Tootering Your Own Horn

Eddie Woo is reportedly concerned about private tutoring. His warning comes courtesy of SMH‘s education editor, Jordan Baker, in an article entitled ‘Be very, very careful’: Experts raise warning on private tutoring. The article begins,

Maths teachers including high-profile mathematician Eddie Woo have sounded an alarm on private tutoring, warning that bad tutors could be “fatal” to students’ future in the subject.

Eddie said it, so it must be true. And, Baker quotes another expert, the chief executive of the Australian Tutoring Association, Mohan Dhall:

I am absolutely dismayed at the lack of creativity and lack of real-world applicability most tutors bring to maths …The main problem stems from this idea that they focus on the outcome – ‘this is what students need to know’, rather than ‘this is what kids need to learn to be interested and engage’.

Finally, Baker quotes expert Katherin Cartwright, a lecturer in mathematics education at The University of Sydney. Cartwright, according to Baker, is concerned that poor tutoring could lead to a lack of confidence:

If it becomes about skill and drill and speed, and it becomes an anxious, emotional issue for students, then they are not going to like it, and they will not want to take it further.

Yep, of course. The most important consideration when framing an education is to be sure to never make a student anxious or emotional. Poor, fragile little petals that they are.

Baker’s fear-mongering is nonsense. Almost every line of her article is contentious and a number contain flat out falsehoods. Beginning with the title. Woo and Dhall and Cartwright are “experts” on the issues of tutoring? According to whom? Based on what? Perhaps they are experts, but Baker provides no evidence.

OK, we could concede Baker’s point that Eddie is a mathematician. Except that he isn’t and we don’t. Not that it matters here, since most mathematicians are unlikely to know much about the role of tutoring in Australian education. But the false and pointless puffery exemplifies Baker’s unjustified appeals to authority.

What of the declared concerns of Baker’s “experts”? Cartwright is supposedly worried about “skill and drill and speed”. This in contrast to school, according to Baker:

Most schools no longer emphasise speed and rote learning when teaching maths, and now focus on students’ understanding of key concepts as part of a concerted effort to improve engagement in maths across the system.

This hilarious half-truth undercuts the whole thrust of Baker’s article. It is true that many schools, particularly primary schools, have drunk the educational Kool-Aid and have turned their maths lessons into constructivist swamplands. But that just means the main and massive job of competent Year 7 maths teachers is to undo the damage inflicted by snake-oilers, and to instil in their students, much too late, an appreciation of the importance of memory and skill and efficient technique. Such technique is critical for formal success in school mathematics and, which is sadly different, for the learning of mathematics. Baker seems entirely unaware, for example, that, for better or worse, Year 12 mathematics is first and foremost a speed test, a succession of sprints.

As for Dhall, does he really expects tutors to be more offering of “creativity” and “real-world applicability”? Dhall seems blissfully unaware that most “real-world” applications that students must suffer through are pedagogically worthless, and are either trivial or infinitely tedious. Dhall seems unaware that some subjects have warped “applicability” into a surrealist nightmare.

And Eddie? What worries Eddie? Not much, as it happens, but too much. Eddie’s quoted comments come from a NSW podcast, which appears to have been the genesis of Baker’s piece; stenographic fluffing is of course the standard for modern reportage, the cheap and easy alternative to proper investigation and considered reflection.

Eddie’s podcast is a happy public chat about teaching mathematics. Eddie is demonstrably a great teacher and he is very engaging. He says a number of smart things, the half-hour podcast only being offensive for its inoffensiveness; Eddie, or his interviewer, was seemingly too scared to venture into a deep public discussion of mathematics and the sense of it. The result is that, except for the occasional genuflection to “pattern”, Eddie may as well have been talking about turtle farming as teaching mathematics.

