The Ethics of Tutoring

The last few posts have been short but practical – lots of links and resources. So for a change this evening’s will be short and philosophical, prompted by several Guardian articles that caught my attention. The first didn’t seem sure about whether there was a real need, or just a perceived one. The second was a series of personal viewpoints, from tutors, parents and the tutees.

I know of several students in each of my classes who have tutors; I’m sure there are more who haven’t mentioned it. There are no doubt a range of reasons and a range of benefits, but I can’t help wondering if the parents are necessarily doing the right thing.

In some cases – hopefully none of mine! – parents are trying to make up for a perceived inadequacy in the classroom. This could due to a teacher, concern about numbers or a child who is being missed. In others, a child is being tutored to try and boost them above an important threshold. The focus in schools is often seen as being about the C/D borderline, so parents may feel that if their child is being neglected then extra time is worthwhile. Parents who are hoping for a particlar school place, scholarships or an 11+ exam would fit into this category.

For many, I suspect the real value – whether this is made explicit to the student or not – is that they have a structured time to work, with guidance. And by this, I mean to make sure the kid does some work, at some point. Many teens struggle to focus when there are so many distractions. Knowing that on Wednesday evenings between 5 and 6 they will have to ask and answer questions on an identified weak area probably helps concentrate the mind. And when the sessions are one-to-one, there’s the chance for personalised revision tips, extra examples or quick tests. This might particularly apply to students who are easily distracted in school, for whatever reason.

Of course, in some cases tutoring is a waste of time. I’ve had students who have been taught material at home that’s wrong, or pitched at too high a level. I had one kid who had been taught all the topics in advance, jumped in with all the answers during discussions yet hadn’t practised the things they needed help with. Other times, pupils have clearly rehearsed the general ideas but not applied them in any kind of a useful way. And to be honest, it’s frustrating to have homework handed in which is clearly above the ability of the student. This wastes my time as well as theirs, seeing as when it comes to the test the scores tend to be a better reflection.

The real problem

I don’t want my kids to need a tutor. They already pay for one – me. I promise my students at the start of the year that I’ll always be around if they need support. They write down where to find me at break and lunch. As long as they don’t mind me eating a sandwich or drinking coffee while I talk, I’ll help them whenever I can. I’ve not often turned kids away – but they’ve not often come asking either. So whose fault is it if pupils don’t ask me for help and their parents end up paying someone else instead?


The thing is, I’ve tutored before and probably will again. I don’t advertise, I’m not with an agency and I don’t tout for business. Obviously I don’t tutor children from my school, unless you count lunchtime revision sessions put on by the department. So does this make me a hypocrite? I guess it does. The truth is that any child will benefit in some way from having an extra session a week on a subject. It might be about confidence, it might be a concept they struggle with, it might just help them organise their revision. But there will be something. Personally – and I’ve said this to parents of pupils and tutees – I think that it’s not very cost-effective. But I suspect many parents would either feel they wouldn’t be confident with the content or value a neutral adult who can support a struggling teenager. I’ve never been asked to provide inappropriate support with coursework and I’ve never done a kid’s homework for them; at most I’ve given similar examples and worked though some equivalent problems with them. My conscience is clear. But I’m still a little uneasy.

An Alternative

This is basically why I’ve been putting together – slowly, painfully and missing every deadline I’ve set myself – a secondary blog. It’s and it uses some of the same ideas I promote in class. It’s not science-specific, so the ideas can be applied in any subject. It’s careful not to blame teachers or pupils for difficulties. It doesn’t suggest there’s a quick fix – in fact, I should add a version of this post to make clear tutoring is not a simple solution. Instead it provides resources, ideas and suggestions to make it easier to succeed in schools.

I’d value any suggestions about it, as well as comments on the ethics of tutoring itself. Do you tutor, or do you hate the idea? How do you feel when you find one of your students pays for a personal replacement for your help? Am I being overly-sensitive?

Answers on a postcard…


GCSE Science Revision

The second half of this post will be mostly relevant to AQA Science A and Additional, because that’s mostly what I teach. The rest will be my own opinions on revision. I say opinions, but I try to make sure these are evidence-based, because that’s what we try to do, right? Let’s start off with active revision, what it is and isn’t, and how to convince kids to do it. You could argue this puts the responsibility back on the students rather than us doing it, which strikes me as both moral and effective. It’s incredibly depressing when kids turn up at a scheduled ‘revision class’ expecting to listen to a teacher read through the syllabus. Pointless, frustrating and demoralising for everyone concerned; surely there’s something more constructive they could be doing?

Most of the hyperlinks are to my own posts, because I could find them quickly. I’d love for comments to be added with more/better stuff, so please do!

