If we dared to cut, we would find the
knot's ends to be "learners" and "learning," not the same as
"teachers" and "teaching," two additional strands of institutional
wrapping that must be unwound. Teachers need to be freed to teach as
individuals, just as learners need to be freed to learn as
individuals, not as members of a group of 25 or more same-age
classmates, shackled together and clomping along in rigidly
scheduled, lock-step curricula.
What has been fundamentally wrong with formal schooling for
thousands of years is its basic instructional unit:
teacher-and-class. Group instruction has never been even
moderately successful for the simple and obvious reason that
learners are so different that any large-group lesson is certain to
be too difficult for some and too easy for others — and irrelevant
to most. Trying to teach and to learn in a system so inherently
inefficient demoralizes teachers and frustrates learners.
The radical restructuring that many critics call for must get at the
taproot--the uniquely individual learners, who have the right to
equal opportunities to develop their unequal abilities and talents.
That right cannot be realized optimally under the conditions of
group instruction. A system of genuinely personalized
instruction must be devised--one that develops the potential of
learners, of teachers, of parents, and of administrators and that
also meets society's requirements for competent, reliable citizens.
These apparently contradictory goals—individual development and
social responsibility—can be achieved by cutting through the tough
knot that group-centered education has tied itself into.
Fortunately, a very sharp sword is
at hand and has been for more than 30 years (actually for
millennia): learning with and from other learners. The current
pedagogical terms are peer and cross-age tutoring and
counseling. A less common but more descriptive term is mutual
instruction (MI), a phrase which suggests that tutors and
counselors benefit along with their tutees and counselees. Since the
early 1960s, thousands of-one-to-one peer assistance programs at all
levels from preschool through graduate school have proved successful
with all types of learners in all subjects. (Because MI is currently
a concept in search of adoption, I cannot describe the features of
actual programs. However, to simplify syntax and verb tense. I will
describe the potential of MI as if the concept were already
Two researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 65 comparative
studies of peer tutoring and came to the following conclusion:
Students who participate in tutorial programs--both as
tutors and tutees--show greater cognitive growth and attitudinal
gains than do students who are not involved in such programs . .
. Tutors not only develop more positive attitudes toward the
subjects they are teaching, but they also gain a better
understanding of these subjects.
However, most peer programs were and still are small-scale
remedial or supplemental adjuncts, tacked lightly onto the
conventional classroom system of group instruction. Such cross-age
programs are sometimes viewed as an added burden placed on already
overloaded teachers. The benefits to the few students involved
eventually seem not worth the effort to the cooperating teachers.
The often dramatic cognitive and affective gains made by
participating tutors and tutees are richly documented, even though
they are usually achieved in relatively short time periods and in
one subject only, such as 15- or 20-minute tutoring sessions in
reading or math that meet three or four times a week during only a
part of the school year. The tutors may receive only brief training
and little supervision. If so much can be accomplished in so little
time and with minimal training and support, should not schools be
restructured so that all students could receive these benefits in
all subjects at all levels?
An old adage says, "He who teaches is twice taught." A learner
needs to "teach" a subject in order to understand it well.
Therefore, teaching, in the sense of helping others learn, must be
recognized as an essential learning experience for everyone, not
just a kindly volunteer service offered by the more able to the less
able for the sole benefit of the latter. When a class is divided
into tutors and tutees, the tutees often resent their inferior
status. All learners need both experiences and in about equal
"Twice taught" also applies to the affective part of the
tutorial relationship. We often forget that learning is basically
social. Tutoring integrates learning and friendliness; it nurtures
patience, tolerance, respect, good humor, and affection. Both tutor
and tutee succeed in personal relations and in learning subject
matter. These combined successes enhance the self-esteem of both
Most reform-minded critics call for
more head learning, i.e. more science and math to make America
strong enough to regain world economic leadership. However, our
nation's weaknesses are as much moral as mental. The delinquencies
that rend the fabric of society are moral: violent crime, drug
abuse, irresponsible sex, greed in business and politics, selfish
unconcern for the environment present and future, racism, Madison
Avenue materialism. People who commit crimes, who exploit and abuse
others, lack the most basic of moral values: an equal concern for
the rights and welfare of others and for one's legitimate
Moral values can and should be learned as directly and
consciously as the alphabet, addition facts, and the order of U.S.
Presidents. But children learn values and attitudes best from
real-life experiences in caring and responsible relationships with
persons of all ages, backgrounds, interests, and abilities. Peer and cross-age programs provide ideal
learning experiences because they combine intellectual subject
matter and human relationships. Tutoring requires tutor and tutee to
sharpen and refine their communication skills, to learn to listen
and to speak with head and heart.
