Tutoring: A Lose-Lose Proposition

Daniel Greenberg

Every year, word gets around that certain students in the school are receiving outside tutoring arranged by their parents in subjects that their parents think are important for them to know - subjects that the students are not pursuing on their own initiative to their parents' satisfaction. For example, we'll hear of a student being tutored in reading, or writing, or basic math, or algebra - topics that the traditional curriculum requires in other schools1. The accepted dogma in the world of canonical education is that these subjects (a) must be taught (since children will not otherwise learn them on their own) and (b) must be taught at a certain age, since the brain is so designed that if not learned at the appropriate stage of development, they can never be mastered adequately.

Tutoring in the subjects of the standard school curriculum, when it occurs, is one of the saddest phenomena we have encountered in our 35 years of existence. It adversely affects the student involved, the relationship between the student and his/her parents, and even affects some of the other students in the school. It stands in stark contrast to the underlying educational principles of the school. It creates unresolvable conflicts within the student between what s/he has been told the school stands for, and what s/he is being forced (or persuaded) by his/her parents to do. In short, it is a formula for failure - failure of the student relative to the school's mission, and failure of the school to deliver optimal outcomes.

Let's take a closer look at the messages that outside parent-sponsored tutoring in "standard subjects" delivers, and how they relate to the school's mission.

(1) The student's internally driven agenda is not as reliable as an externally driven agenda, especially when they do not match. The external curriculum is the result of "expert" knowledge about what children need to know to make it in the adult world. Trusting the "experts" is thus more reliable than trusting one's own interests and inclinations. This stance is of course diametrically opposed to the school's fundamental position that the most worthwhile activity a child can engage in is that initiated by the child, and that every effort must be made to support self-initiated activity, without prior judgment as to its value.

(2) It is more valuable to rely on knowledge acquired through the ministrations of an outside tutor than to rely on knowledge acquired by one's own efforts. You never know whether you've got it right if you go after it yourself, but if you wait for a tutor to provide the information then it will be more accurate and useful. Passive acquisition of knowledge is the way to go. The school's stance towards the acquisition of knowledge by contrast is based on the established fact that knowledge acquired through a person's own efforts is more effectively retained, and more productively used, than knowledge imparted through outside instruction.

(3) Students can't be trusted to find out what is important in the world, or what is important to them for their future lives. That's why traditional schools don't allow children to decide for themselves what to do with their time at school. By contrast, trust in a child's judgment is a center-pin of the school, just as trust in every individual's judgment is the center-pin of a free, democratic society.

(4) You should have more confidence in what adults prescribe for you than in yourself. Your internal compass is not reliable; without outside help, you will not find your way. Sudbury Valley, however, extols the virtues of self-confidence, which is the force behind anyone who dares to take on life on his/her own terms.

(5) There is not enough time to wait for students to come around and realize how important certain subjects are. Life is too short to waste on "unproductive" pursuits (that is, on pursuits that do not conform to those promoted in traditional schools). Time, however, is a most private commodity, and it belongs to each person to use as s/he sees fit. When someone else tells you how to spend your time, that person is robbing you of control of your most precious possession.

These five messages are extremely erosive of all that the school stands for. Sending them to students can only make the students doubt the school and, even worse, doubt themselves. Parents would do well to contemplate this before sanctioning any form of outside tutoring - or before putting pressure on their children to seek special tutoring at school from staff members.

The spectacular degree of self-knowledge and self-confidence shown by Sudbury Valley alumni is living proof that allowing the system to work provides the greatest benefit to students. There is an extensive literature explaining why this is so. The urge to provide tutoring, driven by anxiety and fear of failure, should be fought and conquered. It is so much more productive for a parent to say, "I believe in you, and will support you in whatever path you take."2


There is one category of outside tutoring that sometimes is useful to Sudbury students: tutoring to improve scores in college entrance exams. Every year, there are students who feel that taking these exams (the most common of which are the SATs) will help get them into the college of their choice. I have never yet met a student who was interested in these exams for their own sake, or was motivated to study for them because the subject matter caught their fancy. Preparing for them is distasteful, and though a great many students manage to do so on their own, or at school with the help of other students or staff, some find it more palatable to find outside tutors or take special cram courses (Princeton Review, Kaplan). Tutoring of this sort never seems to do any harm, since there is never any illusion that the material is important for future success in life. On the contrary, it's just stuff that one has to swallow for a limited purpose - sort of like Driver's Ed, which occupies much the same place in the sphere of outside classes.

Anyway, reliance on SATs seems to be diminishing in the realm of college admissions, and ever more avenues are opening up to obtaining a fully satisfactory college training without going through the Entrance Board testing ritual.

1. I would like to make it clear that I am not discussing outside instruction in esoteric or advanced subjects that are not offered in the school, and that the school does not provide through the importation of outside instructors (such as horseback riding, or advanced dance class).

2. The same considerations apply to tutoring that students ask their parents to arrange. In such cases, the students' fears of not being capable of developing fully in such a demanding school - fears that are fueled by outside pressures of friends and family, and sometimes by subtle or not-so-subtle signals from parents - lead them to set aside their internally driven interests in favor of an external agenda. The response of parents should in any case be the same as that described in the text: "You, not outsiders, are the best judge of what you need."

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