Eddie’s comments on tutoring are a very minor part of the podcast, a response in the final question time. This is Eddie’s response in full:

When I think about external tuition – again just like before this is a really complex question – there is tuition and then there is ‘tuition’. There is some which is enormously helpful to individual students to come in at a point of need and say “you have got gaps in your knowledge, I can identify that and then help you with those and then you can get back on the horse and off you go, fantastic”. There are other kinds of tuition which are frankly just pumping out an industrial model of education which parents who are very well intentioned and feel like they cannot do anything else, it is like “at least I can throw money at the problem and at least they are spending more time on maths hopefully that will help”. Maybe it does and maybe it is making your child hate maths because they are doing it until 9pm at night after a whole day? That to me is heartbreaking.

I think that students need to be very, very careful and parents need to be very, very careful about how they experience mathematics. Because yes the time is a worthwhile investment, it is a practical subject, but if you are just churning through, often tragically learning things which actually are just machine processes. I have students come to me and they say “I can differentiate, I am really good at that, I am only fifteen years old”. You don’t need to know what differentiation is, but they come to me with this ability to turn a handle on this algorithm this set of steps. Just like me; I don’t know how to bake, but I can follow a recipe. I have no idea what baking powder does or why 180 degrees Celsius is important but I can follow steps. That is okay for a cake because you can still eat it at the end, but that is fatal for mathematics because you don’t know why you are doing any of the things that you are doing. If that is what you are, you are not a mathematician, you are a machine and that is not what we want our children to become. We have to be careful.

Eddie says plenty right here, touching on various forms of and issues with tutoring, and school teaching. The issues do not get fleshed out, but that is the nature of Q & A.

Eddie also gets things smugly wrong. Sure, some tutoring might be characterised as “industrial”. But more so than schools? How can mass education not be industrial? This isn’t necessarily bad: mostly, it just is. Unless, of course, little Tarquin’s parents have the time and the money to arrange for individual or small-group lessons with an, um, tutor.

All the concerns Baker and her experts raise about tutoring apply as much or more so to school education and, as a matter of business necessity, are largely a reflection of school education. And, how do tutors and tutoring companies deal with this? Some well, some poorly. But mostly with industry, which is not a dirty word, and with good and honest intent.

Baker notes the underlying issue, seemingly without even realising it:

However, Australian students’ performance in maths has either stalled or declined on all major indicators over that period, and academics have raised concerns about students arriving at university without the maths skills they need.

Why do parents employ tutors? Having enjoyed and suffered forty years of tutoring, in pretty much all its forms, we can give the obvious answer: there’s a zillion different, individual reasons. Some, as Eddie suggests, are looking for a little damage control, the filling of gaps and a little polishing. Some, as Eddie suggests, think of mathematics, falsely, as a syntactic game, and are looking for lessons in playing that dangerously meaningless game. Some believe, correctly or otherwise, that their teacher/school is responsible for little Johnny’s struggling. Some are trying to get darling Diana into law school. Some are hothousing precious little Perry so he/she can get a scholarship into Polo Grammar or Mildred’s College for Christian Ladies.

But, underlying it all, there is one obvious, central reason why parents employ tutors: parents are unsatisfied with the education their child receives at school.

Why are parents unsatisfied? Are they right to be? Of course, it depends. But, whatever the individual analyses, the massive growth of the tutoring industry indicates a major disconnect, and either a major failing in schools’ performance or a major blindness in parents’ expectations, or both.

That would be a much more worthwhile issue for Baker, and everyone, to consider.

10 Replies to “Tootering Your Own Horn”

  1. What makes me madder than hell:

    I see many cases where the parents and student are assured by the tutor that s/he will get them ‘ahead’. So rather than working with what the student has done in class and consolidating/reinforcing/extending this, the tutor gets the student to run before the student can walk. Students come to me wanting to know how to do questions that their tutor has given them, and they haven’t even finished doing the questions *I’ve* given them and in most cases the tutor’s questions cover work not yet taught in class. In most cases I tell the student “no, I’m not paid to do your tutors work. Ask him/her”. This whole “I’ll get your child ahead” BS makes my blood boil.

    I’ve never met the student who didn’t benefit from consolidating/reinforcing/extending what they’ve already been taught in class, but I meet plenty who misguidedly think they’re going to do well because their tutor gets them ‘ahead’.

