Private tuition has its place, but only after careful consideration

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


A reader recently told me about her neighbour's daughter, who is in grade six at an international school.

One day the girl's maths teacher asked students if they attended the Kumon or Enopi programmes after school. Most did, but all the teacher did was to tell the others they would have to catch up. The reader was rightly appalled.

Research by University of Hong Kong Professor Mark Bray on students' increasing reliance on tuition in Asia has energised the debate on whether tutorial schools are a necessary evil.

In my experience, parents are too quick to send their children to tutors. Their reasons for doing so vary. For some parents, it's because their child's friends are tutored; others feel they are depriving their children of the chance to succeed if they don't receive tutoring. Some parents do it out of guilt because they are unable to personally supervise the children's progress.

I would like to reassure parents of children who are falling behind that success without tutoring is possible. Start by figuring out whether the lack of success is due to poor study habits or weak cognitive skills.

Tanya Mitchell, a brain training expert, attributes many learning issues to the latter. These mental tools (including memory, attention, reasoning and visual and auditory processing) contribute to overall IQ, she says. If you suspect your child's failing grades can be attributed to cognitive weakness, then the priority is to address those issues, not seek tutors.

Many secondary students have difficulty understanding abstract concepts in subjects such as maths and physics. But before turning to a tutor, try to ascertain whether your child's understanding can be improved by regular self-review. Can more practise using prescribed textbooks and teacher handouts reinforce his or her learning?

Students may gain a fleeting understanding of a topic when it is first taught. But without investing time to read and remember the key points, it will often seem 'new' when they revise before an exam.

Often tutoring seems helpful only because students are allocating time to go over the key principles; they could have easily achieved the same by reviewing work more conscientiously themselves.

When students understand the importance of self-discipline and get into the habit of reading up on a topic before the next lesson and before doing homework, they will notice great improvement.

Simple things like going over the topics and attempting the homework from memory, instead of copying answers from a text book or relevant webpage, reinforces learning and improves comprehension.

Are there classmates who don't understand the same topic? You could approach the school with other parents or through the parent representative to seek extra help.

Not every lesson can cater to the entire class. So if it is obvious that students have widely different abilities, it may be useful to ask for differentiated teaching.

If grades fail to pick up after a child improves his study habits and he is still unable to grasp the nuanced principles presented in a topic, then it may be necessary to seek a tutor. But it is important to stay engaged in this process.

First, make a list of topics your child is having difficulty with. Set a timeline with the tutor on how and when the topics will be covered. Follow through with your child after each lesson. Ask the tutor what steps will be taken to improve your child's understanding and how that will be assessed.

Second, inform the teacher about your decision to hire a tutor. Discussion between them on matters such as teaching methods, students' strengths and required depth of understanding can help the tutor better reinforce your child's learning.

Third, know when it's time to stop. Once a child has overcome specific difficulties and can complete work independently, it's time to let him resume responsibility for his own learning.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE Biology at an international school