First published 1 February 2019
It’s another February. Another start towards the onslaught of UK public exams and the annual spike in tutoring work. Another period when the call ‘will this feature in the exam?’ rings out across the land. Another succession of months when educators race to finish syllabi and allay students’ worries. Such is how we annually guide our teenagers through the transition from frozen landscapes to the summer solstice.
Until the age of 22 (when I sat my finals at university), the sight of daffodils used to instil fear in me; fear that exams were coming up and the day of reckoning, my one chance to perform, was looming. This fear, albeit in a different form, returned when I found myself on the other side of the equation, both in a classroom setting and on Skype/Zoom. The growing levels of anxiety in the students I had been charged with guiding and preparing was palpable. January onwards has always marked the point when all concerned ramp up efforts and invest as much time and brain power as possible in order to pull the best possible results out of the bag. Gazing out on another snowy horizon, I now find myself asking: what is the rate of return on this investment and is it really worth it?
I can’t deny that there have been short-term dividends for me. I have loved receiving elated emails from students proclaiming their unbridled joy and thanks on receiving the grades they had desired. There have obviously been medium-term rewards for those students – they have successfully done the necessary hoop jumping to reach the next stage of their education, and perhaps learnt something about Ciceronian rhetoric and the pesky French subjunctive in the meantime. But what is the long-term investment of this venture which might draw, admittedly no blood, but most probably sweat and, regrettably, sometimes tears?
This question has long been at the forefront of my mind. During my spell in the classroom, it pained me that students had been programmed to hone in on fact acquisition.Over the years I have been tutoring, I have been forced to stand my ground in the face of pleas for spoon-fed revision notes and, in many cases, sincere requests to factory produce coursework and dissertations, often in return for massive sums of money. I am not saying that this is the case for all students. One of the great joys of my time in education hitherto has been working with the inspiring staff and awesome students linked to Villiers Park Educational Trust. Here, there is no question of superficial learning. On leading ‘Inspiring Excellence’ courses and delivering material encouraging soft skill development, I have been astounded by the eagerness of students to step out of the confines of disciplines and curricula and engage with really, really hard material. Here, I have been able to bring my academic research to the table and put it to good use: as a springboard for interrogation of concepts key to our social existence. In the special learning space that the Trust creates, I have asked students to challenge me with their interpretations of early identity development and intercultural exchange, for example. That they have done. Amply. It has been exhilarating for all involved. So, there is a hunger and willingness and, above all, clear ability amongst students to become deep, critical thinkers. There is also clearly a great opportunity to establish a symbiotic relationship between cutting-edge research and bright young minds. But our education system and the tutoring industry that feeds off it is doing very little to nurture all this.
I established Dilectae just over a year ago in the hope that I could re-inject curiosity and creativity in one-on-one tutoring and bridge those knowledge gaps on a regular basis. On meeting with the father of one tutee, I was asked what my tutoring ‘super power’ was. My answer was that I always hope to walk alongside my students rather than drag them along behind me. In other words, my aim was – and continues to be – to encourage my students to become independent thinkers who are equipped with the essential skills to engage with any manner of human knowledge and, indeed, go beyond it. Hopefully, I have gone some way to achieving this. But I can see that if this mission really is to have an impact then we need to do more; we need to do something very different, something transformational. We need to reformulate education to create a critically aware next generation who can triumph over falsities, biases and harmful ideologies.
This is what I hope will be next for Dilectae. Watch this space!