Dialogue as a learning tool: the peer learning approach of Redes de Tutoría


The innovation behind Redes de Tutoría consists of a fundamental change in the pedagogical system: the teacher is not the only source of knowledge in the classroom because each student has the capacity to learn and to teach their peers.

Photo: Redes de Tutoría

When reading about educational innovations we usually find examples of new technologies applied in the classroom, schools transforming learning spaces, methodologies that apply game principles to encourage learning or the adoption of alternative credentials based on the blockchain. However, educational innovations so simple that do not involve technology, infrastructure or huge budgets, are seldom published.

I recently received an email with information about a project called "Redes de Tutoría" (Tutoring Networks). The name alone caught my attention and I decided to investigate more. I was surprised to learn that this project was born more than twenty years ago in Mexico; that in 2017 it was selected as one of the 100 most inspiring innovations of the year, a distinction granted by the HundrED organization; and that today, its model has been adopted in Chile, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia.

 Image: HundrED

Image: HundrED

How had I not heard about it before? Embarrassed to know this initiative until recently, I decided to contact the people behind this project. This was how I had the opportunity to meet Gabriel Cámara (Mexico City, 1930) founder of Redes de Tutoría, with whom I had the opportunity to talk about this initiative.

At age 14, during his middle school studies, Gabriel Cámara had his first approach to what it was to learn in a tutorial relationship when, seeing that his academic performance was poor, two colleagues offered to explain him geometry. This positive learning experience led him, at age 16, to decide to pursue the teaching profession. At the end of his Jesuit formation, he went to Harvard and obtained a doctorate in educational planning.

After his postgraduate studies, he decided to focus on one goal: transforming the traditional school approach into learning communities, where everyone is both teacher and apprentice. This is how 'Convivencia Educativa' was born, what later became 'Redes de Tutoría' (Tutoring Networks). But before getting into this initiative, let's define the concept of tutoring.


What is tutoring?

Tutoring recovers the natural way people learn: in personal encounters, respecting and trusting one another through dialogue. The central part in a tutorial relationship is dialogue, which is the meeting between a tutor who, when knowing a topic, takes the time to support a student who is interested in learning it, "because it is through dialogue with other people - and with ourselves - that we learn," explains Cámara.

With the premise that we learn better when we can decide what we want to learn, this model challenges the conventional educational structure where the teacher teaches a standard content to a passive group of students. In this way, when the student discovers something that he is interested in, there does not seem to be any distraction that deviates from his objective.

Tutorial relationships are in the nature of every human being, only that sometimes we are not able to identify it and carry it out. But once they show it to you, you do not want to leave it because you feel good, satisfied in all aspects.
— Sandra, former student of Redes de Tutoría

The essence of all tutorial relationships, according to Richard Elmore, a professor at Harvard University and who has studied tutorial relationships closely, is to give the student as much control as possible about what he wants to study. This is how tutoring leads to reasoning and discovering, not finding the exact answer that the teacher expects to receive.

In practice, tutoring is developed through questions, not answers. But not through the traditional method where "correct" answers are expected but by asking according to the specific needs of each apprentice. This way, there is a deep  understanding of the subject by both sides, the student and the tutor himself.

When this encounter-dialogue occurs between a person willing to teach and another willing to learn, this dynamic will naturally extend to others, creating learning networks. This is the premise of Redes de Tutoría.

Without dialogue there would be no way to verify or enrich knowledge, there would be no way to develop inner grow.
— Gabriel Cámara

How was Redes de Tutoría born?

Redes de Tutoría began twenty years ago as a project to support middle school students in rural communities of Mexico. With the support of the National Council for Educational Promotion (or CONAFE) they applied the model in 472 middle schools, impacting 14,160 students in small rural communities. Currently, the model has been extended to 34,000 urban and rural schools in Mexico, in addition to extending its model to schools in Chile, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. Working in indigenous and vulnerable populations.

 Redes de Tutoría around the world / HundrED

Redes de Tutoría around the world / HundrED

How do tutorial relationships work?

Richard Elmore describes tutorial relationships as extremely powerful, yet simple. The assumption is that being endowed with the faculty of speech, "all humans have the ability not only to learn but also to teach. The main condition is that has to be through dialogue."

The bid of Redes de Tutoría is to completely change the role of the teacher, opting for a teaching that is carried out through dialogue. The ultimate goal is not that the student covers a specific curriculum but to acquire reading comprehension and self-confidence so that he or she can become a lifelong learner. In the tutorial relationships, tutor and apprentice decide the content, time, place and the pace of learning.

In addition, all students are encouraged to teach what they have mastered, in this way, the ability to teach is distributed, leading to the construction of learning networks.

The innovation of Redes de Tutoría consists in a fundamental change in the pedagogical system: the teacher is not the only source of knowledge in the classroom because each student has the capacity to learn and to teach their peers. Education, under this model, becomes a democratic practice, where everyone has something valuable to share.

The student as tutor: a new approach to learning

Under this model, the tutor must facilitate a horizontal relationship between him and the student, so that each other ideas one are treated seriously and equally. This way an atmosphere of mutual respect is created in which academic and socio-emotional learning flourishes.

By supporting their peers learning process, a role previously reserved exclusively for the teacher, tutoring empowers learners to transform educational systems, as they become fair and authoritative judges to decide what is worth in their school cultures. In addition, students learn a new form of interaction that is based on respect and mutual support.

The most fascinating thing about this model is that it does not require large investments in technology or infraestructure. Elmore has found that tutorial relationships are indifferent to places. "I have seen tutoria work in the most deprived physical settings, consisting of only the bare minimum shelter, with minimal light, and bare dirt in the outdoor learning spaces. I have seen it work in schools that have obviously had the benefit of recent physical renovation, although usually simply a cleaner, newer version of the old model. I have seen tutoria work in settings where learners have access to wifi and computers; I have seen it work in settings where there is not a computer in sight. I have seen tutoria work in settings where we have been advised to leave the community before a certain time because of the risk of physical danger; I have seen tutoria work in seemingly sleepy and congenial villages where danger seemed far away."

Moreover, the testimonies of students and alumni who have participated in this model show that beyond personal growth, the extent that what was learned influenced the family and even the local communities, proving the power of teaching and learning in tutorial relationships. 


For more information, visit Redes de Tutoría.