Can good teaching in schools outwit the tutor’s hold on students of today? Ravi Nagahawatte’s thoughtful article motivated me to make these observations on WHY tuition is so popular and why so many students (even very bright ones) seem to need this special help.
There are many reasons why children seek tuition and it is not always because there is a poor teacher in school. I can speak with a certain authority on behalf of private and international schools because I know what happens in these institutions. One can be fairly sure that teachers in such schools are good (mostly) the reason being that the principal has the authority to keep teachers on their toes.
A good principal (especially in international schools doing British examinations) will regularly check on work being done, corrections being made, syllabuses being completed and generally keep a beady eye on the staff. So then why is tuition still sought? There are several reasons.
Sometimes we seem to jump in where angels fear to tread. The Education Ministry shows a remarkable aptitude to ruin any sensible idea because of foolish methods of application and a total inability to get ‘educated’ advice
One of the main and very reprehensible reasons is the desire to compete. Parents, mostly mothers, are foolishly anxious for their clever child to win prizes, come first in class, beat all friends (often relatives) and shine at the annual prize day. This is why most educationists agree competitive atmospheres kill real love of study.
Many foreign universities do not give out grades to masters and higher degree students nowadays. It is just a pass/fail business and yet students study just as hard.
Then there is the situation of overcrowding. Too many children in a classroom naturally means half the class trails behind the smarter lot who grasp concepts quicker. Of course a teacher can slow down. Most good teachers repeat themselves to make sure they are being followed. But if a teacher goes too slow, he or she loses the interest of others. Believe me, classes consisting of over 25 pupils are not easy to teach. The students are all at varying ability levels in absorbing knowledge and its a rare teacher who knows how to handle all of them.
The ideal number of students in a class has been fixed at ten by educationists in advanced countries who have studied the advantages of small class numbers. This is only possible in schools that are so expensive they are beyond the reach of the average man. When the number of students is ten, a teacher has time to give each child a certain amount of personal attention which even most conscientious teachers cannot do when classes number around 30 or so.
Private schools in Sri Lanka cannot afford to keep classes too small as finances are often vexatious. I can truthfully say, however, that as a former principal of an international school, we always did our best to ensure each child received the attention to which he or she was entitled.
We come to another problem. There are teachers without conscience who deliberately do not complete the syllabus and tell students to attend their private classes. Most principals are aware of that little ploy and forbid students from seeking tuition from teachers of their own school. But what happens in government schools is anyone’s guess.
Have the four universities mentioned already AGREED to accept Sri Lanka’s choice of four students into their programme?
Tuition is sometimes legitimately sought for a child who finds it difficult to follow class explanations. At such times, one-to-one sessions with a tutor may be helpful. Take my own case. Attending schools in three different countries played havoc with the state of my mathematics. Eventually, the time of my O/Ls (then Sri Lankan SSC) rolled round. My mother hired a tutor for three months before the exam. She decided that lessons twice a week for three months gave me 24 hours of concentrated work to try to get through that terrible paper. I managed the minimum grade pass. But I passed. So obviously tutors have their uses! Short-term!
And my last problem with those who seek tuition is the lack of trust parents often display. I do not blame them. The press daily highlights the egregious doings of teachers and principals in government schools. In private schools, the situation is better but I am not a believer in PTAs. On one occasion, I was invited to speak at the PTA meeting of a leading private school in Colombo. The meeting took place before I spoke and to my surprise, one parent got up and held forth for over 15 minutes.
The principal could not stop him in mid-flow so to speak, but no one else had either the time or the inclination to follow his diatribe. Any interaction between teacher and parent on a personal basis is not possible in large PTA meetings.
Therefore, at AIS, I usually held specially arranged, one-to-one meetings with parents and the teachers who were staggered over three days. Parents needed to come on only one day, unless they had several children in school in different classes. Parents were given definite times and they had to keep within that allotment but they got the chance to speak to every teacher and ascertain if tutoring was really necessary.
Private schools in Sri Lanka cannot afford to keep classes too small as finances are often vexatious
THOSE PROPOSED SCHOLARSHIPS ANNOUNCED IN THE BUDGET
To deviate completely from the subject of tuition, I come to the announcement in the budget that government scholarships to Harvard, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge would be awarded to top students with the best results at the local A/L exam who must then return to the country and serve the government for 10 years. An excellent idea, but like most of the decisions taken by the Education Ministry, not carefully or even intelligently thought out. Here are my reasons:
1. How socially-prepared will the chosen youngsters be? Will they be misfits in the sophisticated atmosphere of the best universities in the world? There are far better choices.
2. Will the government ensure their standard of English would be adequate to deal with the workload of those four universities? MP Kanchana Wijesekera highlighted this problem in his parliamentary speech on March 7 while discussing the budget. Mr. Wijesekera has done British exams himself and understands the problems that will be faced by students whose English is weak.
3. These top four colleges sound wonderful on paper but why didn’t the minister seek the opinion of principals of schools that regularly send children to these places? Most of us have sent pupils to Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, John Hopkins, Cornel, Duke, NYU and so forth. Why not ask us what our experiences have been? I feel this good idea is going to be messed up, alas!
4. Let us take the university of MIT. I have sent several students to MIT. A few years ago, one of them got a full scholarship on the basis of outstanding achievement. In addition to academics, he was a Chess Champion and had many outside interests. In his letter of acceptance, MIT told me he was one of their best candidates that year. But MIT is not necessarily a happy place. It is full of ambitious foreigners pushing hard, notably the Indians and Chinese. They are not friendly. I am told the suicide rate was worrying. My brilliant student was not happy there and took a year’s break after the first year. He eventually finished his degree of course, but my advice would have been to tell the ministry to choose another from America’s top universities where our Sri Lankan students would be happier.
5. Often, a Sri Lankan student may be the only Sri Lankan on the register at that time. Indians and Chinese are many in number and have each other for support. This may or may not matter as Americans are friendly and a Sri Lankan child may blend happily.
But why not choose good universities which are more student-friendly? They are as well known as MIT and Harvard. In Britain, likewise, there are excellent options without the government sending Sinhala-educated youngsters to their bastions of privilege.
6. The good international schools have turned out doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers, economists et al after their students have studied in universities all over the world. The principals of those schools should have been the first to be consulted before naming four universities which, in my opinion, are not always best suited to our students. What better example than our own clever Minister/Economist Dr. Harsha de Silva who is a graduate of Truman University – a top-rated American college?
7. And my final pertinent question is this. Have the four universities mentioned already AGREED to accept Sri Lanka’s choice of four students into their programme? They have their own method of choosing entrants and what is to say they will accept our students simply because they gained the highest marks at a local exam? Kanchana Wijesekera very sensibly asked if all these factors had been taken
8. Knowing the way things are done in Sri Lanka, I can be fairly sure that bribery and corruption will ensure the best students are not chosen for these scholarships. Does anyone disagree?
Sometimes we seem to jump in where angels fear to tread. The Education Ministry shows a remarkable aptitude to ruin any sensible idea because of foolish methods of application and a total inability to get ‘educated’ advice.