One to One tutoring? No-one knows anything (Including me).

Cutangle: While I’m still confused and uncertain, it’s on a much higher plane, d’you see, and at least I know I’m bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.

Treatle: I hadn’t looked at it like that, but you’re absolutely right. He’s really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance.

They both savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were only ignorant of ordinary things.”

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

I didn’t study science at university. This is something I mildly regret. Not enough to think I might have made different choices – prioritizing music was the right thing to do – but I do regret my lack of expertise in some areas.

For example, I’ve had to learn how to read and understand studies and get to grips with ideas like effect sizes and randomized controlled trials and the like. The basics of these aren’t difficult (I think I sort of understand) but I am constantly left with the feeling that I don’t quite know what I’m talking about.

That’s good isn’t it? What is science if not a highly developed sense of doubt.

Is healthy skepticism warranted?

I mention this because I’ve been reading up on one to one tuition, trying to find answers to two questions:

  • Does one to one tuition work?
  • What works?

The simple answer to the first question appears to be ‘yes, probably, in some circumstances’. The simple answer to the second question might be ‘We’re not quite sure, but possible these things…’.

I have frequently seen Bloom’s 1984 work (pdf) cited. In this he claimed that tutoring was very effective, with students who were tutoring greatly out-performing those in control groups. So well cited was this that I thought it was sound, but others have cautioned against drawing too strong a conclusion from this relatively limited study.

The Education Endowment Fund (EEF) think highly of one to one tuition, saying that it can have an impact equivalent to 5 months additional education. However, they are clear that it is particularly useful for ‘younger learners…and for subjects like reading and mathematics’. There’s simply less research for older students and for a wider range of subjects.

This is true of lots of studies. The literature seems to focus mostly on reading or maths tuition programmes, and while it can be good research and show positive results in no way does such research cover the panoply of tuition programmes in existence.

And that’s just when trying to figure out whether such educational interventions work.  Answering my second question – what works? – is harder still. One to one tuition is by its nature hard to observe. One of those studies conducted by the EEF for example showed that one to one tuition made an impact, but there was little difference between the tutors who followed a particular programme and those who did not.

Huge areas of tuition are simply unknown, some of them unknowable. Judith Ireson and others have described a ‘shadow’ education system quite apart from the established school system. Much of it will be good, much of it will be bad, much of it we don’t know much about.

So What do we know?

One to one tuition might work. It seems to work for numeracy and literacy programmes, particularly with younger students.

It’s also very popular, and lots of parents and students are happy with it.

Beyond that, it is seems sensible to be cautious and admit what we don’t know. I might be coming at these questions from a non-science background, but even I can see that we can’t be more certain than that.

One to One tutoring? No-one knows anything (Including me).

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