Why The Latest Genetic Research Shows That We Need Tutors

Genetic research now shows that, in medicine at least, a significant portion of the effectiveness of a treatment is dependent on the interaction between patient and practitioner.

Indeed, according to Prof. Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School, in addition to the correct prescription, a treatment’s effectiveness is the effect of: “a biological response to an act of caring; that somehow the encounter itself calls forth healing and that the more intense and focused it is, the more healing it evokes.”

This observation more or less dates back to the first blinded experiment. However, science has only recently been able to find a physiological basis for this phenomena.

Indeed, Prof. Kaptchuk’s research has shown that how receptive a patient’s treatment is to this “act of caring” is determined by what variant of a specific snippet of the genome called rs4680 that individual has.

This snipped in turn determines how much of the COMT enzyme an individual produces, which, amongst other things, in turn, determines that individual’s sensitivity to the “act of caring.”

Intuitively, this provides an explanation for why we need tutors.

Four years ago, when I was still actively tutoring, I shared at a dinner party how my concerns for a student’s success were keeping me up at night.

The person that I shared this with replied that it was probably when I stopped caring so much that I would stop being such an effective tutor.

On a less anecdotal basis, it could also explain the remarkable success of Bloom’s Two Sigma study, where students who receive one-to-one support in addition to classroom based lessons performed two standard deviations better than their peers.

Perhaps it is not the content of these one-to-one tutoring sessions that mattered, but rather the presence of a caring educator to guide the student’s progress.

This has remarkable implications for the scalability of the provision of one-to-one support in order to maximise educational outcomes.

Assuming that Kaptchuk’s findings translate directly to tutoring, when matching tutors and tutees together at scale, the academic pedigree of the tutor matters less than that tutor’s personality and the extent to which the tutor can connect with the student.

Both the tutor’s personality and their personality fit with a student can be accurately assessed using a tool like MentorMatch.

While conjectural, this provides a fascinating hypothesis to investigate further.

Given the resources, it would be eye-opening to test what variant of rs4680 a student has, infer their likely level of production of COMT, and cross-reference that to evidence on their interest in, and responsiveness to, tutoring.

The hypothesis is that students with low inferred COMT would both be interested in being tutored, and would also thrive when being tutored, whereas students with high inferred COMT would be less receptive to both the idea and practice of tutoring.

In turn, should this hypothesis be validated in an experimental context, this has tremendous implications for educational decision-makers.

Given that the quality and quantity of one-to-one educators is finite, the order of magnitude of trying to provide one-to-one support to the greatest number decreases significantly with this approach.

Indeed, if it can be empirically demonstrated that some students will not benefit from this extra support, then this support can be allocated to those that show the most likely responsiveness to being tutored.

Furthermore, with more and more schools moving towards a “blended learning” approach, with digital resources supplementing some of the work of a teacher, classes could be organized accordingly.

Students with high inferred COMT would have less contact time with a teacher and would focus more on self-guided knowledge acquisition, whereas students with low inferred COMT would have more contact time with both teachers and one-to-one educators.

While I realise that this discussion could be interpreted as having connotations of eugenics, the key aspect to bear in mind with regards to this point is that it is not a question of favouring some students over others, but to ensure that each student has the optimal structure around them to favour their academic development.