely rework the traditional bell schedule. At any one time, an expert swimmer would be teaching a beginner how to breath during freestyle, an advanced violinist would be teaching a beginner proper feet position and posture, an accomplished math student would be explaining to a less accomplished one how to solve for “x”. Upper and lower tracked students would interact regularly.

At home, in school libraries, and in community libraries, students would spend about half of their time reading, writing, and preparing for tutoring sessions.

Teachers would spend half of their time tutoring in their specialized academic areas and half as mentors supervising the tutoring network of ten or twenty students who they will get to know particularly well over the course of working with them for all three or four years of middle or high school. Thoughtful teacher supervision of each individual student’s tutoring network will be critical. This approach to teaching and learning would only work if the sum of the disparate tutoring experiences equaled more than the individual parts.

In any one day, a student would meet one-on-one with an adult in or near their home, with another adult somewhere in the community as a part of a service project or internship, with a few peers in school both as teacher and learner, and with a few teachers both to be tutored in core academic areas and to synthesize what they’re learning from all of their different tutors. And again, in between tutoring sessions, they’d be reading, writing, and preparing for upcoming sessions.

Crazy? Maybe I did hit my head on that over the handle bar number I did.

1 thought on “The Purest Form of Teaching

  1. That makes so much good sense to me!
    The post also reminds me of all those rides around the Tahoe Rim trail, Mr Toad’s Wild Ride and the Marlette and Spooner Lakes up there in the Sierra Nevada all those years ago.
    Plenty of blood flowed on those rides.
    Great post.

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