Should a student struggling with math get a tutor?

Laura Sandefer

February 16, 2018

Last night was long and exhausting. It was the kind of night that is followed by a morning where you wake up and just aren’t quite ready to tackle the day. It has been a two cup of coffee kind of morning…. You might ask what caused such a long night and rough morning. It is none other than Khan Academy.

My kids are not huge math fans (we will see about the little ones).  In fact, I would argue that hate is a more appropriate term.   I have heard arguments such as, “mom I will just use my calculator so I don’t need to know math.”  One of my children was having a Khan Academy anxiety attack last night.  Knowing that school was starting is what I think brought these worries to mind.   I reminded this child, that when we used other math programs there was still a lot of complaining, whining, and frustration.  I argued that maybe it wasn’t Khan Academy.   Knowing my child, I recognize that if something doesn’t come easily then quitting and blaming are the natural defenses.   This child asked me for help to explain a particular math concept.  I had a mental deliberation, “do I help my child figure out this problem or do I encourage them to figure it out.”  I chose the hardest answer and said, “Honey I know you can figure this out.”  This brought the anger and tears.    I have learned as a mom that sometimes it’s best to walk away from the situation and since it was 10 pm that is exactly what I did.

When I was getting ready to tuck my weary self into bed, I found a note on my bed.  “Mom I am afraid that I won’t get it right.  I am afraid I won’t move up with my friends.”  This explained everything!  The fear of not measuring up and failing was at the root of the anxiety and melt down.  I totally get these emotions as I think every human alive wrestles with these fears of failure and lack of self-worth.   We are always tempted to compare ourselves and our abilities to that of others.  We struggle to stay focused on our own journey because fear rips at our courage and we derail if we feel we aren’t measuring up.  As parents we are tempted to compare our children’s abilities and then take action if we feel they don’t quite hit the bench mark.  We often judge our own self-worth based on how well our children perform.

This note really gave me pause and made me evaluate how I am parenting my children.  Do they know that it’s ok to fail and start over?  Do they know that they need to only focus on their journey and not compare themselves to others in a negative way?  Do they know that I love them regardless of their successes or failures?

I grew up in a home where I was always striving to perform, achieve, and succeed not so much out of personal desire but to please my parents and earn their affection.   This environment molded me into a people pleasing perfectionist.   Struggling to not create this same scenario with my kids, I ponder how to encourage my kids to do their best without them feeling my love is conditioned on their success.   Does it really help or hinder my child when I step in and “help” them with their difficulties?  As parents, we all want our children to be successful.  How can we help them on their journey in a way that will offer lifelong benefit?

I emailed Jeff Sandefer, co-founder of Acton Academy, a few weeks ago posing the question, “If a student is struggling with math, do you suggest they get a tutor.”  His response was simply that having a student work with a tutor is a crutch and doesn’t let the student experience the growth that comes from working hard to figure something out.

One of the fundamental concepts of Acton is that students learn by figuring things out on their own.  Becoming creative and using available resources to solve difficult problems is how children will develop truly valuable skills.  Creating an environment where students are pushed past their comfort zone to use hard work, perseverance, and sheer grit will prepare them for life’s challenges when the stakes are much higher than Khan Academy.

During 2017, we will continue to use Khan Academy as our foundational math program.  If you have not done so, I encourage you to read Salman Khan’s book on education and math in particular.  His program requires 100% mastery of a concept before moving on which forces students to not just scrape by with a 70%.    I have heard the complaint of my child, and maybe your child as well, that math can be boring.   To spice math up a bit we are adding a new component to our math program.  To earn a grade math badge, the appropriate level in Khan must be finished as well as completing an applied math project.  The applied math project will be at grade/skill level and will require the student to use math to complete a real world project (must include display board, write up, and actual project).

Do we trust our children?  Are we willing to let them struggle in the short term to allow them the opportunity to deepen their resolve and broaden their problem solving abilities?  “Embracing rigor is part of saying ‘yes’ to a Hero’s Journey. Deep learning brings a special sense of joy, but the mastery required for a Hero’s Journey goes even further, requiring commitment, discipline and hard work towards a worthy goal.”  Jeff & Laura Sandefer

Khan Academy here we come! I am excited to launch into the 2017 school semester.

Happy New Year!


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