(The following is a conversation I had with a grade four boy I was tutoring. It might give you some ideas for the next time your child, or a student you are working with, argues that learning reading, writing, and arithmetic is a waste of time).
“Why do I need to be tutored? I spend enough time in school! I just want to play outside after school,” one of my young tutoring students moaned.
“Do you like jigsaw puzzles?” I asked.
“Yes,” he admitted cautiously, obviously wondering what that had to do with wasting his outdoor time.
“Do you like doing jigsaw puzzles that end up having a lot of pieces missing? Or even having one or two really important pieces missing?”
“No!” he answered emphatically, looking curious about where this conversation was going.
“Okay,” I continued, “Learning is like a big jigsaw puzzle. Each level of a topic, or each grade in school, adds more pieces to the puzzle. But sometimes pieces go missing. Maybe you just forgot a fact or idea, or maybe you didn’t quite understand it. Or you could have been sick the day your teacher taught it. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. But later on, as you learned more information, and gained more parts of the puzzle, those missing pieces become a big problem.
“Imagine that you are putting together a great jigsaw puzzle of your favourite superhero. It has a really cool background; it has a great picture of the “bad guys” — in fact, it has everything there except for one part. The superhero pieces have gone missing! How would you feel about that?”
“It would be really disappointing,” my young friend answered.
“Well, that’s what it is like when you have some gaps in your learning. You can have all kinds of information, but if a few really important facts or ideas are missing, it can ruin the whole thing. When that happens, tutoring can help you find those missing pieces, and then you can see the whole picture.
“Here’s another way to think of it,” I added. “Imagine a ladder that has some rungs missing. Would it be easy to get to the higher levels if three or four rungs were gone?”
“No, I guess I’d be stuck at that level,” he replied.
“Well, learning is like that. When you miss some rungs in your learning, like not knowing basic math facts, or understanding vowel sounds, or knowing how to use punctuation and spelling in your writing, it becomes harder and harder to climb the ladder of learning. Every new level of learning depends on the lower levels, and if you’re missing some of those things, you won’t be able to learn the new, more complicated information.”
“Is that why I’m having so much trouble in math?” my student asked. “Multiplication facts seemed so boring when we were learning them last year. I just wanted to go out and play. But now we’re learning division, and it’s really hard.”
“That’s right,” I answered. “If you know your multiplication facts, you’ll find division is much, much easier. And you’ll also find things like fractions and algebra a lot easier, too, when you learn them later.”
I pulled a grade seven math textbook from the bookshelf, and opened it. “Can you explain to me how to do these equations?” I asked.
He looked at them, and shook his head. “I don’t know how. They look really complicated!”
“That’s because you are only in grade four right now. Already you are finding math hard because you missed some important math information in earlier grades. If we don’t help you catch up, you won’t even be able to do all the grade four work. But if we fill in those puzzle pieces, or ladder rungs, you’ll be able to do this year’s work just fine, and later grade seven, and even high school math, will not be that hard. Tutoring now can help you down the road.
“And speaking of roads, here’s another way of thinking about why tutoring is important. Let’s go outside.”
My young charge grinned. This was sounding a lot better than sitting inside doing math. We stepped out into the yard, and walked to the edge of the street. I pointed to the stop sign at the end of the block. “What do you think? Should I go and get the stop sign, and bring it back here?”
He started laughing. “No way! Cars would stop right in the middle of the block. And cars that came to the intersection would just keep going. There would be a lot of accidents!”
“That’s right,” I agreed. “Traffic signs are put there to help us drive safely. If we remove them and put them just anywhere, or if we mix them up, we’d be in big trouble, right?”
“Right!” he agreed.
“Learning is like that. Things like multiplication facts are like traffic signs. When they are missing, or are mixed up, our learning is much more difficult. We can end up going in the wrong direction, or end up stuck in a ditch going nowhere.”
“But I already work hard at school,” the young scholar protested. “I’m tired of learning. I just want to play!”
“It’s wonderful to be a good worker,” I replied. “But if you have a lot of missing puzzle pieces, or missing ladder rungs, all that hard work won’t help.”
Just then we saw his mom drive up and park. “Yes! Tutoring time is done!” he shouted happily. “Now I can go and play!”
… Do you think my student will decide that tutoring might be worthwhile after all? Check out part 2 of our conversation, right here.