Extra tuition – useless or helpful?

By Gotthard Jost, April 2014

That extra tuition costs a lot of money for little benefit might be concluded from the study by Hans-Ulrich Grunder from Basel University and the School for Teacher Education of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Northwest Switzerland which was published in 2013. Is extra tuition – above all in Germany – nothing more than a nice multi-billion dollar earner?

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

According to estimates, parents in Germany spend between one and two million euros per year on extra tuition. This gives rise to the question why; after all, earlier studies have already reached the conclusion that extra tuition to all intents and purposes produces no measurable success. The responses are as diverse as the products for extracurricular support. On the basis of ten years of experience as an upper school mathematics and biology teacher and almost twice as long working in the field of extra tuition, I have reached the conclusion that extra tuition can indeed be of help – if the right factors come together.

More than mere repetition

What is often perceived as pure repetition of the school subject matter is in my experience something much more complex in reality. A look at the reasons why parents send their children for extra tuition is enough to illustrate that. I have experienced parents sending children to me, although – form a pure performance point of view – it was not really necessary at all, only because either their big brother or a friend had already been to me or because the parents did not want their child to be one of the few in the class not (to be permitted) to attent extra tuition. But I have also experienced a mother who dragged her anxiety-ridden child to extra tuition while making clear in front of him and everyone else present that the family would have to move if through lack of academic achievement he should fail to be selected for the chosen secondary school. After all, having to admit such a failure to the neighbours would be a humiliation too far. I also believe that the fears or, indeed, school traumas of the parents themselves cause them to send their children to extra tuition. How often have I been greeted with the words: “You know, maths wasn’t my best subject either…”! Understandably parents want to prevent their children from having to go through their own negative experiences. It is self-evident that in such cases communicating knowledge for the next lesson, presentation or examination becomes less important and the main thing is to shield the child from further emotional damage in connection with a particular subject or learning in general.

What characterises good extra tuition?

To pre-empt misunderstandings: not all my extra tuition was successful, or indeed good. There were a number of sessions which fit into Professor Grunder’s study: they cost money and (probably) did not produce a great deal. But there were also the others, the “highlights”. Pupils who came to me anxious and with bad marks and who in a short time made a tremendous leap forward both as regards their marks and their self-confidence. There were also several situations which I would describe as a definite success even if the achievements were modest when judged by results. Those were lessons in which I succeeded in establishing a personal relationship with the pupils through which I could remove their fear of occassionally asking a “really stupid” question or found an explanation for complicated problems which was tailored to that particular individual. I see the latter, in particular, as a great opportunity for individual tuition.

We should not believe that mere repetition of subject matter is sufficient to enable the young person to master it at some point. He or she wants to understand it and has the hope of finally coming into their own outside the class community. The tutor should always aim to structure the lesson in such a sensitive and imaginative way that the individually appropriate explanation can be found. These many years of effort taught me a great deal for my later profession as a teacher of the kind of heterogeneous classes which we are priviledged to teach in Waldorf schools. The emotional cosseting which to some extent is necessary in extra tuition situations should not lead us into the error of doing the pupil’s work for him or her, of saving him or her the effort.

If extra tuition lessons are only used to do homework and perhaps prepare one or two pages in the textbook in advance so that the pupil can go to the next lesson with a good feeling, extra tuition can even become counterproductive! The pupil will quickly notice that he or she no longer needs to do anything himself or herself, that he or she no longer even needs to think up a more or less imaginative excuse for not having done the homework. Pupils can allow themselves no longer to pay attention in lessons; after all, they will have the subject matter explained a second time in extra tuition. Good extra tuition should always promote the own activity, and thus the will forces, of the pupil – particularly in the diversity of the media of our information society where knowledge appears to be just a few clicks away. Just like the first steps of a small child, learning is always associated with a good portion of effort.

A lot of money for nothing?

It must unfortunately be assumed that our (state) school system and the way it measures performance will not change anytime soon. If little consideration continues to be given to the emotional and intellectual stage of development of our children and the belief persists that educational standards set at ministerial level are an appropriate measurement of the abilities and maturity of our children, the demand for additional support will remain high.

Since Waldorf schools in Germany have not so far succeeded in setting up a school leaving qualification which is equivalent to the state examinations, our pupils sooner or later also come under a certain pressure to perform which can represent an incisive event for some because it bursts so suddenly into our “idyllic Waldorf world”. The question whether or not their children require extra tuition therefore also presents itself sooner or later to Waldorf parents. In a time in which the multitude of good suggestions on Internet forums, in blogs, on television and in educational self-help books leave parents feeling uncertain about what to do, the latest studies on extra tuition are presumably hardly reassuring. If despite an early musical education and scientific experiments in kindergarten the child fails to progress in some of the subjects in school, it must be possible to fall back on a functioning programme of additional help! And the extra tuition of which society has meanwhile become so fond is supposed not to do that? I believe it does! Extra tuition can indeed be a help but not unconditionally so. It is important that when a child encounters difficulties he or she is not dragged gullibly to the nearest cramming institute out of a pure feeling that something needs to be done, or that class or subject teachers prematurely or excessively recommend extra tuition. The demands of parents, teachers and pupils of themselves should be critically examined with a view to the current life situation of the young person concerned.

The question as to the right time, the “appropriate” institute or tutor, the size and make-up of the group, should be considered carefully – preferably together with the subject teacher concerned. But more is needed: the extra tuition should be critically observed. That does not mean the anxious wait for the hopefully better mark the next time round but the question whether the child feels well looked after, understood and personally taken seriously by the tutor. Only then will extra tuition be successful.

About the author: Gotthard Jost teaches mathematics and biology in the upper school of the Schopfheim Free Waldorf School. He is the author of numerous educational aids published by major school book publishers.