Keeping Busy – Tutoring

One of the things I’ve been doing to keep my brain active (and my bank account healthy) is take private tutoring students. This was something I did before my teaching degree as well. Back then I was still uncertain whether teaching was for me, but the enjoyment I got out of tutoring helped convince me otherwise.

Now I’ve returned to my old job, this time with a year’s worth of pedagogy stuffed into my brain. And I’m noticing things about my students that I never would have noticed before.

The biggest thing I’m seeing, over and over, is how the classroom keeps moving on to new content and new topics, even when the student hasn’t understood the basics. Needless to say, this can be a problem. How can a maths student solve problems using compound interest when they don’t know how to rearrange an equation? How can a physics student learn Lenz’s Law when they don’t understand magnetic fields?

It seems like the way that we teach – 30 students, one teacher, prescribed curriculum, limited time – is failing these these students. So is this the part where I call for a revolution? Well, not exactly.

I can’t help but think about the findings that show repeating a grade (and therefore reviewing material that you may not have understood the first time) actually leads to worse educational outcomes.¬†Obviously the social issue plays a big role here, but I think the basic idea is that if being explicitly taught something once didn’t make it stick, then just repeating it in the same way doesn’t help. On the other hand, encountering the same skill/idea in multiple contexts can and does help. I remember struggling mightily with a maths topic at uni, only to encounter the same ideas in physics the next semester and suddenly it all became clear.

So maybe teaching compound interest (and graphing, and geometry, and probability) to a student who can’t rearrange an equation isn’t a waste of time – maybe it’s all those topics combined that will eventually teach them the basics.

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