Overheard: exactly the wrong way to tutor someone

I am hanging out at one of my favorite haunts, The Cup, in downtown Boulder, Colorado, sharing a table with a couple of guys who are working, laptop adjacent to laptop. From what I can glean, one of the guys is a tutor with a local group of some sort, while the other guy is either a senior in high school or a freshman at CU.
Yup, a buddy just stopped by and the tutor said “I’m tutoring, catch ya later” to his friend. So I’m right about their working relationship here.
What strikes me though is that there’s precious little learning or teaching going on here and that this relationship is much more characterized by the tutor dictating concepts to the student.


Now to be fair, I haven’t tutored someone in writing for a while (well, other than A-, my daughter, who I help with her writing assignments when she asks) but when I was in college at UCSD I was a writing tutor and can distinctly remember how we implemented the “teach a man to fish rather than giving them a fish” philosophy of the Bible.
It didn’t involve what I’m hearing right now from these two guys, and it makes me a bit sad for the guy who has hired a tutor hoping to learn how to write better, but instead is having someone tell him what to say, the points to make, the relevance of the key ideas in the essay, what order sentences should appear, etc.
If I could, I’d videotape 2-3 minutes so you could experience what I’m hearing, actually, because it’s so interesting to see how the tutor is so dominating the intellectual give-and-take of their interchange.
Tutoring, and teaching in general, is difficult and every parent has experienced trying to help their child with something just to have the child get frustrated, upset, and give up. Then, a few minutes later, they’re back working on it again, but typically solo, without your help. (or maybe this is just how my kids deal with things!)
After years of teaching, though, I know that involvement is critical. Not just saying “here’s the important point” or “here’s what you need to say in the essay” but rather the almost Freudian psychoanalytic probing questions of “so which of these do you think is the most important point?” and “what’s your key point? where do you come out and say that in your essay?”
Ugh. I can’t listen any more. Time for some headphones and some loud music.
But before I wrap this up, tell me, what’s your approach to helping your child or children learn new skills or abilities?

8 comments on “Overheard: exactly the wrong way to tutor someone

  1. Tutoring is hard. While a freshman in college, I took on a gig tutoring two sophomore computer science students. They were in one of the intro CS classes and were trying to understand object-oriented programming.
    I’d started programming in BASIC as a third grader, and had learned OO basics in middle school through hypercard, and then learned to define classes and instantiate objects in C++ as a freshman in high school, so it was hard for me to remember the days when I didn’t grasp the concepts.
    I tried explaining things several different ways, and tried to ask leading questions, but I didn’t seem to be getting very far. It was very frustrating, and the temptation to simply tell them what to write to make their code compile and run was very strong. I learned that teaching requires a lot of patience.

  2. The tutor in this situation is not helping the student,
    (unless he’s in an unusual predicament).
    Dave, your observations reflect a troubling reality, (we’re past trend), that this is so completely acceptable.
    Apparently, neither party to this enabling tutelage see that the intended growth has been usurped.
    Offering my children examples of what choices we derive through contemplation and team brainstorming
    gave them a template for arriving at accomplishment.
    [Note: Significantly, the other personalities in their lives ‘handed’ them answers,
    and volunteered the labor of some thought tasks, much like this Boulder tutor.
    They now struggle in those areas.]
    It is critical to teach *personal* effort early, in the formative years, and continue to expect it as well.
    (Then we can enjoy the occasional Mulligan ;~) )

  3. This has nothing to do with tutoring but what drove me crazy was homework assignments where the kids had to fill in the blank in a sentence. I would watch Jeanna skim through the book looking for the word – she wasn’t reading the chapter – she was just searching to fill in the blank and get the homework done. Can’t learn that way.

  4. Hi Dave and family,
    I just wanted to say I enjoy your site. In my experience, (I have a 16 and an 18 year old, both home schooled) emotion and fear, or lack of, had an awful lot to do with my children’s comprehension. The brain seems to compartmentalize and serarate learning from emotional responses. For instance, learning math seems to require a lack of emotion at the time that it is being received. I would love to have an email from you, and would like to chat more about Parenting/learning without punishment methods. Take care, and keep up the great work.

  5. After homeschooling for two years I have to say I agree that guiding a student to improve is much harder than just telling someone what to do! Clearly the experience you had is the painful witnessing of someone taking the easy way out. But, hey, the guy’s not a *parent* so what does he know? 😉
    For me, I think a lot of what worked was both questioning and also diagramming. It’s amazing how well tools like Inspiration, a children’s mind mapping software program, go a long way toward helping people organize their thoughts, good old pen and paper and the willingness to just scribble all over the page help too! Our math lessons tend to turn into clouds of indecipherable numbers written in different orientations and covering the page!
    The trickiest part, in my experience, has been finding the right place for the questioning… leading toward the eye-opening lightbulb moment you’re hoping for but not too much so. And of course, the willingness to accept something less than perfection in the name of simple one step a day growth.
    Glad to find your blog, thanks!

  6. I own my own tutoring business and I see this all the time. And it bothers me too because we focus our energy on teaching students how to use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses. To this day, my husband and I always joke about having the worst business plan in the world…we want our students to become independent and be successful without our help!
    But your story reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a Psychiatrist that works with kids and a story that I relayed to him. I was called in to tutor a young woman who needed help with organization. She was behind on much of her work, especially in English. During our first session I asked her to work on a certain past due assignment and she said she was planning to work on it over the weekend with her English tutor. I was shocked that the English tutor didn’t already have a grasp on keeping this girl on task and turning assignments in. For me it is only natural to automatically include organization and time management, especially in courses where you have larger projects to do. The professional I was talking with wasn’t surprised at all about the situation and said that this is something most tutors don’t do with their students.
    It is a shame that people out there are making a buck doing very little to help these students. A large percentage of our clients are not new to tutoring, but many of them tell us that they appreciate the time we take to teach their kids how to learn on their own. Yet, every once in a while we do get a kid who just wants the answers and sometimes those relationships just don’t work out. And every year…right about this time….we get phone calls from CU students who have been struggling all year long, never asked for help, and expect that a tutor can give them a quick fix before finals.
    One last comment about the location of your observed tutoring. In my early years, I met with students at places such as the library, coffee shops, etc. What I found is that these places rarely if ever are appropriate locations to tutor because of visual distractions and noise. My guess is that many of these tutors aren’t covered by insurance and would rather meet in a public place.
    Thanks for your post. It is good to know that others notice these things. I will definitely add your blog to my list of blogs to visit.
    Michelle

  7. I think there are “good” tutors and “bad” tutors. Being a mother of 4 in Manhattan – we have had MANY tutors in and out of our home over the years. I tried hiring college students as tutors and that was a disaster. Not that ALL college students would be bad (I’m sure some would be excellent), but (my experience) is that the best tutors are found through exclusive private tutoring agencies…especially in NYC. We used Big Apple Tutoring (they also own Exclusive Education in Manhattan). We probably used 5 or 6 folks from Big Apple Tutoring. They were all masters of their subjects, responsible, never late, and (after a session or two), I felt comfortable leaving my children alone with them. We used the same math tutor (from Big Apple Tutoring) for 4 years actually. I find that agencies (at least in NYC) have very high standards when hiring and also don’t use “students” as tutors, instead professional teachers/tutors. We had a really positive experience with Big Apple Tutoring. I think using a tutor rom CraigsList or a place like that is foolish. Agencies (good agencies) have very high standards. Just my opinion.

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