Parenting: teens

Why a good tutor improves a child’s mindset, not their grades

A great tutor has the patience and skill to change their pupil’s attitude to learning and help them cultivate curiosity and acquire motivation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 March, 2016, 10:31am

Until recently I equated tutoring with cheating or laziness. I reasoned that if I was paying for my children to attend great schools, they should be able to do the work and should turn to the teacher for help if they encountered any difficulty. An outside tutor was a lazy indulgence of the well-heeled and antithetical to the effort to cultivate grit and perseverance in children. I was confounded and exasperated by the parenting approach of hiring tutors to do the work for children or to help them get ahead.

I empathised with my son’s vexed geometry teacher who lamented that despite encouraging his students to seek him out and ask questions, few took up his offer. His students admitted that they could not come to after-school hours because they had to go to their maths tutors in Causeway Bay. Why would parents suffer the hassle and expense of hiring a tutor when the person responsible for their child’s grade was available and willing to assist?

Then recently I attended a talk by Jake Neuberg, founder of Revolution Prep, a global online tutoring agency that pairs professional tutors with students of all ages to increase their love for learning. Unlike those who focus on short-term goals like improving a grade or performance on a specific test, Revolution Prep tutors help clients cultivate a growth mindset and concurrent set of skills that reach far beyond a specific test outcome.

This approach centres around the research of Stanford University psychologist and bestselling author, Dr. Carol Dweck. Dweck’s landmark book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success demonstrates that teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity that positively influences long-term success in life.

READ MORE – Grit: the key ingredient to your children’s success

Students who are told they are smart and praised for their innate ability develop a fixed mindset. Over time they tend to avoid challenge, give up easily when they encounter a task that is hard, ignore negative feedback, are threatened by the success of others, see no point in effort and give up easily, exclaiming that they are, “just not good at that”.

In contrast, students who are praised for their effort, the strategies they employ, and the results they achieve via those efforts develop a growth mindset. These students embrace challenge, persist when confronted with challenging tasks, seek a path to mastery, learn from criticism, and are inspired, not threatened, by the success of others.

“If all you care about is the end result, being in the bottom 95 per cent of Harvard’s freshman class will be soul-crushing when you’ve always been in the top 5 per cent up until then,” Neuberg explains. “If your child gets an A without any effort, is that worthy of praise? Think of a teenager scoring several goals while playing soccer with a group of five-year-olds. Does he deserve praise for that?” Referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to mastery theory, Neuberg points out that, “Effort creates ability, and that is worthy of praise”.

A good tutor won’t give your child any answers or show them how to complete homework. In fact, a great tutor has the patience and skill to change a child’s attitude about learning and help them cultivate an intrinsic curiosity and motivation to take on challenges and succeed.

Maths is hard. There’s no getting around it. It takes practice and perseverance and the right outlook. Most students just give up too quickly, but solving maths “problems” creates “problem solvers”. Parents should be aware that their anxiety with maths is contagious for kids. When parents say “I’m not a maths person”, or “I’m just not good at maths”, it undermines the child’s motivation and can curtail their effort.

The most important word in the field of growth mindset research is “yet”. When a student says “I can’t do it”, a good tutor (or parent) will add the word “yet” to the end of the sentence so that students begin to think, “I can’t do it yet”.

Using this approach, everyone can use a tutor. Neuberg likens tutoring to the fire safety inspector rather than the fireman. Everyone calls the fireman, but by that time there’s already damage and the house may have burned down. He suggests focusing on preventing the crisis in the first place by developing a healthy, positive approach to solving whatever challenge arises in life.

A successful tutor will help encourage youngsters to choose challenge, to embrace struggle and even failure and to focus on a long-term growth rather than immediate satisfaction.

Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me A Book, a leading advocate for family literacy in Hong Kong (