The deficit model in tutoring – how do you meet parent expectations?

One of the greatest challenges in teaching is that so many people think that they can do it better. The parents of our students, our own families, and of course, the politicians all think that they know exactly what goes on, as well as what should be going on in our classrooms.

It’s a well-documented problem that teachers tend to default to teaching how they themselves prefer to be taught as opposed to using up-to-date, evidence-based practice1. It’s a trap that everyone falls into; thinking that they were taught, so they know how to teach. Many teachers will do some tutoring at some point in their lives. It is a great way to hone their skills in a context that is different to teaching. Many tutors, both who are and are not also teachers, fall into a particularly unique trap. 

While teachers are backed up by formalised curricula and statewide expectations, tutors often need to bend to the whims of the parents or guardians that pay them. This means that any bias or conceptions about what teaching and learning is on the parents’ part will seep into each tutoring session and have a greater impact on how their child experiences learning.

The deficit model in tutoring.

The deficit model, put (perhaps too) simply, is the idea that there is a ‘gap’ in knowledge that needs to be filled. It does not view learning as something that seeps and spreads in the directions that students build it to slowly construct an understanding of the world, but it’s rather like lego bricks that need to be slotted together, and every hole has a piece that fits just right. This leads to the idea that if a student can’t fill the right gaps, they are lesser-than or unintelligent, which can have serious consequences for their self-worth and future achievement.

A male teacher praising a young female student. She is smiling.
The deficit model pops up a lot in teaching, but it can be particularly hard to shift when it comes to tutoring.

It’s based firmly on a ‘right way’ to do things, and that students should be taught this one right way. That there is a formula to writing the ideal essay2 and that students who are deaf are missing something rather than being genuinely multi-lingual3. This is a traditional way of teaching, which has seeped throughout our curriculum and way of educating our students. Even though many teachers are critical of this practice, it is built into the core of our education system. If you want to achieve high grades, you do at some point need to tick the right boxes.

Many parents of course care a lot about their children. They want the best for them, and many see this as high grades to get into a good university so that they can access the best opportunities in life. This feeds into the traditional model of education that is at the core of our school systems. While teachers are always trying to find ways to help students genuinely learn about why things are the way they are and to ask questions without expecting a single answer, many people who don’t do this for a living see schools and education as simply ticking those boxes so that they can move on to the next great thing.

Why is it a problem?

When you are a tutor sitting with a student at their dining room table while their mom is in the next room cooking dinner for the family, you will feel the pressure to tick the boxes. After all, what are they paying you for? They’re spending a lot of money on a tutor, and they want to see results. 

Many tutors spend their time with their students going through tasks that the teacher has given them in class. With helping research a paper or giving them feedback on their report. On helping them demonstrate what the school system wants them to demonstrate, as opposed to genuinely learning. 

This honestly may not be a problem, at least not on a small scale. The student will improve their grades, and you will get paid. But for me personally, it’s a moral issue. If I teach a student the one way to write an essay, this is not going to help them be a successful, innovative and thought-provoking writer in the future. They may not understand why that formula works and how they could tweak it so that it works better in certain contexts. It will just help them get those grades.

How to be an effective tutor.

My own opinions are going to really come through here because this depends on what you define as effective. If you sit there and help a student write a reference sheet to study for their upcoming test, that could be a very effective way of helping them get a better grade on their test. This is exactly what the student and parents expect and what you are getting paid to do. 

I would argue that your role can be bigger than that. As a tutor, you have time to spend one-on-one with a student. You are in an unusual position where you have a student’s attention for up to an hour at a time. The student has the time to ask whatever question comes into their head, and they don’t need to compete or compare themselves to other students. You can create a truly safe space for a student to explore what they know and how they understand the world. 

I need to emphasise that this is way beyond your job description as a modern tutor. No one really expects you to do this in the time that you’re being paid to spend with a student. While many students struggle with purely one-on-one tuition because of the limited social aspect, there is something to be said about having the space and time to truly explore learning. Students can explore what they want to know about themselves and the world and develop the skills to fill the space they want to fill within it.


1Cox, S. E. (2014). Perceptions and influences behind teaching practices: do teachers teach as they were taught?. Brigham Young University.

2Brannon, L., Courtney, J. P., Urbanski, C. P., Woodward, S. V., Reynolds, J. M., Iannone, A. E., … & Kendrick, M. (2008). EJ Extra: The five-paragraph essay and the deficit model of education. The English Journal, 98(2), 16-21.

3Humphries, T. (2013). Schooling in American Sign Language: A paradigm shift from a deficit model to a bilingual model in deaf education. Berkeley Review of Education, 4(1).

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