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How to Tutor Your Own Child

Last night I went to a book launch party. It was held at 826 DC, a fantastic youth tutoring non-profit  that oozes with hipster whimsy.

Appropriately, the author we were celebrating, Marina Koestler Ruben, is an educator. Her book is titled: How to Tutor Your Own Child.

I read an advance copy, and it’s good; the type of book that will continue to sell for years and years because it offers solutions to a universal problem:  how to be useful when your child struggles with school work. Also, unlike many advice guides, it’s actually well written, which likely owes much to Marina’s writing degree.

There was, however, a bigger point that struck me as I listened last night to Marina talk about adopting the parent-tutor lifestyle: achieving this goal is not obvious.

Do you know, for example, the six steps that define a quality tutoring session, or when to make the shift from parental to professional help? I didn’t.

Tutoring, it turns out, is a craft.

This brings me back to an argument that I made obliquely in my recent post on the case method for defeating procrastination: the more ambitious among us like to take action toward our goals, but we don’t necessarily want to put much time into figuring out which actions we should be taking.

When our children struggle with their homework, we’re quick to dive in and offer advice, but how many look to the Marina’s of the world to first figure out how to do so effectively?

In other words, if you’re on homework patrol in your household, buy this book. If you’re not, buy into the broader lesson it exemplifies: taking action and taking the right action can be two very different things.


6 thoughts on “How to Tutor Your Own Child”

  1. Edward,

    Absolutely. Though you’ll find some parts of my book to be more relevant to students in traditional school systems, much of the advice is applicable to homeschoolers. There’s a chapter on positive parent-child communication, instructions for maximizing the educational potential of your home’s rooms, and tips on mnemonic devices and creativity that can help any parent and child. I hope you end up finding the book useful! I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts after you read it.


  2. “it’s actually well written, which likely owes much to Marina’s writing degree.”

    And her writing degree likely owes much to the fact that she can write well!

  3. I’ve worked a lot as a tutor and I’ve absolutely described it as a craft before.

    Specifically, I’ve spent a lot of time tutoring stats, which is challenging in that what you’re trying to teach is a set of skills where maybe the most challenging meta-skill is figuring out how to classify a particular messy real-world situation into one where the textbook skills can be applied. (Stats classes that only give very canned textbook problems do not teach this skill even though it’s the core of statistical practice. Stats classes that only teach fairly canned questions but then ask more interesting questions when it counts — on exams or big problem sets — put a lot on the student’s plate, usually without making the expectations very explicit [maybe because practitioners don’t always know how], which tends to further mystify the process for struggling students. The latter kind of class often struck me as unfair, but was always the most fun to tutor.)

    I’ll definitely check out this book; thanks for highlighting it.

  4. This is something I just learned for myself, albeit in a much different situation. In Ontario, we have a graduated licensing system for new drivers, and I had put off taking my final road test until the day my license would expire (My 22nd birthday). I had less than 6 hours to learn how to parallel park – something I have never been able to do, not even badly.

    I had spent ~3 hours “practising” – simple trial-and-error to see if I could puzzle out how to do it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I wasn’t getting any better. After three hours, I still hadn’t been able to do it successfully.

    So I decided to take a new approach. First, I watched videos and read step-by-step instructions on how to execute a parallel park. Instructions fell into two camps: crank right, straighten, crank left; or crank right, crank left. Neither seemed to work for me because I didn’t have a sense for when to start turning the other way. Then I found a video that suggested NOT cranking fully to the right – instead, only going one full rotation of the steering wheel, then backing straight in and finally cranking to the left. This video also gave me a clear idea of WHEN to make each turn – (1) when my body was behind the front car’s rear left bumper; and (2) when my front right bumper lined up with the front car’s rear left bumper.

    Then all I had to do was figure out when I was a good distance from the front car and when the back bumpers were lined up. I recruited a friend to make sure I was lined up perfectly and then I would try to find some metric that I could use from where I was sitting – in my case, the rear right passenger window. Once I had confirmed this on a few different vehicles, I was set. Lastly, through a little experimenting, I figured out that parallel parking was the easiest when I was about 1 metre from the front car. This is hard to judge from inside a car, so instead my friend and I described it as how close you would be if you were pulling into a parking spot next to the car in a parking lot – just enough room to open your door, and not much more. This was much easier to intuit.

    It was like flipping a switch. After 5 practice runs, I knew exactly how far to be behind the bumper before straightening out and was executing perfect parallel parks within 4 inches of the curb. I completed another 20 parallel parks after that to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. I parked behind extended cab trucks and panel vans – even a station wagon with a trailer – and it worked perfectly each time.

    Within less than half an hour to spare, I had gone from just about the worst parallel parker to better than both my parents and most of my friends.

    I would have eventually learned the first way, but it would have taken much more time than I had and even then it wouldn’t be something I could explain how to do – it would be something I would “feel”. Using the second way, I bypassed all that practice and created a system that will work in any vehicle, not just ones which I am intimately familiar with.

    If I had to sum up what I learned through this experience it would be:
    (1) It is better to spend time thinking about how to do something right than to learn through trial-and-error. 30 minutes of research online saved me weeks of practising.
    (2) Popular opinion is often wrong. Both of the common parallel parking systems will work, but they require a much better sense of spatial orientation and intuition about steering. My method is much better for beginners who lack a clear idea of where their car is in space, or who are unsure about steering in reverse.
    (3) To learn a complex skill well, you need to break it down into the simplest possible components – like knowing how far to be from the front car, knowing when the bumpers would be perfectly lined up, knowing how far to turn the wheel, and knowing when to change the direction of the turns.
    (4) Just because someone has a skill, doesn’t mean they will be able to teach you. My mom tried for hours to teach me, but she had learned the “feely” way and couldn’t give me instructions on how to do it even when she was in the car with me.

    I’m not sure how I will apply what I have learned to my university classes and career goals, but I definitely have the sense that I am on to something here.

  5. Seems like a very helpful book. Education is so important and parents care about helping their child get the most out of school, but often don’t know the best tactics.

    Seems like a very good book.

    Thanks for sharing,



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