  2. After years of teaching I am now tutoring. Always we go over what was done in class, look at why the student was unable to do it and how to tackle it. I try to consolidate work done in class. For the year 12s I give extra questions on the same topic. The seniors have enough work, they don’t need more from me, they need to understand what was done in class. One student where I think I have made a difference, her teacher was away for six weeks and left work to be done under the supervision of CRTs. Consistency going over her class work I think has given her confidence. I will not take students on to take them ahead I see my role as consolidating and explaining classwork.

    1. I wish all tutors had your approach. More strength to your arm.

      Unfortunately, many tutors are not experienced teachers with this level of insight. It’s much, much easier for *those* tutors to ‘teach’ new material, proudly proclaim that they’re getting the student ‘ahead’ and trot out questions based on this new material rather than assess and address the student’s actual needs and requirements. And all the while the parents and students think the tutor is fantastic because they’re getting the student ‘ahead’ and happily shell out M$ each week for this snake oil.

      And, unfortunately, having a tutor that’s getting the student ‘ahead’ also seems to be some sort of status symbol among many families …..

  3. Now with some more time to comment, a few thoughts:

    1. Some tutoring businesses, some very, very large, exist for the purpose of training students to sit scholarship exams. Parents want a good education without having to pay huge amounts of money. Sure, it is a gamble to a certain extent, but at the very least, students get an education.

    2. Tutoring when used appropriately, to “fill gaps” in learning can be very beneficial. Everyone who has ever taught Year 7 knows there is a huge discrepancy between primary schools in terms of quality teaching of basic Mathematical skills and tutors can help fix this.

    3. Sometimes tutors are hired to achieve a better VCE result because the post-school course a student wants to do requires a score that a student may not achieve on their own. Again, no issue here.

    Tutors can be problematic when they actively undermine teachers (and yes I know of a few who fall into this category: businesses who actually market “we teach what the schools won’t/can’t” which a few university education departments could publish entire journals worth of research should they choose to investigate further…

    Do I blame tutors or tutoring businesses? Not really. They see a market and they offer a product which people want to buy. Do I blame schools? Not really. They are doing what they can. Do I blame the universities in their training of teachers? A bit, but again there are many, many complex factors at work here. Do I blame universities in their setting of prerequisites for courses? Yes, to an extent, but again, supply and demand. Do I blame the curriculum “writers” for producing abstract yet sometimes oddly specific, agenda-driven but who knows what the agenda is… getting a bit ranty here, so skipping to the answer… YES.

  4. Thank you all for your comments, and sorry to be slow to respond. A few comments in reply:

    First, I have no doubt that some tutors cause trouble for teachers, by purposefully undermining the teachers and/or by the tutors pretending to offer something that they cannot or that is worthless. But the trouble-giving is a two-way street, and what really got up my nose from Baker’s article was the smug and automatic sense of superiority, that the professionally run schools must cope with all these unprofessional tutors.

    A small but significant percentage of my own tutoring time is helping students struggling with school materials that range from poor to appalling. And, if the materials are bullshit then I say so, and I work to have the student understand why it is bullshit. One might refer to that as “undermining” the teacher, but I refer to it as being honest and teaching students what mathematics is, and what it isn’t. That doesn’t mean losing sight of the main game, that the students want to do well in their subjects; I make absolutely clear to my tutees, for example, that though I personally loathe CAS, the tutees must become experts at using it. But it does mean not pretending that garbage is something other.

    Secondly, and more generally, the issue that Baker ignored, and which no one really addresses above (though Red Five skirted it), is *why* has there been such an explosion in the tutoring business? What is it that parents want that schools are not offering, and are parents sensible in wanting it? There is a massive disconnect between schools and parents, and that disconnect, whatever the reason(s), is unhealthy and monumentally inefficient.

    Finally, I will say, as I always do, that I don’t blame teachers for any of this. Teachers are by and large victims here, not villains. But the arrogance of credentialism is always distasteful, and here it is foolish. A dedicated, intelligent and experienced teacher is a treasure, but there are plenty of buts.

    Teachers are poorly trained, mostly in false or irrelevant edu-twaddle, and they then have to teach crappy mathematics with crappy texts and brain-melting boxes, training students to take crappy exams. If teachers teach well, and many do, they do so in spite of all the forces of nonsense aligned against them and their students. Any discussion of tutoring that doesn’t take into account this structured awfulness of Australian education is meaningless.

