Tutorial Relationship – Igniting Exponential Learning

The Learning Community Project model currently operating in rural schools offers an intriguing bottom-up approach to learning. How do you see this project transforming rural communities in Mexico?

This 15 year-old project has significantly expanded. This past summer, 78,000 middle school math teachers in all states were learning indepth four chosen problems of elementary math (natural numbers, fractions, proportionality, and geometry), all in tutorial relationships through a network of trainers from a central group down to state and regional groups that have mastered this learning relationship. The basic tenet of tutorial relationships, in this and related programs, is that the tutor must offer the apprentice only what she/he has proved to have mastered, and will offer it to the apprentice who expresses interest. The work is freely undertaken and the learner moves at his/her own pace. The commitment of the tutor is to foster mastery in the apprentice, and that of the apprentice is to work until she/he satisfies the commitment to learn what initially was of interest. The new mastery is confirmed as the learner reflects on his/her own process, discusses it among fellow apprentices, and finally becomes a tutor to those who want to learn the same subject in the same manner. This way, teaching and learning become common property and the group – teachers, students, and increasingly, parents – form lively learning communities.

Mentoring in professional development sessions, schools, and classrooms implies one-to-one relationships, tailoring the official program to what each tutor knows – no matter what the standard syllabus or the textbook prescribe for each week or each school day – and the freedom of each apprentice to choose from the mentor’s offering what is of genuine interest to her/him and she/he has decided to learn well.

Tutorial relationships go against the grain of standardized practices in training sessions, schools, and classrooms. Those practices are justified as necessary in the economies of scale of an expanding public school system chronically short of resources, mostly teachers. Training sessions and classrooms are typically structured around one person trying to teach standard content to a rather passive group of students. This induced scarcity of opportunities to learn is challenged by the evidence that learning is a social process, based on the capacity of every person to learn and to teach, provided there is interest and commitment on the part of both the one who teaches and the one who is willing to learn. In a learning community constructed through tutorial relationships, the induced scarcity disappears.

The bottom-up approach seems intriguing from the top-down perspective, but from basic experience of parents, students or teachers, we all know what it takes to learn: interest, freedom to explore, and encouragement from trusting elders or fellow learners. Cognitive scientists and psychologists confirm this to be the basic learning experience. It takes place “at the bottom” between mentor and apprentice, irrespective of ages, context, and subject matter; so we as practitioners had to start from there. The interesting thing is that as soon as you allow teachers and students to engage in tutorial relationships, the classroom starts producing extraordinary results and soon it turns into a different learning environment that draws attention and becomes a showcase of successful educational change.

Word of mouth led Mexico’s Undersecretary of Education to visit one of those classrooms on February 11, 2008. He was thoroughly impressed and decided on a policy of expansion from the bottom-up. Through visits to operating sites and demonstrations, authorities and teachers in other places were invited to participate in a program articulated by a network of tutors. Training and follow up visits helped teachers turn their ordinary classrooms into learning communities. Success bred success and in three years teaching and learning in tutorial relationships has become a sort of flagship in the realm of public basic education.

The movement has continued to expand horizontally in a contagion-like manner, both when outsiders come to visit learning communities, and when the students of these communities go out to give public demonstrations of their newly acquired mentoring abilities to authorities, teachers, and fellow students. These abilities did not come from just having covered subject matter, but from having acquired a learning competency. Genuine tutorial relationships cannot take place except in pursuit of a clear competency that engages the apprentice and that has to be demonstrated in real practice. The competency that proved capable of sustaining tutorial relationships in ordinary schools – that is, capable of engaging teachers and students – has been the ability to learn from written materials. Independently of the interest or need to learn a particular subject, what engages the learner is the exercise in independent learning as she/he dialogues and argues with the authors of written texts. The role of the tutor is to facilitate, not to substitute this dialogue. It is this basic competency that enables young students – as young as eight years old – to become tutors of interested teachers and authorities. The drive from the base comes from demonstrating the feasibility of acquiring a competency that sums up the academic goals of public basic education.

From the point of view of our practice, opportunity to learn has to be personal, tailored to the learners’ interests, and cultural experiences, provided the tutor strives to develop in them the ability to learn and teach by themselves. In fact, as the learners become tutors, it is clear that they are acquiring the ability to learn by themselves and are capable of pursuing independent learning interests. This basic intellectual autonomy should be the goal of public basic education. As for training the future citizen, the radical human leveling of tutorial relations – trust, respect, commitment, sharing – turns schooling into life itself, not just preparation for it.

Tutorial relationships are forcing basic changes in the regular educational system: what needs to be standardized and what needs to be open ended; what is best left to students and what is best decided by the authority; how situated the preparation of teachers must be. If each person must learn according to interest, particular background, and ways of approaching subjects, homogeneous grouping appears illusory and standard separations by levels and grades obstruct rather than enhance independent learning. Also compulsory attendance should be questioned along with the custodial role of schools in large cities.

In a highly centralized national education system like the one in Mexico, the decision of an Undersecretary of Basic Education is a two edged sword – it can either foster radical change, or stymie it; continue or discontinue promising programs. So far, we have fared beyond expectations and moved farther than what could have been imagined.

How can educational reform promote social reform in Mexico?

The best a school system can do in a troubled country is to aim directly at the learning core and to make sure that people meet in honesty and truth. It does not take exhortations or impositions but rather, fostering of mutual trust and understanding in classrooms and schools.

What are some key educational changes that you see Mexico engaging in going forward?

Mexico is focused on standards and accountability as means to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools. The trend follows guidelines and examples in other countries and seems inescapable given the technological possibilities to collect and handle information in massive educational systems. Opposing trends are demonstrated advantages of alternative ways to teach, learn, and evaluate progress in schools. The basic challenge is to start at the base, understand that what a program prescribes is not what every teacher knows, and what students are offered may not be what they are interested in learning. Training or retraining teachers must change, must be personal, attuned to contexts and individual needs, effective, and most of all, humanly and professionally satisfying. As for students, they need freedom and variety of experiences, which is accessible in selected schools where teachers teach only what they know and where students learn what they want.

What do you see as one of the most pressing issues related to educational change today?

To create learning environments in which there is freedom to teach what one really knows and to learn what one genuinely wants. These environments are based on mutual respect, produce concrete accomplishments, and are sources of intellectual and human satisfaction. The challenge is to make it happen through research and discussion, trial and error, and demonstrated accomplishments that give substance to whatever political struggles are deemed necessary at the base of the system. Unless there are indisputable, demonstrated accomplishments in schools, and professional pride for them among teachers, top down policies will continue to have the upper hand and will continue to override independence and creativity at the base.

This interview is taken from LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES: Q&A with Dr Gabriel Cámara from Issue No. 11, November 2011 of Educational Change Special Interest Group publication (Used with permission from Dr Gabriel Cámara).