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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Michael Gove and the return to ‘chalk-and-talk’

I would really urge watching Michael Gove at the RSA on ‘What education is for’. There’s quite some possibility that this talk will act as one of the first big salvos in what is shaping up to be an increasingly divisive debate between the parties on education ahead of the General Election.

It has galvanised certain bloggers into action, to be sure. This post was emailed to me: it packs some important and convincing punches, but it is the tone – unbridled concern – that is the most noteworthy.

This paragraph is good:

No, for the purposes of this diatribe, let’s just focus on his spurious argument that not teaching history in chronological order, and depriving kids access to Cicero and Wagner is some social injustice, perpetrated through the ‘tyranny of relevance’. First, it’s a fallacy that ‘relevance’ automatically means hip-hop, Carol Ann Duffy, and pandering to what kids like, rather than ‘the very best of what has been thought and written’.

Matthew Taylor could well become one of the forefront commentators in this education debate, and his plea (best expressed here) that the debate is an open one without recourse to knee-jerk reactions is surely one we should all support: and is why I have set up this blog. His open letter to Michael Gove, still unanswered to the best of my knowledge, raises such important questions, and is posted below. These are the inferences that Matthew Taylor draws from Michael Gove’s talk – what education is for, in conservative eyes:

1. Curriculum content should contain the classical canon of history, literature and scientific knowledge and we should pull back from seeking to make content more relevant to the contemporary concerns and lives of young people. Young people should be discouraged from pursuing newer or non traditional subjects like media studies, which are not seen as credible by the best universities.

2. The curriculum should be delivered though traditional subject disciplines and not through approaches emphasising cross cutting themes and competencies, such as, for example, the RSA’s Opening Minds.

3. (Something I heard emphasised by your number two, Nick Gibb), the practice of the best schools shows traditional chalk and talk forms of pedagogy are superior to practical, project based, forms of learning.

4. Schools should focus much more on the core activity of imparting knowledge. Children’s wider development is best enhanced through extra curricular activities such as schools clubs and societies but not through ‘teaching’ life skills or well-being.

5. Schools should be institutions that are primarily or even exclusively about learning and should not be required to engage in the wider delivery of children’s or community services.

6. Rather than blurring the divide between academic and vocational learning we should assert it, with, for example, 14-19 Diplomas restricted to vocational content.

7. Implicitly, strategies to widen participation in learning should not include developing forms of content and levels of assessment which enable more children to succeed: more should rise to the bar, the bar shouldn’t be moved to allow more to jump it.

Interactive learning: always a good thing?

This is too good, not to post in full: from David Smith.

“There are 120 contributors [to a magazine feature that asked: ‘what do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?]. From these, I have selected Esther Dyson. I have her dictum, ‘Always make new mistakes’, as a fridge magnet and her Edge contribution is something every teacher should ponder. Here’s a substantial excerpt:”

We’re living longer, and thinking shorter.

[Disclaimer: Since I’m not a scientist, I’m not even going to attempt to take on something scientific. Rather, I want to talk about something that can’t easily be measured, let alone proved. And second, though what I’m saying may sound gloomy, I love the times we live in. There has never been a time more interesting, more full of things to explain, interesting people to meet, worthy causes to support, challenging problems to solve.]

It’s all about time. I think modern life has fundamentally and paradoxically changed our sense of time. Even as we live longer, we seem to think shorter. Is it because we cram more into each hour? Or because the next person over seems to cram more into each hour? For a variety of reasons, everything is happening much faster and more things are happening. Change is a constant.

It used to be that machines automated work, giving us more time to do other things. But now machines automate the production of attention-consuming information, which takes our time. For example, if one person sends the same e-mail message to 10 people, then 10 people have to respond.

The physical friction of everyday life—the time it took Isaac Newton to travel by coach from London to Cambridge, the dead spots of walking to work (no iPod), the darkness that kept us from reading—has disappeared, making every minute not used productively into an opportunity cost.

And finally, we can measure more, over smaller chunks of time. From airline miles to calories (and carbs and fat grams), from friends on Friendster to steps on a pedometer, from realtime stock prices to millions of burgers consumed, we count things by the minute and the second.

Unfortunately, this carries over into how we think and plan: Businesses focus on short-term results; politicians focus on elections; school systems focus on test results; most of us focus on the weather rather than the climate. Everyone knows about the big problems, but their behavior focuses on the here and now. …

How can we reverse this? It’s a social problem, but I think it may also herald a mental one—which I describe as mental diabetes. Whatever’s happening to adults, most of us grew up reading books (at least occasionally) and playing with “uninteractive” toys that required us to make up our own stories, dialogue and behavior for them. Today’s children are living in an information-rich, time-compressed environment that often seems to replace a child’s imagination rather than stimulate it. I posit that being fed so much processed information—video, audio, images, flashing screens, talking toys, simulated action games—is akin to being fed too much processed, sugar-rich food. It may seriously mess up children’s information metabolism and their ability to process information for themselves. In other words, will they be able to discern cause and effect, to put together a coherent story line, to think scientifically?

I don’t know the answers, but these questions are worth thinking about, for the long term.

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Smart guy

David Miliband grows and grows in my estimation. First there was the interview with the FT; now, I’ve just come across this speech thanks to David Smith’s blog:

To quote David Smith’s post in full:

In two recent speeches, UK politicians are beginning to show they understand the web. First, George Osborne. And now, David Miliband:

When we think of education, we tend to think of formal teaching in classrooms by teachers. This remains important. But the range of resources to support learning is far wider than that – from workplaces and museums to individuals with skills to contribute, and passions to share. They lie beyond the school gates and they are 24/7. And the key to genuine educational transformation is inspiring children and adults to learn more for themselves – what Yeats called ‘lighting a fire’ as opposed to ‘filling a pail’. So the challenge is to connect people with skills and time to give, from university students, part-time employees and people in retirement, to others with similar passions and interests. ‘Every citizen a teacher’ may be a bit of a stretch, but it is not impossible to imagine an educational world where a large minority of citizens play an active role, either on a voluntary or paid basis in supporting learners as personal tutors, running after-school clubs, or integrated into the curriculum and the classroom. The web can create the potential to aggregate the dispersed supply of citizen-teachers and connect them to learners with particular interests. It can also help learners filter the good from the bad through peer to peer recommendations and make sense of a world where educational resources are much more diverse.

And much more besides: ‘I believe the businesses and government that succeed in the future will be those that give people greater power to shape the future of their individual lives and greater capacity to collaborate. A sense of I can and we can.’

Exciting stuff

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The awakening of my e-consciousness

I have just come across the phenomenal blog belonging to David Smith, a teacher at St. Paul’s. Found here. Just the notion of a Head of English at one school, re-launching himself as Director of ICT at another is a wicked one – especially in the English private school sector. But, more than that, he seems to have a real passion for pushing the – for want of a better word – Web 2.0 agenda into his kids’ line-of-sight.

He’s also ex-tutor to friend and all-round hero, Ed Cooke.

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