The Tuition Issue

By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

I am often told that many of our students in High School are tutored in one or more subjects, and asked for a reaction. I rather have the impression that some parents expect dismay that students are filling their already busy time with more work, some expect shame that tutors are needed to provide what the school cannot (apparently), and some expect pride that students and families are striving for excellence. I find it hard to convey all these three feeling simultaneously, but I do my best.

The costs are not just financial. But the benefits can be considerable. How do we weigh these up?
Tuition: The costs are not just financial. But the benefits can be considerable. How do we weigh these up?

More seriously, my usual response is that of course parents have the right, no the duty, to do what they think is in the best interests of their children. That’s what I do for my children, and that’s what we hope all parents do for theirs. So then, the more sensible (overlapping) questions become Is the tuition worthwhile? How much is the student benefitting from tuition, overall, in the long run? and What are the financial, non-financial and opportunity costs of tuition? I cannot help be struck by the extremes which we sometimes find, but still, the questions are worth asking.

Is tuition worthwhile? There is no one answer here; it all clearly depends on the student, the teacher and the tutor. What seems obvious to me is that ‘everyone else is getting it’ is a bad reason to send children to tuition – firstly, because most people don’t, and secondly, because following the crowd unthinkingly is generally not a good idea. Teachers are generally willing to go the extra mile to explain a difficult idea, check over a problem or hear a student’s concern; does that suffice? The curriculum is meant to be challenging, so it would not be surprising to hear that not everything is immediately obvious. Is it worth getting tuition for every difficulty? Or might it be worth just letting time work its magic (some things just take a while to understand properly)? The answers will depend on the difficulty, the student and the stage in the school.

Some of my colleagues are very much against tuition, but it seems to me that if a student is benefiting a great deal overall, if the time needed does not exclude too much else, and tuition is within a family’s financial means, then tuition seems to have has a good deal going for it – but the ‘overall’ caveat is a significant one.

It seems to me to be likely that a maths tutor can help a student nail a specific technique, such as ‘using the cosine rule’. And over time, perhaps a tutor can address several such topics. But in the long term it would be a mistake to overlook the deeper conceptual understandings in favour of more specific – and more measurable – techniques. Indeed, constant tuition (of a closed and narrow drilling sort) might for any given topic mask conceptual difficulties from the regular classroom teacher – and thus end up with the teacher not giving the student the scaffolding and support he or she needs, to nobody’s benefit. And there is also the opportunity cost of tuition in terms of its effect on students’ overall motivation, energy levels, sense of independence and ability to get some relaxation during busy terms. Tuition has costs other than the financial ones – especially if it allows students to think that they can get difficulties solved by someone else; ultimately, they need to be taking responsibility for themselves.

You will see that I am skeptical about the value of tuition. But I am not entirely skeptical – and I confess to having done a fair bit of it myself in the past – which what effect, I honestly could not say (good value for hard working parents? Not sure!). So I end with a list of questions to ask parents who are considering tuition.

  • Have you discussed your child’s progress with his or her teacher?
  • Does your child know exactly what the classroom teacher, who best knows the situation, would advise?
  • Are you considering a programme of long-term tuition generally, or a specific intervention for a specific difficulty?
  • Is the purpose to work on basic knowledge, practice routines or to encourage higher order thinking? Or to develop time management skills, so that students are becoming independent learners?
  • Is one of your prime motivations worry that others are having tuition or worry that you are not doing all you might for your child?
  • Are you considering a tutor who is familiar with the sort of learning that your child is undertaking, and understands the nature of our curriculum and external examinations?
  • Does the tutor have a fixed system into which your child must fit, or is he or she willing to look at your child’s specific case, engage with him or her about his or her specific needs, conceptions and misconceptions, and adjust accordingly?
  • Will there be any knock-on effect on your child’s levels of enthusiasm for the subject, for learning and for school overall?

Doing the best for our students, individually, is a very difficult matter. Is tuition a good thing? I don’t know the answer, but these are the right questions to ask.

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