A humane society grows from and is sustained by a humane
school system, whose organizing and directing principle should be:
"Learn to teach and teach to learn." This credo weaves moral
training into the curricular fabric, giving it extra strength and
MI ACCEPTS THE I.Q. CHALLENGE
In 1961 in a landmark book, research psychologist J. McVicar
Hunt went out on a pedagogical limb. He predicted that, if "the
problem of the match" were solved, the I.Q. of all learners (as
measured by standardized I.Q. tests) might conceivably be raised a
"substantial degree . . . of the order of 30 points of I.Q." Besides
citing extensive research data reporting increases of 30 or more
points of I.Q. when learners were put into stimulating environments,
Hunt introduced Jean Piaget's concept of the development of
intelligence to support his own claim that educational experience,
not innate intellectual endowment, is by far the greater determinant
of measured intelligence. (The conventional wisdom at the time gave
nature about 75 % and nurture about 25 % of the credit.) Hunt
issued a challenge to investigate the possibility that I.Q. could be
raised, a challenge that educators have not deigned to accept.
The "match" Hunt referred to is between a learner's readiness
to learn and an environment that provides the necessary
opportunities and support: for example, providing instruments and
instruction to develop musical talent, art materials and guidance
for artistic interests, gym and playground facilities and coaching
for athletics, and creative contacts with interested persons to
nurture intellectual interests.
Hunt was especially concerned about intellectual development
in the critical years of early childhood. He was pleased to
rediscover Maria Montessori's theory and practice of providing a
"prepared environment" suited to the varied learning needs, styles,
and abilities of children aged 2 to 5. The Montessori method
(especially when enriched with more music, art, and large-muscle
activities) provides for stimulating interplay between nature and
nurture in these early years.
The confidence that an MI system can solve Hunt's "problem of
the match" and significantly raise levels of developed
intelligence (what I.Q. tests actually measure) is strongly
supported by extensive research projects headed by Herbert Walberg
and Benjamin Bloom. With colleagues, Walberg reviewed the original
studies of productive classroom practices and the syntheses of these
studies. The data from thousands of studies yielded four major
factors that contribute most to what Bloom terms "mastery learning":
reinforcement, acceleration, reading training, and cues and
The MI system provides all of these elements in a unified,
integrated way, so that their combined effect could conceivably
raise the mean scores of experimental groups on standardized
academic tests by more than three standard deviations above the mean
of control groups--an outcome that Walberg suggests is possible.
From their peer tutors, learners get immediate reinforcement for
their efforts. Students move as fast and as far as their interests
and abilities carry them. Tutors are trained to help other students
understand the kind of reading (usually the type of thinking)
required in each subject area. Tutors provide the necessary cues and
immediate feedback that tutees need to stay on course. In tutoring,
students are "on task" 90% of the time, in contrast to only 50% of
the time under conventional classroom instruction, according to
Walberg also points out that these combined effects on
learning are nearly 15 times more powerful than the effect of
socioeconomic status. The problem of providing high-quality
schooling in depressed and minority areas need not wait for the
elimination of poverty. Through the learners' own abilities to help
one another, MI can provide high-quality schooling at any
Some critics complain that MI wastes students' time in
teaching what they have already learned. However, Bloom's extensive
five-year study of individuals highly talented in athletics, the
arts, and research found that repeated drill on the
fundamentals---overlearning--is essential in developing talent. He
optimistically concluded that "each society could vastly increase
the amount and kinds of talent it develops"--but not under the usual
From results of another major study comparing a variety of
classroom teaching techniques to one-to-one tutoring (considered the
most effective teaching/learning situation), Bloom became convinced
that, given time and competent individual assistance, all students
but those with severe mental disabilities can achieve mastery levels
in required curricula, as Walberg's findings also suggest.
However, Bloom is wrong in stating that cost prevents schools
from providing one-to-one tutoring for all students. He studied
tutoring by paid adult teachers. But other studies have shown that
peer tutors can be as effective as professional teachers in
tutoring." Because all MI students learn to be tutors, a school
using MI always has a one-to-one "teacher"/pupil ratio, with the
tutors backed by professional teachers who would be available for
tutoring beyond the students' expertise.
