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Resisting the siren's call of a tutor

Resisting the siren's call of a tutor

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Little Colin Collingwood just turned 12 and he is struggling with Math. Furthermore, the latest journal entry on his English blog only received a C+ (which he pulled up to a B after a re-write). His homeroom teacher says that he's a "neat kid" who is "not the most gifted" academically. His parents worry that if he falls too far behind in grade 7 he will never catch up and heck, many of his classmates have tutors. The competition for a good university spot isn't going to get any easier. They figure they would be letting their son down if they didn't get him a tutor. But, would they?


Tutoring middle-of-the-road kids to augment their grades (in contrast to necessary and prescriptive tutoring to address identified learning deficits) is very seductive. What could be more positive than to provide another qualified teacher, one-on-one, to review and reinforce some of the concepts and skills recently introduced in class? It seems to make so much sense, and properly used, tutoring for enrichment is indeed sensible. However, improperly used this form of tutoring can be a recipe for what some researchers call "lazy learners".

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Like the pigeons in Trafalgar Square (replete but overly dependent) some tutored children do not see the need to pay particularly close attention in class or even be mildly assertive in asking questions. They become too reliant on the tutor. The school classroom can lose its urgency if every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:00-5:00 pm you have your own personal classroom around the kitchen table.

As well, unnecessary tutoring can sometimes send a confusing message about accountability. Since a school's mandate is to transform its students into autonomous learners, it can be counter-productive to default to personal tutors to rectify under-performance. Although not necessarily explicit in hiring a tutor, young people can begin to bank more on their tutor's skill than on their own resourcefulness and efforts. This can end up being just a slip and a slide away from students rejecting responsibility for their own learning.

I hasten to add that there are several instances when an extra boost at home or at school is desirable. Certainly, some kids have inherent difficulties in certain subjects and need timely, targeted help. All children benefit from extra tips, advice, explanations, support, and encouragement from adults. There are many admirable and effective tutors around who, in the words of Wendy Mogel in Kicking the Tutoring Habit, have the "courage to coach rather than cater". However, resisting the siren call of a tutor at the first sign of a struggle can end up teaching a powerful lesson to everyone concerned. It can illustrate to the young person the importance of self-reliance and it can help the parent maintain a sense of perspective around academic achievement. Next time, when the report is "underwhelming", try getting Colin to seek out all the extra help available at school, perhaps re-structure his homework routines and give it some time.

It is a lot cheaper and perhaps in the long run, it is a lot better.

—Rodger Wright is Headmaster at The Collingwood School.

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