Confessions of a Terrible Tutor – Part 2

This morning I started a blog post on parasitic lessons and some of the lessons that I unintentionally teach when I’m tutoring. I had to run and couldn’t finish it, so here’s the rest.

  1. (To review) I sometimes get irritated if I can’t come up with another way to explain something to a student who isn’t getting it.
  2. (Also review) I’m often too quick to correct students’ little errors to save myself the trouble of having to go back later and figure out where the problem is.
  3. The other way in which I correct my students too soon is much more damaging, I think. Often, I see my students making a conceptual error, and I head them off immediately. That’s unfortunate, because in a lot of situations, they could learn a great deal from making an error, following it out to its logical conclusion, and then figuring out what went wrong.

    I think part of the reason I do that is environmental. When I’m tutoring, there’s a lot of pressure to get things done because my students have homework due, and they’re continually getting new homework. They feel frustrated when I spend a lot of time leading them down the garden path (or at least letting them wander down the garden path), and I feel bad for doing it. I’m also afraid that I’m going to look like I don’t know what I’m talking about. Unlike teachers (who are surprisingly difficult to get fired, even when they’re completely incompetent), I can be fired at any moment, so I feel a lot of pressure to make my students and their parents happy and to “look smart.”

    I suppose there’s another sad but probably valid reason I jump in when my students make conceptual errors. If you’re going to learn from your mistakes, you have to recognize that you made a mistake. As I pointed out before, a lot of students get problems that are impossible to check, or else get problems that are possible to check, but have no tools for checking them. Sometimes, conceptual errors lead to obvious problems (you get completely stuck and it’s not possible to come up with an answer), but often, the conceptual error will give you a perfectly good looking, but wrong, answer. Without some way to figure out that your answer is wrong, you may never notice you made a mistake. In these instances, there’s not really any point in letting my students work out the whole problem incorrectly, since they’re not going to learn anything from the wrong result.

    So what am I teaching them? I’m certainly teaching them to be afraid of mistakes. Learning from my errors is one of the most useful skills I learned in Montessori, and I try to approach everything I do from the perspective of “what can I learn from this?” Not only does it help me constantly improve myself, it keeps me sane because I don’t get totally riled up about mistakes. They’re just lessons. But my students aren’t learning this. They’re learning that errors are errors, and they’re just plain bad. (Add to that the constant “punishment” for wrong answers, in the form of bad grades, etc, and you’re teaching students that errors make you a bad person.) I’m also teaching them to be dependent on an authority to approve or disapprove their work. Using their bad ideas to find good ideas would foster intellectual independence in my students, but I usually foster intellectual dependence.

  4. The last confession I have is that I often subtly steer students away from difficult problems, either because I know they’ll be hard to explain and I can’t be bothered to figure out how, or because I don’t know how to solve them and I don’t want to look stupid. Sometimes, I hide the misdirection by saying “oh, don’t worry about that, there’s no way it’ll be on your test.” When I do that, I’m strengthening the lesson (which I certainly didn’t teach in the first place), that the only learning that matters is what’s on the test. Other times, I just plain avoid problems. I’m not sure what sort of lesson I’m teaching there (because I’m not sure my students notice), but it doesn’t make me feel very good.

Whew! That’s enough confession for one day.

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