One of the first tasks for a tutor in any new job is to make sure that everyone’s expectations are aligned. We’ve talked about this before, how critical it is to the business of Day One. One of the most common misconceptions, held equally by parents and students, about the job of a tutor is that the job is essentially just homework help. We walk in the door and help coax our students through this day’s problem set or lab report. The most dangerous variation on this is when a student hopes to let us do their work for them. But the idea that we’re there simply to make sure the homework is done and catch errors is almost as harmful to the student’s learning. Tutors are not there simply to guide students through their schoolwork, step-by-step. Nothing, in fact, could be farther from the truth.
Tutoring, ideally, is about contextualizing, translating, and expanding upon the lessons students receive at school. Professional tutors are specialists in learning styles, learning differences, and the art of the instructive metaphor, rendering concepts in visual, auditory, or analytical alternatives so the student can claim real ownership of them. We help deepen students’ understanding precisely so they can do the work on their own.
Thinking of tutors as homework helpers doesn’t just do a disservice to tutors, it does a disservice to homework itself. Homework is a space for student-driven learning. A homework assignment should create the opportunity for students to experiment, extend, and synthesize the concepts they’ve gained in class. As such, a tutor who shepherds her client through individual problems undermines the best part of the learning process.
Of course, there are lessons for everyone here, not just for tutors. For their part, teachers should be mindful of the value of the assignments they give. Homework should invite student experimentation and eschew busy work. This is where some alternative curricula, like the Exeter math program, for instance, get things right. A homework concept that pointedly puts the onus of learning on the student reminds us that frustration, confusion, and struggle are critical parts of learning. Watching your child struggle is difficult, yes, but vital to their education in the elementary and adolescent years. Otherwise, they land in college (or the workforce) without the essential tools to overcome challenges. Parents should also remember that not all confusion is created equal. When your children are struggling, be aware that bringing in tutors has to be about helping students direct their energies better, not about eliminating the struggle.
When we look at professional tutoring as homework help, we shortchange the whole learning process. Conversely, by being clear about the role of tutors and the pedagogical principles behind what we do, we ensure the most fruitful experience possible for everyone. In the end, when it comes to homework, sometimes the best option is to keep hands off.