There will come a time when Singaporean parents are forced to contemplate giving our children professional help for their school work. Regardless of how one might feel, tuition has its place in today’s highly complex education system. Parents need only review questions in an upper Primary assessment book to realise how advanced the subject matter have become, and how we ourselves might not be equipped with the right knowledge and skills to support our own children.
Tuition is not a new phenomenon. In the old days, it is common for rich aristocrats in Britain, and elsewhere, to hire female governesses specifically to teach and train their children within their homes. What is unique to contemporary Singapore is the pervasiveness of tuition – it is not just the domain of the rich. It is well-entrenched within the ranks of the middle and lower classes. Personally, I have seen how families with incomes of less than $3,000 per month spend a third of that income on tuition services.
The purpose of these series of articles is not to argue about the socio-economical implications of such an emphasis on tuition. To do so would require a hard look not only at the education system, but also the value system of our entire culture.
Instead, we will be pragmatic, and provide a guide that may help parents to decide if their children need tuition, and evaluate and select the right private educator for their children, while avoiding common pitfalls and painful lessons.
The Guide is divided into the following sections:
Deciding if your child need tuition
Selecting a mode of tuition
Searching for and evaluating tutors
Monitoring and supporting tuition activities
Does your child need tuition?
There are many reasons why parents engage tutors, but these are mainly predicated upon the expectations of parents on our children’s performance. Simply put, it is when our children do not meet our expectations that we start looking for means to achieve those expectations.
Herein lies the controversy. A parent who is satisfied that his child can pass his exams will only think about engaging tutors if his child is failing his exams. On the other hand, a parent who feels his child is capable of scoring A* for his subjects will engage tutors to ensure his child maintains this standard. To parents whose children are failing exams, it might appear that the parent who pushes his children to score A* is creating a lot of stress for his children. But by the same token, isn’t the parent who forces his child (who is failing his subjects) to have tuition creating stress for the child too?
Instead of debating who has a “stronger need” for tuition, as long as our expectations are comensurate with our understanding of the capability of our children, tuition can potentially help to plug the gaps in our children’s learning and increase confidence in our children when tackling subject matter. Confidence, in turn, will help reduce our children’s stress as they need no longer dread examinations as much as they used to.
If the child is already performing at his optimum level, tuition may have an adverse effect, leading to fatigue or even over-confidence. The child may even be penalised if he uses concepts or terms outside of the syllabus as answers to questions in tests/exams. Also, excessive reliance on tuition can become a mental crutch for the child, making him dependent on guided learning and less proactive in learning for himself. This would be a great disadvantage to him as he progresses to higher education.
The first step is therefore to understand your child.
Academic strengths and weaknesses
We must avoid the temptation to simply send the child for tuition for all subjects regardless of his strengths. Even if we can afford the lessons, the child may not afford the time and energy outside of his hectic academic schedules.
Be selective. Spend some effort assessing and focusing the specific areas that our children are weak in. We start with identifying the specific subject, English, Chinese, Math, Science, etc.
This goes beyond simply using the top-line numbers in our child’s report card. Just because the child is achieving over 90% in Chinese does not mean he really understands the subject. Many parents start looking for Chinese tutors after Primary 4, when grades start to plummet as the syllabus is adjusted to start preparing students for PSLE.
Essentially, if a child lacks exposure to language because it is not spoken or read at home, it is difficult to expect the child to master it. We should recognise this problem and address it early so that bridging the gap would be less daunting later. Regular weekly tuition or enrichment can help mitigate this to a great degree.
Weak grades in technical subjects such as Math and Science can be due to many factors:
poor understanding of the concepts
not knowing the right keywords to use when answering questions
misunderstanding questions/poor command of English
Tuition can help to correct most of the above issues, particularly in highlighting and explaining the key concepts that need to be mastered by students. The better tutors understand the syllabus well, and they know exactly what students need to focus on. This makes learning highly efficient and increases the exam-readiness of students. This is something that few parents can provide, and it is the key value-add of tuition.
English is the primary language of instruction and tests in Singapore. If the root cause of poor performance in technical subjects is poor command of English, then that needs to be addressed separately, perhaps through English enrichment or tuition. To a lesser extent, Math or Science tuition may help in training students to read and understand questions by exposing students to the variety of ways by which questions may be structured. In a sense, this would be rote learning, where students are meticulously taught to recognise and respond to specific categories of questions. The value of the tutor, in this case, would be his ability to map out all the different ways by which questions may be asked, and then drill the students on them.
However, there are many readily available assessment books which have already dissected and classified concepts for all subjects. These topical worksheets will do exactly what tutors are hired to do: expose students to the different ways by which questions could be asked. So, if our child has no problems with understanding concepts in the subject, instead of hiring tutors, we may be better off buying the these assessment books and setting a schedule for the child to work on them, all by himself. The regime of regular practice will pay off in terms of better grades and lesser careless mistakes. However, as parents, we must continue to monitor and inspect the work done by our children, which could be as straight forward as grading the work done against the answers provided.
Level of independence
This brings us to our next point. Is our child an independent learner, or does he prefer guided instructions?
Tuition may be an overkill for independent learners.