FEATURES OF A COMPREHENSIVE MI SYSTEM
The following elements are not unique to MI. What is unique is
the way they are organized and integrated around the central
principle that peer teaching is an essential part of learning,
both social/psychological and intellectual. MI is flexible and
open-ended, but it is not an eclectic hodge-podge of "good
ideas." Any effective teaching/learning materials and techniques can
be incorporated into MI, if they can be adapted to one-to-one and
To offer a wide variety of subjects and to ensure a
stimulating variety of talents and personalities among the learners,
teachers, and aides, the optimal size for an MI school is 1,000 to
1,200 students, ranging in age from 2 to 18. All would be housed on
the same campus, staffed with 40 to 50 teachers and 40 to 50 aides.
Aides handle the logistics of room management, do routine
supervision, and give some instructional assistance. Computer
programs facilitate record keeping to chart individual student
Include early childhood education.
should be extended to include 2- to 4-year-olds. MI schooling is
continuous, not divided into separate age-and grade-level schools.
All learners have access to all teachers and all subjects. The MI
school is a real-life microsociety, in which all members are
available to one another for help and companionship as needed and
Early childhood education belongs in the public school, though
it need not be compulsory. Even very good homes cannot provide all
the intellectual and social experiences that children need in their
critical early years. Given the probably irreversible trend toward
full-time careers for both parents in most families, competent early
care and education will become a public responsibility equal to that
of educating older children.
Provide pre-parenting experience. Another
compelling reason for schools to have an early childhood program on
site is the opportunity it provides for older students to observe
and work with young children. Parenting skills in humans are not
instinctive; they must be learned. On-the-job training is usually
too little and too late, even when one parent can be at home
full-time. To strengthen home life, present and future, all students
need some experience, under professional instruction and
supervision, in dealing constructively with a variety of young
children at work and at play. Having preschoolers on campus
facilitates these important cross-age intellectual and social
Grades and grading out; mastery learning in.
Age-graded classes and any kind of system of letter grades should be
eliminated. Learners in an MI school move at their own
pace through developmental programs geared to their abilities and
achieve required levels of competence, with peer and teacher
assistance as needed. Thus, students cannot fail a course or a
Fear of failure or of a poor showing is a powerful deterrent
to learning. Confidence in one's abilities, coupled with tutorial
support, can be a powerful stimulus to learning. Moreover, success
in learning breeds more success, especially when learners have some
freedom of choice in what, when, how, and with whom they learn.
"Enjoy your preschool days while you can."
Professional associations are developing comprehensive K-12
curricula that concentrate on basic concepts and thinking
skills—teaching less but in greater depth. This can best be
accomplished if developmental programs are cast in forms that
support self-instruction and peer tutoring. Learners tackle a
program when they have the requisite entering knowledge and skills.
Knowing that they can get all the individual help they may need,
learners have no fear of failure.
Helping others learn what one has become competent in oneself
is an ideal way to achieve a broader, deeper grasp of essential
information and concepts. Repetition is necessary for mastery and
for long-term memory. Tutors creatively review what they know as
they repeatedly reconstruct their own understanding to fit the
growing understanding of their tutees. Instruction in how to tutor
and how to be tutored emphasizes ways to ask penetrating questions
and to evaluate answers. All the higher-level thinking skills are
used in tutoring and collaborative learning. Moreover, these skills
cannot be practiced nearly as intensively in teacher-led group
discussions and are difficult to practice alone. (However, many
tutors testify that they often converse with themselves when
studying independently, quizzing themselves as if in a tutorial
Harness pupil power for personalized learning.
Obviously, this is the central distinctive feature of MI. The
failure to recognize and fully use students' creative energies and
abilities in helping to solve academic and personal problems is the
main reason that other reform efforts have failed to achieve
genuinely individualized instruction, which requires
There is nothing wrong with giving a child a worksheet of
challenging problems. But it is wrong to give a child a worksheet
that is too hard or too easy. And it is worse to fail to give
immediate feedback in an effort to find out how a child arrived at
correct answers and why he or she made errors. It is still worse to
fail to go back and fill in the gaps in learning, "picking up the
dropped stitches" that weren't knit into a particular academic
garment. The critical teaching/learning interchanges required for
mastery demand the kind of one-to-one attention that a single
classroom teacher lacks the time to give to every student every day.
The critical elements in peer-tutoring programs are adequate
training and ongoing supervision of tutors. These are major
responsibilities of an MI teacher, but many well-developed,
field-tested training programs are available. The
training of tutors soon becomes automatic and self-instructional,
and tutees learn how to tutor by working with well-trained tutors.
MI solves two of the most intractable problems of conventional
schooling: motivation and discipline. Very little of what schools
demand that students learn has any immediate value in their daily
lives, so they have little desire to learn it. However, learning in
order to help others learn provides an attractive and realistic
external motivation that is rooted in our social instinct to share
knowledge. After all, why are secrets so hard to keep?
