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Tutorial Networks in Mexican Public Schools

This post is by Gabriel Cámara.

The new movement that has spread via teacher and student-centered tutorial networks in the Mexican public schools demonstrates that true learning is among the most powerful levers of change, educational or otherwise. The movement originated in a centrally controlled organization that guides and supports 1.2 million teachers serving 27 million students in over 200,000 schools.

Over the past years, the movement progressed from the margins and reached central stage in the educational system. Tutoring is now a national policy, and its practice is being encouraged beyond the starting 9,000 lowest achieving elementary and middle schools, which have demonstrated the power of personal relationships to improve learning in public schools.

The standard school culture, where learning is a function of assigned content and fixed time, is radically inverted by tutoring, since dialogue is naturally moved by personal interest, mutual consent, and intellectual agreement at every step of the process. In this autonomous space, generated solely by the decision of master and apprentice to pursue mutual interests, learning moves full circle as tutors become apprentices and apprentices become tutors.

What shields the autonomy created by tutorial dialogues is the constant visibility of good learning-engagement, creativity, and self direction--that manifest themselves in academic results, which satisfy educational actors and onlookers alike, and are congruent with public education aims and goals. In addition, learning in tutorial relationships becomes contagious as satisfied learners demonstrate their achievement in public, tutor others, and generate among themselves learning communities. The effect goes beyond the stated academic purposes, because learning in open dialogue makes participants attentive to cultural and personal differences, truth is approached in earnest, and knowledge is shared in a continuous process of generous giving and receiving.

The impact of tutorial relationships was recently documented by professor Charlotte Ryan, University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Professor Ryan came to the state of Jalisco to directly experience the transforming power of tutorial relationships. She went to a middle school that in two years jumped from the bottom to the top of the national standardized test, ENLACE. Ryan asked to be tutored by a student. For two days, Max, a first year student, tutored her on one of the various themes he had mastered. The report, in English and Spanish, can be seen on our Website, Redes de Tutoría.

A short documentary, Maravillas, also documents the tutorial relationships approach as it tells the story of a small rural community with the same name in the state of Zacatecas. There, tutorial relationships improved the academic results of the town's middle school, and, more importantly, also improved the lives of both teachers and students.

Beyond the particular knowledge and solidarity being attained in tutorial relationships, the approach to teaching and learning at the base of the school system is forcing the same relational pattern among higher administrators. The competency that is being practiced in the smaller units also should be visible and encouraged in the upper levels. To the extent that the same basic, accessible, and effective competency is being shared throughout the system, a new leadership emerges that cannot be but of service. This in turn, tends to eliminate the root problem of educational systems, a dysfunctional separation between design at the top and implementation at the bottom.

Tutorial relationships are a common place in ordinary life--among family members, neighbors, researchers, artists, craftsmen--yet have become rare in schools. Why? What makes tutoring happen in ordinary classrooms? How would you expand ordinary classrooms into tutorial networks?

Gabriel Cámara is the founder of Mexico City-based Convivencia Educativa (Educational Coexistence) A.C. and Redes de Tutoría S.C. (Mentoring Networks), a group of researchers and advocates that conduct educational projects with public and private agencies.
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