RTI: Is there a place for peer-to-peer tutoring during intervention?

RTI: Is there a place for peer-to-peer tutoring during intervention? Among my stack (or should I say bulging digital folder!) of summer reading was an interesting article from Science News for Students about brain function. As a diehard language buff and speech-language pathologist, this is a favorite topic of inquiry, and I was not to be disappointed on this occasion. I suppose I have always thought of social interactions as a function of “learned” language. For me, pragmatics, or the way we interact with others to get our messages across, has always been embedded in culture, not brain activity. To my surprise, modern technology has offered an alternative view of this important component of our communication system.

In the article, neuroscientist Suzanne Dikker, et al., demonstrate through EEG monitoring how our brains synchronize when we are actively engaged and learning with a partner. (EEG is short for electroencephalography.) Their study suggests that sharing focus with a partner results in our brain patterns synchronizing, therefore increasing the level of engagement and social interaction between the partners.  As I read about this phenomenon, I began to reflect on the implication of this information for the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support/Response to Intervention (MTSS/RTI) process we use in schools.

MTSS is a tiered system of support that is available to students as they engage in classroom and school activities. This system of support encompasses both academic and social engagements. Within the MTSS system, we also have the RTI process. This structure is the process by which a team of experts determine the level of support that a student needs in order to be successful.

When a student doesn’t respond to instruction or support at a given tier, then the support team convenes to create an action plan, also known as an intervention, that will meet the student’s needs.  For me, this system has always been a process of discovery – a process that includes data collection, data analysis, and relationships with the child and their family.

But I had never really considered how an individualized intervention might need to include peers for the purposes of processing, storage, and retrieval of information. Oh sure, I have participated in the creation of many “social” interventions for students, but those were always focused on the how of interpersonal relationships; in other words, how should I act or react, when a given social interaction occurs. When reading the article, I realized that I had been missing a huge component of learning and social interaction.

At this point in time, I am wondering about intervention programs that are “personalized.” Do the findings from this study suggest that there is not merit in utilizing 1:1 technology in the classroom for struggling students? Does this mean that individual instruction is not effective? What are the implications for utilizing project-based learning and service-learning projects? What does this say about relationship building between “study-buddies” or “peer tutors”? What are the implications for teacher/student interactions?

As I did a bit more research and reflection, I was able to breathe a bit easier. I finally came to the conclusion that what this study is telling me is that a focus on formative assessment is imperative to the process of planning, instruction, and intervention. If working with a study buddy can increase engagement, then it will be necessary to carefully plan and implement assessment that identifies when a student has mastered a given skill and when they are ready to move on to something more advanced. I now have a better foundation for including peer and group activities into the intervention process, and I more fully understand the role of formative assessment in the process.

It doesn’t matter which level of tiered instruction a student falls into, peer and group work is an important element, not just for increasing pragmatic skills, but also for focus and content retention. And I can use formative assessment data to validate this process. Tools such as MAP Skills, polling, summarizing, and other forms of quick assessment will be necessities at every level of the tiered system of support. What teachers really need to know is: what do students know, and what are they ready to learn? Formative assessment provides us with this information.