Active Revision inc MORSE

I like the acronym MORSE, standing for

  • Mnemonics (Yes, I know, relatively small benefit, but can’t miss it out)
  • Organisation (links between concepts, not remembering your calculator)
  • Rehearsal/Repetition (ideally using the ideas behind ‘spaced revision’)
  • Simplification/Summarising (key words, lists, page to paragraph to sentence)
  • Extension (applying facts to new situations)

I presented on this ages ago at a TeachMeet, but it’s continued to be useful when working with my students. It’s a straightforward checklist to make sure that whatever they’re doing, it’s active rather than passive. As I explain to my classes, although there are some surprises, most revision advice is simple. Like healthy eating, it’s not about mysterious secrets, but about willpower.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Michael Pollan, 2007

Active revision isn’t a complicated idea. It’s about doing something. Writing, not reading. Describing or thinking or explaining, not just watching or listening. It’s quite telling that when I asked a student how they had revised for a recent test, they told me they’d “looked at the revision guide.” Not even read the revision guide, you notice. Have you seen that students seem to treat revision guides like gym memberships? Owning them is enough to ensure the result you wanted, apparently…

Anyway. I like to get students:

  • using past papers in loads of ways
  • writing revision notes as summaries from a range of sources
  • producing mindmaps/revision cards then using them
  • asking and answering questions with peers
  • rote learning definitions using cover/write/check
  • linking concepts with examples and consequences for the 6 mark questions.
  • advantages/disadvantages, comparisons with linked ideas/examples (eg the Five Cs format)
  • practising mathematical situations, both clear and challenging

..and of course much more. I’m constantly behind in updates to my student-focused site,, which has a revision category. New ideas, contributions, referrals all welcome of course!

AQA-Specific Links

Booklets for students to complete, with checklists. These are all in .pdf format.

Nothing for Chemistry, on account of me being a Physicist who can also teach the squishy stuff, but is more likely to blow himself up accidentally rather than on purpose. 🙂

Hope some of the above is useful – please met me know what you think, whether positive or negative.

B2 Revision Activity

Another short and sweet post, aimed mainly at teachers of AQA Additional Science or Biology. I put together a (mostly blank) summary booklet for my students, and perhaps yours might find it useful too. I see it mainly as a starting point, and emphasize that this should then lead to more detailed, interactive resources for them. A good way to use it might be to split students into six groups and then have them produce two or three resources per table; a mindmap, a set of questions and answers, a 2minute presentation and so on. If they produce things electronically, they could then share them all and everyone gets the benefit.

B2 summary activity as .pdf

Anyway, you could simply hand it out and ask them to start by filling it in. Let me know how it works out and if you want an editable version (in .docx format) you’ll have to leave a comment. I’ll aim to email it out by… say Wednesday 24th? Seems fair.


Patterns in Graphs

This activity is intended to help with ISA preparation, language and graph skills. I’ve deliberately modelled it on the last part of the second paper (on the AQA specification) but it should still be useful in other situations. The patterns in graphs lesson outline follows the 7Es model, and is matched with a powerpoint and student worksheet.

The powerpoint refers to desk signs; these are a good way to define pairs of students, check names if working with an unfamiliar class and also give students some vocabulary that might be useful; this can work as a good starter activity.

There – my shortest even blog post! Please feel free to leave long and detailed comments, though…



Herd Immunity

A very quick post as I’ve loads of other things I should be doing. Like ironing shirts for the first day back tomorrow. But I got into a brief discussion on Twitter about measles data being a topical way to get kids thinking about patterns, and it was pointd out to me that I never finished off my mini-scheme about MMR from ages ago. Obviously this is topical (and tragic) at the moment. I don’t have time to do this properly, but this is the easiest way to share the ‘herd immunity’ activity I put together then.

Herd immunity is a simple idea; if most of the population are protected against a disease, then it is much less likely to spread and so even those unvaccinated are effectively protected. Scientific views about the precise percentage that need to be immune vary, but it’s certainly well above the current proportions, especially for MMR. This can be blamed on the media, who gave headlines and airtime to Wakefield (struck off for poor ethics, not to mention falsifying data) and many of the anti-vaccination groups. Some organisations, like the BBC, say they need to provide ‘balance’. Others know better but seem to like the increased sales the scare stories bring in.

Anyway, enough ranting. Back to herd immunity.

Some people aren’t vaccinated yet or their vaccinations, for many reasons, have resulted in them being less than 100% protected. This group includes young babies, the immune-suppressed and so on. This is less than ideal but unavoidable. Others remain unprotected because they or their parents believed the media intead of the science. There’s some interesting research to show that people feel more guilt when they have acted to cause a problem, than when their inaction causes an equivalent problem. I just can’t find the link – anyone?

If you never meet anyone who can pass the pathogens on to you, then you won’t get the disease. It’s simple. So more people protected means less chance of bumping into someone who gives you horrible germs. Yes, I’m simplifying, partly because I’m a physicist and partly to put this in classroom-suitable terms. This is herd immunity, where the whole population is effectively protected because enough of them are actually protected. (It has the additional benefit that by removing possible reservoirs there’s less mutation and outbreaks tend to be less severe.)

Herd Immunity as a pdf

The above worksheet gives students a chance to see why even those who are unvaccinated get protection. You’ll need to give them the background, or send them off to research it. Hopefully not just on Wikipedia.

Finally, some extension questions:

  • should immunisation be compulsory when medically possible?
  • should vaccination be required before starting school (true in some parts of the USA)?
  • is it unethical to rely on herd immunity if you are not prepared to risk the small but measurable (millions to one) possibility of adverse effects of a vaccination? (I mentioned this in a guest post for NoodleMaz in January)