This motivation to learn, coupled with success as tutor and
tutee, leaves students without a reason to "buck the system." They
ally themselves with teachers: they assume the responsibility of
being dependable role models for their tutees, who in turn work hard
to please their tutors. Those who work in tutoring and
peer-counseling programs are nearly unanimous in asserting that
discipline problems are infrequent, mild, and practically
nonexistent--even when "problem pupils" are in the program.
Provide study rooms and learning labs, not classrooms.
Some young, timid, and insecure children need a homeroom,
which MI provides. However, most learners enjoy going to
departmental study rooms and learning labs for instruction by
specialists in each discipline.
Large study rooms can comfortably accommodate 40 or more
students. They are distinctively furnished and decorated so that
students "breathe" the different air of each discipline. Young
children need and deserve the stimulation of such environments as
much as do older students. Language arts, literature, social
sciences, and mathematics are not taught in the same drab rooms, as
is common in junior and senior high schools. Neither should all
subjects be presented in all purpose, self-contained, age-graded K-6
Two teachers and two trained aides staff each room. Each
teacher/aide team specializes in either the introductory or advanced
levels of a discipline, but all staff members get to know all
students of all ages as they intermingle in their rooms. Interested
older students become influential models and mentors for younger
ones. The specialist teachers help students plan their individual
research projects and pair them with tutors. Students who wish to
work together voluntarily form small study and research groups.
Give teachers professional status.
professionals deal with their clients largely on a one-to-one basis.
Why not teachers? Freed from nonteaching duties and large-group
instruction, MI teachers work professionally with individual
students and with small groups. Teachers have time to study
available programs and to adopt, adapt, and design specialized work
units to suit students' special needs. Teachers have time to confer
with their colleagues and with parents about individual students'
specific and general progress. Teachers cooperate in designing
interdisciplinary programs that integrate student learning.
Develop a sense of community. Although MI
emphasizes the primary importance of one-to-one and small-group
relationships, these need to be supplemented with a sense of
membership in a larger group. The whole school is too large, and the
succession of contacts with fellow students and teachers in the
departmental rooms is too diverse and unconnected to serve as a
"home base." The concept of the MI "family" provides a solid sense
of being a valued member of a permanent, ongoing community.
About 25 students, equally distributed across an age range of
5 to 18, are designated as a "family." Each such family is headed by
a teacher and an aide (preferably of opposite sexes, for a "father/
mother" pair). They serve as primary counselors to these students as
long as they are in school, providing continuing oversight of each
child's total progress. This arrangement facilitates contacts with
parents, who need not establish a new rapport with a different
teacher every year. Each MI family stays together year after year,
adding new members as some graduate or move away or as a need for a
special personal relationship is accommodated by assignment to a
different family. Except for the oldest and the youngest, each
family member is a big brother/sister to a younger member and also a
little sister/brother to an older member.
Each family meets daily for 45 minutes or so, primarily for
socializing, for getting to know one another well, and for learning
about out-of-school activities. "Show and tell" is appropriate for
family gatherings. The family occasionally lunches together and
attends some school-wide meetings as a unit. Each family "adopts"
four or five preschoolers and gives them special attention,
frequently bringing them to family meetings.
The families sing traditional songs together, read some of the
classic poetry and stories that help shape our national psyche, and
make preparations for and celebrate national holidays. Students plan
and direct most of the family meeting activities, which provide
social and learning experiences that supplement and complement other
school activities and fill in any academic or social gaps in their
more individualized programs.
As primary counselors for each of the "children," the family
teachers help plan the students' total program so that it is
reasonably well-balanced between required subjects and individually
Lay a solid foundation for literacy and build on it.
Success in MI depends as heavily on proficiency in reading and
writing as does conventional schooling. However, MI strives to
guarantee that every student not only becomes literate but
also enjoys all the activities that involve literacy.
Many years ago, one of the first encouragements I received in
my beginning pursuit of the then-embryonic concept of MI came from a
professor of education at the University of Illinois. He knew of no
formal research on the subject, but he warmly reminisced: "When I
started my teaching career in a one-room country school, we'd never
heard of a 'nonreader.' The other kids would take the little ones
into their seats and just wouldn't give up till they taught them to
read." Dolores Durkin found evidence aplenty that older children are
efficient tutors of beginning readers.
Because the preschoolers are on campus, older children can
read to them individually and talk with them about the stories and
about themselves. The older children can print the stories that the
youngsters tell and compile them into bound booklets to put in the
class library. Older children can help the beginners write their own
stories as they learn to print and read. Through such continuing
personalized, unpressured tutorial attention, every child can become
a confident, competent reader and writer.
