Tutoring: A fresh debate

I’ve just finished an article on tuition, and am boldly looking for a publisher!

I thought I’d share it here:

Tutoring: a fresh debate.

Private tuition has entered the national conversation. For long a rather mysterious operation, the media has woken up to its rapid growth – especially after the Sutton Trust showed that 43% of children nationally had received private tuition. This openness in the media is both symptom and cause of a similar openness amongst parents. No longer a whispered secret, recommendations and warnings about certain tutors and agencies are now regularly swapped outside the school gates.

Regrettably, this openness has led to very little debate on the merits and demerits of tuition – or much analysis as to why parents are seeking it in such droves. Some commentators have seen in tuition a desire to recapture the cosy world of governesses and nurseries. Others have reached, inevitably, for the recession as a possible explanation – either that a place in a good school is even more essential in the long march to the furiously-competitive job market, or that tuition is parents’ compensation for choosing state education. Where are the considerations of its impact on learning, or the larger questions posed by its rise?

So: do children (or some children) learn better as a result of a one-on-one tutoring? What sort of learning goes on one-on-one? The answer is that you can regulate the learning in a very specific way: whether you’re looking for focused troubleshooting (fractions, decimals) – or a deeper exploration (“why do we have cases in Latin?”), the form is flexible to the content. The former is the most popular, and areas of misunderstanding (sometimes layered up over years of confusion) can be quickly unblocked with a good tutor. For some subjects and topics in particular, such as Maths and Languages, this creates something of a delicious learning environment. There’s no hiding in tuition, no slouching at the back of the class hoping that you wont be asked a question. Many parents talk about the benefits tuition delivers for self-esteem. It is not difficult to see why, when students are given the opportunity to learn in an environment where questions can be unlimited – and where it is okay to be wrong.

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I’ve recently moved house, and for the first time have all my books in one place. This evening was one of the first chances I have had to actually make use of them. I re-read some dog-eared passages from Richard Sennett’s amazing, rambling book The Craftsman.

I’m glad I re-discovered this passage – a defence of repetition:

We should be suspicious of claims for innate, untrained talent. “I could write a good novel if only I had the time” or “if only I could pull myself together” is usually a narcissist’s fantasy. Going over an action again and again, by contrast, enables self-criticism. Modern education fears repetitive learning as mind-numbing. Afraid of boring children, avid to present ever-different stimulation, the enlightened teacher may avoid routine – but thus deprive children of the experience of studying their own ingrained practice and modulating it from within.”

I particularly agree with reference to a subject like Latin – so much of the joy of what Mary Beard calls the “command and control” of Latin comes from the pencil-breaking frustration of all those mistakes – all that self-correcting – early on.

Jan Sramek and Racing Towards Excellence

We’ve been having some very interesting meetings with the team from Racing Towards Excellence. They seem to share some of our concerns about the provision for quality, impartial careers advice in schools today.

For the purposes of this post, I wanted to quote a bit from Jan Sramek (the co-author’s) introduction to the book – in which he discusses his own education. Those with especially good memories might remember the small ripples of controversy caused by his astonishing A-level results: 10 A’s.

To Jan:

What was remarkable during those formative years of my life was my parents’ ability to create an inspiring environment where outperformance was natural, rather than expected. The pressure was non-existent, replaced by an almost implicit understanding that I would go on to do great things…

…My parents’ thinking on parenting and education [were] progressive for the time and place [the Czech Republic]..My chores as a child were very light to non-existent, as was any intervention from either of them into how I spent my free time. This allowed me to spend much of it studying what I wanted to study, rather than what others thought I should study.

The idea of naturalizing a habit of mind resonates very much with comments I’ve heard from Matthew Taylor about this. There is obviously cross-over with Outliers too on the role of upbringing for future “outperformance” status, even if Jan’s 10,000 hours remains in doubt.