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My Tutoring Philosophy (Part 2)

Teaching vs Tutoring

What is the best way to tutor? That's naturally the golden question here. And as we talked about in the last part, there can't possibly be a single style to apply to every tutee. Instead, we must learn to adapt to each student individually to best encourage their learning and understanding.

I believe this is the key difference between tutoring and teaching. A teacher has to "average out" their teaching strategy to reach the most students in their class. They can't be too quick or too slow, at risk of leaving behind students. The explanations they give will make sense to some of their students, but probably not all. And they certainly don't have the time to go through multiple explanations until everyone gets it.

And this lack of understanding in the classroom is...just accepted. The teacher delegates a deeper understanding to office hours, "put the work in yourself", tutors! And as annoying as that may be, it's an inherent fact that a 50-minute class will not be enough make all 20 students understand that day's material perfectly. This is neither good nor bad, just a fact. A teacher should give their students a glimpse into a subject and the inspiration to explore it more later.

The benefit of the tutor is in the one-on-one (or sometimes small-group-on-1) aspect. A tutor doesn't have to choose an explanation and stick with it - they can come equipped with multiple explanations and use them as the tutee best benefits. If the tutee is really catching onto a topic quickly, you can move faster, or dig deeper. If the tutee is struggling, we have the time to slow down and really dig in to their understanding and figure out what's missing. We have the time to go over multiple perspectives until one clicks for them. A tutor should help their tutee learn a subject in the most understandable, enjoyable, and productive way possible to the tutee.

Asking Questions

In my opinion, learning IS asking questions. The idea that someone should stand there and feed you information is counter-productive to actual learning in most cases. Most people cannot learn simply by being given that information. For math, you must to do practice problems and play around with the concepts yourself to really come to understand it. For writing, you must write, write, write...and edit, edit, edit.

Being told what to do without motivation is not only annoying, but also detrimental to the act of learning. Instead, one should pose a leading question which, in the pursuit of answering, also teaches and reinforces various concepts you want to learn.

It's with this philosophy that I've modeled my Free Written Math Lessons page and my Blog. Although I will occasionally make slide lessons like the first one, often I'll have the lesson start with a question, and then in the process of answering that question, I will tell you about the concepts you're trying to learn. That way, none of the concepts come out of the blue - you're learning this stuff for a reason: to answer the question you originally posed. For example, my next fun math post will start with the following desire: Code up the Settlers of Catan board to run some stats on it. This will motivate learning the Pygame module in Python.

Naturally, this philosophy extends to my tutoring and my everyday life. I believe people should be curious and excited to learn. I think to learn, we should be asking questions and trying to answer those questions. The tutee often has the knowledge to do so in their brain, they just need help to bring it out. Asking the tutee leading questions to get them through the problem step-by-step will allow the tutee to retain those steps and concepts much better than if they were simply given the information.

Often this type of method is compared to the Socratic Method - a method of dialogue to encourage learning. One participant proposes an idea and rather than explicitly arguing against it, Socrates would instead ask a question to force that participant to examine his idea himself, and make adjustments.

In the classroom, attempts to teach in this way are called "blended classroom" or "flipped classroom". This flips the classroom in the sense that instead of the teacher lecturing their class on the material, the students are investigating questions themselves to learn the material, with the teacher as an aid if they get stuck. I love this style of teaching as it feels much communal for the entire group of students in the class to be exploring these questions and learning topics as they go, free to discuss with one-another the troubles they come across.

Interestingly, students often express a dislike for flipped classrooms, but also tend to learn better in them regardless of their like or dislike! In terms of tutoring, this is a reminder that CONSTANTLY asking your tutee questions can be very annoying and very unhelpful. You must recognize when you're asking a productive leading question vs one the tutee can't possibly answer. The second type of question will only lead to the tutee feeling hopeless!

Thank you for reading!

Jonathan Gerhard


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