Learning to read is not nearly as complicated and tortuous as
the reading "experts" have made it. Of all the basic
skills, reading and writing most need truly individualized,
personalized instruction of the quantity and quality that only a
well-organized, comprehensive cross-age tutoring program can
provide. Moreover, such an individualized program can begin around
age 2. The aim is not to rush preschoolers into reading, but
to develop their verbal competence and their interest in all the
things they will hear and read about.
Once a child has started reading, by whatever method,
"reading" problems are mostly comprehension (thinking) problems,
frequently exacerbated by psychological hang-ups spawned by pressure
to "keep up with the class" and fear of failure. The tyranny of
age-based expectations that drive the standardized basal reading
programs is the single greatest cause of functional illiteracy. This
is the major "pedagogenic" disorder caused by the age-graded, group
UNRAVELING OTHER SCHOOL KNOTS
Once the school knot begins to unravel, freeing students to
learn as unique individuals and teachers to teach as unique
individuals and to serve as resource persons and facilitators, other
knots, large and small, almost untie themselves. MI gives us a hold
on the "learner" and "learning" ends of the educational rope. But it
can also untangle most of the persistent subknots that have always
frustrated attempts to improve schooling significantly.
With MI there is no need for
daily, quarterly, semester-long, or yearly course scheduling that
prevents students from covering all the subjects they wish to study
when they want to study them. All required courses are available in
a variety of programs that individuals and small groups study
according to their individually planned schedules. Teachers schedule
planning, instructional, and evaluation meetings as needed with
individual students and small study groups.
Instead of operating as year-round schools that schedule
students and teachers to be in school or out for blocks of time, MI
schools can require students to put in the state-mandated number of
school days and hours in whatever patterns suit their own and their
families' work and vacation schedules. When students are out of
school for any reason, they do not "miss out" or have to "make up"
work. On their return, they simply pick up where they left off in
their own study programs.
Invest time in leisure.
Most observers, along with
frustrated students and teachers, agree that group instruction is
highly inefficient, wasting half or more of students' learning time.
Personalized MI programs cut in half the time most learners need to
master the required curriculum. Students invest this saved time in
developing personal interests and hobbies to fill their leisure time
in creative, satisfying ways.
One's sense of self is often based more on productive use of leisure
time than on one's job or profession. There aren't enough
self-fulfilling jobs for everyone, so students should use school
time to develop skills and interests to occupy their leisure time.
The school provides facilities and opportunities to develop these
skills and interests in arts and crafts, in music, in drama, in
sports, in reading, and in subject areas not included in the regular
The administrative bureaucracy is the only
segment of the traditional system that will bleed when the MI sword
cuts into its stout ropes. But the question must be asked: Since
private schools flourish without central office supervision and
support, why can't public schools do likewise? The current trend in
school restructuring is toward decentralized control and local
school empowerment. This approach can save substantial
administrative costs, which can be invested in trained aides (the
equivalent of nurses for doctors), the only extra cost associated
Vastly improved teacher training is built into the MI system.
Teachers tend to teach as they were taught. After 12 to 15 years of
mutual instruction, graduates who opt to continue their teaching
careers as professionals - or as aides and/or parents — will know
how to work in and improve an MI system. Professional training at
the college level would expand their knowledge in content areas and
deepen their understanding of MI theory and practice and so help to
make the system ever more responsive to the needs of individuals and
CAN MI CONQUER THE WORLD?
Regardless of its political and economic system, any society
will fail unless its members become competent and caring citizens.
The usual system of group instruction has trouble attracting and
holding skilled and dedicated teachers and eager and industrious
students. The current dropout rate is about the same for both.
(About 20% of teachers "drop out" within their first five years.)
Empirical evidence from more than 30 years and tens of
thousands of limited, small-scale projects in tutoring and
counseling strongly support the belief that a comprehensive Ml
system as sketched herein would produce far cooler heads and
much warmer hearts than any system has yet achieved. Because the
effects of MI are cumulative, the overall impact of mutual
instruction cannot be fairly determined in less than a full school
generation of MI experience - 12 to 15 years.
However, the varied evidence now available justifies the belief
that, through mutual instruction, every student can develop a
high level of intelligence and character that will sustain a firm
sense of security, a well-earned feeling of self-worth, and a
dedication to lifelong learning. These traits will carry over into
adult life and contribute to the development of a cultured society
that will guarantee not only the survival but the continued growth
of democracy, "the last, best hope of earth."