Banchiamlack Dessalegn Ph.D.'s  picture
Banchiamlack Dessalegn Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Psychology, University of Chicago

Cross-Sibling Tutoring in Africa

A Smart Strategy from the Developing World

What do you know—really know—about your siblings’ educational capabilities? I know, for example, that one of my younger sisters has a really hard time with math but is an avid reader and writer. On the other hand, my other younger sister is a very good student of the sciences and math but has had horrible handwriting since first grade. I know these things not from casual observance, but because I was, along with my older brothers and sisters, one of those responsible for helping the younger ones with their studies.

Brother and Sister ExploringThis practice of cross-sibling tutoring (CST henceforth) is very common in many developing countries including Ethiopia, where we were raised. In Ethiopia, and other nations with a high adult illiteracy rate, most parents rely on older siblings to tutor younger ones. I propose that this practice has many benefits for the whole family —in the developing world and in the industrialized world too.

Such benefits are supported by the research. In 1992, Scientific American published a study called “Indochinese Refugee Families and Academic Achievement,” by Nathan Caplan, Marcella H. Choy, and John K. Whitmore at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. It followed 1400 so-called “boat people” refugee families in the 1980s. “A unique finding caught our attention,” the researchers wrote, “namely a positive relation between the number of siblings and the children’s GPA.” The bigger the family, in other words, the better the grades.

This contradicted the conventional wisdom that larger families pointed to lesser achievement, the theory being that children get lost in the shuffle. But that’s not the case when siblings instruct the younger brothers and sisters. “The younger children, in particular, are taught not only subject matter but how to learn,” the study reported. And the instructors “seem to learn as much from teaching as being taught.” Sibling involvement “demonstrates how a large family can encourage and enhance academic success.”

This was my experience too. CST also allows the older child to practice expressing themselves in a manner understandable by others: a lifelong lesson. Moreover, CST leads to the older sibling acting as a mentor to younger siblings about any social issues that arise in the school setting. This role in turn helps the older child to understand and resist the social pressures that are rampant in schools. The noted social science researcher Dr. Frank Sulloway has argued that cross sibling tutoring is one of the keys to explaining why older children on average maintain a slightly higher IQ. “Through the organization and expression of thoughts, teaching younger siblings is posited to benefit the tutor more than the learner…”

CST also enables the younger children to have an attainable educational goal: the thinking is “if my older sibling can understand this, I can too.” It also means all siblings will be invested in the each other’s educational successes. This is the case in my family at this time: I get phone calls and emails from my younger sisters as they get accepted in to Masters programs and law schools, just as I still call/email my younger and older siblings with news of career achievements. Hence CST creates, in the best-case scenario, a lifelong mentorship relationship among siblings.

In the United States and elsewhere, it may be that getting help from a sibling is less intimidating, less loaded, than getting help from a parent. Whether parents are battling illiteracy in the developing world, or working long hours or have a lower level of education in the industrialized world, they can make homework supervision part of the older siblings’ “chore” list. It’s like a big, supportive study group; indeed, the Michigan study said that in families with CST, high schoolers are doing roughly 3 hours of homework per night, middle schoolers 2.5 hours, and grade schoolers 2 hours. As the researchers noted: “Both learning and imparting knowledge were perceived as pleasurable experiences rather than as drudgery.” Exactly.