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.