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I'm not a tutor!

I’m working on changing the way I think of my role as a parent into the teenage years for my struggling student: I’m not aiming to be a content tutor with remedial expertise anymore, but a skills consultant instead.

Dr Jeannine Jannot, Author of The Disintegrating Child, and my brilliant guest on this month’s episode of the Wonderfully Wired podcast, calls it shifting from being the explainer and solver to being an interviewer and facilitator. Stixrud and Johnson of The Self-Driven child call it being a consultant rather than enforcer. These authors argue that to access real, intrinsic motivation and long term ownership a parent needs to say “I love you too much to fight with you about your homework”.

Recently, my son Judah was preparing for an accounting cycle test.

Accounting is a subject where I can’t just wing the content to help him when he is stuck. I told myself that that fact offered a great opportunity to practice my commitment to being his coach rather than his tutor.

So I set out to asking him the questions I want him to eventually ask himself while preparing:

What is the scope of the test?

What notes or content do I have to study from?

I also take the liberty of teaching a new study skill (courtesy of Elevate Education).

Create a traffic light:

What parts am I confident I understand and can practice? (Mark on table of contents in green).

What parts of the notes do I really not understand? (Mark these red).

What parts do I understand but need practice? (Mark them orange.)

Once we made our traffic light we addressed the areas in red first.

When Judah discovered he doesn’t have many resources to explain what he doesn’t know (the textbook notes are dense, full of jargon and hard to read), we turned to YouTube and found a couple of videos explaining the sections fairly adequately. We discussed how this kind of ‘gap-finding skill’ shouldn’t be the night before a test. Our ideal is that working towards test and exam prep should be “practice time” as opposed to “explaining or gap-filling/ finding time”. (Elevate explains that top achievers spend more time mastering material and using knowledge to create, than simply downloading the knowledge).

By the time I drove Judah back to the hostel that night, our brains were buzzing with terms. We weren’t going to ace anything but we were certainly more confident than before we had done our hard work.

Our confidence was ill-founded.

The next night I picked Judah up, anxious to debrief: Did he use his extra time? What did he think he did well? At which point the beans were spilled: The test was full of concepts we hadn’t covered!

Later, as we were still trying to figure out how he got the scope of the test so wrong, he stumbled upon an A4 typed note explaining exactly what the class could expect in the test!

Enter the moment in which I wanted to say “Are you stinking kidding me? We wasted hours of time working on material that wasn’t tested and despite all that effort we are still going to fail because you forgot you were given clear instructions….”

I’m delighted to report I didn’t say that.

It took a great deal of effort, but what I said as he sat with his head in his hands was: “Wow, you must be kicking yourself. All your effort and you don’t get to enjoy the fruit from it. I hate it when my lack of organisation shoots my work in the foot.”

Over the next hour and a half we wrestled with the ‘what now?’. Once or twice Judah tried to wrestle with me. “It’s all this working late every night. I’m tired, I can’t be expected to remember everything”. I strove for cucumber coolness. (It was hit and miss I confess). “Better to tell yourself the truth I think: You missed two opportunities to see that note detailing the scope of the test. The first was by not making a note in your planner when receiving it and the second was not filing it during your Sunday night declutter session. Two nets which could have caught that fish if you’d used them.”

“I can’t believe I was so stupid” he tried a little despair response.

“Nothing to do with stupid. This is why organisation matters”.

It didn’t feel sweet that night, but I can see the sweetness of the learning opportunity now.

We got to break the lesson down into two parts yesterday. ‘How do I fix this mistake?’ and ‘How do I not make it again?’ We canceled whatever else we were going to work on and made new notes of the stack we had ignored. He didn’t get to finish before heading home and assigned himself time of his own to complete his notes.

Then we decide to be proactive in understanding the scope of next week’s physics test. A note on a planner was made to find the science teacher and ask in advance and then to write it down!

I’m learning to say “I love you too much to fight with you about your homework”.


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