History of Tutoring-Where did this concept come from?

I know this may be a topic of disdain for some people (yuck! History!), but I feel that It is important to know where and how the ideology and practice of private tutelage originated in order to better understand how to define current roles and responsibilities of a tutor, which has been very elusive here in the western world. So bare with me as I try to make the history of tutoring…interesting. lol!

Disclaimer: We must understand before moving forward that private tutoring before the 19th and 20th century looked vastly different from what we understand it to be today.

Let’s travel all the way back to 4000BCE/BC

Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay

Tutoring is considered a British tradition because this is where it rose to popularity the most. However, the earliest notion of private tutelage dates back to the era of Confucianism of the Han Dynasty (4000BCE-1000CE). They had a mentorship system established where normal citizens had an opportunity to rise to prominence and prestige by simply seeking out teachers who had powerful political connections. It was so popular that a teacher can have several thousand pupils listed under his name. However, this also lent to some bias and conflict of interests as teachers of high status could have also exalted their sons and other family members to a high rank, which would be maintained for multiple generations.

Image by Raimund Feher from Pixabay

Then we fast forward a few hundred years into ancient Greece in the year 469/470-399 BCE when the father of philosophy, Socrates, was born. He became a private tutor to Plato, who then tutored Aristotle, who then tutored Alexander the Great. However, Socrates never considered himself a teacher because he differentiated a teacher’s method of teaching from his own. He noted that teaching is the transference of knowledge but his method of teaching was through questioning (cultivating critical thinking). He said that he never lectured on anything that he would have had prior knowledge.

This…Is…Sparrttaaaaa 401BC

By Zeldamaster2013 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6233269

Yes. the above-captioned picture is from the movie 300 (one of my favorite movies) but stay with me. It has some relevance.

While the teachings of Socrates is gaining popularity in Athens Greece, we now look at a small country located in the South of Greece. The Sparta (401-146BC), who reigned under the Roman Empire for hundreds of years, had a mentorship program themselves, however, it looked vastly different from those during the Confucianism era and Socrates. They took children as young as seven years old away from their parents to train them into strong warriors. Usually, they would live with supervisors who were considered their strict mentors.

The Rise of the Roman Empire 27BCE

Next on our history of tutoring timeline is the Roman Empire (27BCE-476CE). Only children of the elite were allowed private tutelage with teachers who were called Preceptors. These preceptors had a wide range of functions including life coach, behavioral coach, and teacher in the traditional sense (they imparted their knowledge). They were so important in Roman’s elite society, that they were considered the ‘Sculptor of Souls,’ ‘Sages’ and ‘nobles.’

The Renaissance- Free education for everybody…sorta…

The importance of preceptors had seeped into European culture until the 12th century during the Renaissance era. This new ideology of enlightenment allowed the advancement and acceptance of widespread schooling at both elementary and tertiary levels of learning.

During this time, the concept of tutoring had morphed into a staple in higher education philosophy: they were responsible for shaping an individual students educational pursuits, conduct one-on-one communication, worked alongside the teacher/lecturer with 2 other students, all while being the supervisor, the moral compass and the teacher. Their form of communication was also made informal as the tutor was expected to communicate to his students as his friends.

Churches during this time also promoted the ideology of tutoring because they believed that tutors were spiritual fathers and mentors who were responsible for preventing the separation of the intellectual mind from the spirit.

Sadly, despite these advances in education, it was still inaccessible to a large majority of the population and private tutoring had maintained its elite status to the elites.

By NPG: Unknown Netherlandish artist / (by Michel Sittow) – Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6640133

By English School. 1560s – Image: London Art Week, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60476880

Specifically in England, King Henry the 7th (1485-1509) and Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) both tried to make education available to the poor through free grammar schools and Parish apprenticeships, which allowed poor children to be educated while learning tradable skills such as farm laboring, brick making, and menial household service. Nevertheless, because labor was too important economically to underprivileged families, they vehemently rejected the thought of sending their kids off for any period of time. Thus, the parents considered themselves responsible for tutoring their children.

16th-17th century Britain reshapes tutoring again!

By this time, tutors now carried parental roles within the University and expanded to academic advisors. They were responsible for

  • suggesting which lecturers should be considered for the student’s instructional period
  • choosing the exams that the student should prepare for and sit
  • explain how to make a proper study plan
  • supervises their work

But again, higher education institutions and the usage of tutors were only available to those who could have afforded it. Therefore, in 1833, the British state involved itself in education making school attendance mandatory for all between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. This new law allowed the transference of the 16th-17th-century role of tutors into the public education system and it still permeates the higher education system today.

Other countries, such as Russia, Germany, and the U.S.A soon followed suit, yet tutoring meant something completely different in these countries. For example, in 1868 Russia, the role of a tutor was simply to privately teach his students. Meanwhile, in the United States, private tutoring was stigmatized as an elite luxury, making it frowned upon by the less fortunate. In fact, when public schools had replaced traditional home private tutoring, Americans thought that gaining private tutors was considered a step backward in time.


While examining the history of tutoring, we can see that it has remained a staple that was only afforded to the wealthy and powerful for thousands of years. It further explains the reluctance and complete confusion of the role of tutoring in the Western world because of its stigmatization and class division properties.

The less fortunate considered any and all forms of education as a luxury because they were struggling to fulfill their basic needs (food, sex, and water). Since the wealthy was not suffering very basic needs (see Maslow Hierarchy of needs), they were probably seen as greedy, lazy and ungrateful by their lower-class counterparts. Thus, when education was made available and mandatory to all, private tutoring remained an unnecessary evil to many.

Additionally, even though Socrates, and many others after him, had defined themselves as a teacher who taught by having more questions than answers, the role of tutoring/mentoring had transformed so many times and in so many ways that it’s fluidity remained throughout the ages. A few countries such as Britain, China, and South Korea, have all tried to regulate and define a tutor’s role/responsibilities, but even these definitions vary from country to country.

In my opinion, to establish tutoring as an educational profession, it must be standardized and regulated so that it can be taken seriously. On the other hand, the standardization may also be stifling. Nevertheless, tutoring has remained and will remain for centuries to come, as long as their continues to be a need to educate.

8 thoughts on “History of Tutoring-Where did this concept come from?”


Wow, I had no idea tutoring dated back so far. Great article about the history of tutoring. I could use this if I ever get back into teaching TEFL :). Thanks for posting.

Tom Priesmeyer

Some extremely interesting, and eye opening information on the history of tutors/tutoring/tuteladge I had no idea it went back as far as it did, and I also was unaware of the chain of tutelage from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle to Alexander the Great. I was never taught that when I took European History back in high school, or perhaps I wasn’t paying close attention. I also didn’t realize that it was primarily afforded to the wealthy elite. I see mentoring, and tutoring as a great opportunity for one on one learning from an expert. Seems foolish not to want to take advantage of that.

    Tyranique Thurston

    I completely agree with you Tom. Private tutoring is definitely something to take advantage of because it yields so many benefits but for some reason, its very hard to gain traction where I live which is in the Bahamas. People want private tutoring but they want it free of charge (as well as many other careers that they would consider ‘hobbies’). Alas, I hope that I can change this idea through my blog.

Jason zheng

Thank you for sharing the knowledge about history. I learned a lot from these.


Wow! I never knew that tutoring is such a big deal and dates waaay back! I am not really a history fun but this article was great to read! I will be checking out more from you ! Thanks for sharing.

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