    1. Re: “school materials that range from poor to appalling. And, if the materials are bullshit then I say so, and I work to have the student understand why it is bullshit.”
      I completely agree. Crap should never be protected. And there is a lot of crap produced by teachers (not always their own fault).

      Re: *why* has there been such an explosion in the tutoring business?
      Some theories of mine (most are linked to the internal and external pressures of achieving a 99.95 ATAR):

      Many parents want their child to get into Medicine (don’t ask me why) and see a tutor as providing the necessary competitive ‘edge’ for achieving this. Particularly when the tutor promises the secrets of success in the UMAT.

      Related to this: Many students pick subjects (such as Specialist Maths) that scale high (rather than subjects they are interested in) in order to maximise their ATAR (and they will often do this against all reasonable advice). Then they discover that they’re hopeless in that subject, they realise that bugger-all scales up to bugger-all, and decide to get a tutor to try and improve the situation.

      Some parents see having a tutor as a status symbol. Related to this: Some parents see other families getting a tutor and decide that they better get one too in order to ‘keep up’. Many tutors will say that they can get the child ‘ahead’ ….

      Most parents want to do the very best for their child, they want to help and support in any way possible. But they don’t know how and often feel helpless. Providing a tutor is a way for many parents to feel that they are helping.

      These days the system has created an academic arms race where it’s school versus school, and student versus student. The tutoring industry often preys on the fears of both student and parents and fills a large niche that is fed by the system. These days the stakes have never been higher (or so people on the gravy-train would have you believe). Marty, I completely agree with the sort of tutoring you and the posters to this blog do. This is how it should be. But what you/they are doing has become the exception.

  5. One thing I notice in Australia is that practically everyone accepts a constructivist mathematics approach as the best way to learn Maths, particularly in primary school. At least in the U.S. there are the “Math Wars” with mathematicians coming down on the side of traditional ways to teach mathematics and math educators coming down on the side of constructivist approaches. Where is the dialogue for a robust discussion of such a critical issue in Australia? This is one of the few sites where this is even discussed.

    Parents hire maths tutors for one reason only, to fill in the gaps – often left by primary teachers who aren’t teaching the basic algorithms and times tables. Knock the basics at your own peril. These are the maths skills every person needs to function in the adult world and are the foundation higher level mathematics relies upon. Calculators are fine as a short cut when a person already understands the base ten system and how numbers work together, but they don’t teach an understanding for the most basic principles of mathematics. This is why our mathematics scores continue to dive on the international stage.

    When are we going to return to the basics in mathematics?

    1. Thanks, Valerie. In my experience, the motivations for hiring tutors are varied. No question a large part of it is desire to shore up the basics. But there’s also plenty of impetus from the weirdness of and, perhaps paradoxically, the mathematical shallowness of the VCE exams. And, there’s aiming for the degree in medicine or law, etc. And, there’s parents’/everyone’s modern desire to buy solutions, no matter the nature or extent of the problem.

      I agree about the Maths Wars. In Australia, mathematicians seem to have simply left the field of battle. As to when are we going to return to basics? Never.

  6. You could have the same concern about teachers or textbooks having flawed approaches. You’re never going to move forward in a topic if you expect perfection. At least with a tutor, you’ve got two viewpoints.

    Agreed, you don’t want someone who wants to start a debate war. But my impression is most tutors are trying to help. At the worst, you might have some people doing it as a status symbol or to get little Johnnie into Stanford (usually not working). But it’s pretty infrequent that it’s actually a net negative. Biggest danger is a waste of money. And…of course there are frequent times when it really saves the bacon and helps a kid that is stuck.

    And even the occasional “old school” methods (maybe not 100% aligned with whatever new ed fashion) can be a feature, not a bug if they make something click that was not working with the student. I mean I see college students still buying/using Schaum’s Outlines from the 50s when they are confused by modern texts or poor instructors. Especially when the prescribed texts are too proofy and wordy.

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