Mentoring under the Microscope

“I appreciate what Oppidan are doing, treating children like young adults, stimulating their learning whilst having fun. His confidence is through the roof as is his self-esteem and self worth – this is a godsend.”

Mr. Velez

August 2017

At the risk of self-promotion, this testimonial from an Oppidan parent encapsulates the breadth of education that mentoring allows.  The narrative of mentoring and the success it brings focuses on support, direction and guidance. It highlights the role of the mentor in promoting development and potential commensurate with a child’s ability. It advocates humble curiosity, confidence and adaptability as the soft skills associated with “slow education” at the expense of prescriptive target-based tuition. In turn, this helps foster independence at school and at home, and a sense of self-worth which goes some way to helping manage the stress for children and parents in pursuing academic challenges.

It is self-evident that the mark of a good mentor is the rapport they are able to nurture with a student. This should be obvious. If the student doesn’t trust or value the mentor, little progress is made. We often say that the difference between mentoring and tutoring is intrinsic: as the relationship develops, the shift happens organically and the mentor takes on a different role that transcends academia. Once the child is invested in you, the sky is the limit as to what can be achieved. You are as much a mentor in the enthusiasm and the personality you bring to the lesson as you are in the actual content of the lesson.

As already discussed, the ethos of mentoring stresses encouragement, empathy and creativity within learning: above all, a sense that learning is fun and to be taken advantage of. But how does that manifest itself within a lesson? This is a question Henry and I are often asked. “The narrative sounds wonderful but what will you do differently?”

Mentors differ in their approach to one-on-one teaching not only in the personality they exude within that lesson but also in the way they teach and the content and the creativity they bring to it. A child will more likely do well with a teacher they like, but there are also specific techniques that help engage and promote active learning. Through these, they take mentoring from a frilly add on to something tangible which produces results and practical progress.

1.)   Lessons must be student led: Too often tutors follow the same passive form of teacher-led teaching at schools. Instead, students of whatever age must be encouraged to take the initiative on what they want to learn and what they think would be beneficial to study.

2.)   “I teach, we teach, you teach:” Research shows that if a child has to teach the material they have learnt, the material is far better understood. A move from lecturing to discussion and then onto teaching ensures marked improvement and gives children the confidence to be able to tackle difficult material.

3.)   Active Learning:  Encourage movement during lessons. Whether that be through placing an exercise on each side of a table and moving around it completing each exercise, or simply taking the lesson outside, taking a lesson outside a classroom environment helps a child relax and feel at ease.

4.)   Focus on Self-Projection: Lessons should involve situations where children (and mentors) are asked to present, to speak about themselves, to debate, critique or question an article, passage or piece of literature. The Radio 4 game show “Just a Minute” is brilliant preparation for interviews as well as vital in learning to project.

5.)   Mentor - Child Performance Reviews Mentors and their charges should spend time focusing on how the other person is performing. A novel concept at first, barriers are broken down and it’s hugely rewarding for the child to take control of the lesson.

6.)   Demystifying the Comprehension: There is reason to suggest that the comprehension is the least popular task within the English syllabus. And rightly so – the concept is disconnected from what students take satisfaction from: real-life learning. A good tip is to practice comprehension skills on the book that child is reading – they’ll take far more interest in something they are already invested in.

7.)   Overcoming Perfectionism: Allow a child to be wrong. Often. Discussion on “thunks”, a collection of questions with no simple answers, helps children understand the process and train of thought and the need for clarity in explaining their reasoning.

8.)   Super-Curricula Studies: A brief from a parent to improve a child’s English or Maths should still involve aspects that go beyond what the curriculum dictates should be taught. 20-word summaries of books they have read, poetry analysis contextualised within what they are learning at school, art history or even situational thinking (working out the date of historical events based on clues you are given) help keep things fresh in otherwise often-dry subject matter.

9.)   Lesson-Analysis Oral plenary sessions at the end of a lesson help round off what has been learnt and negates any sense of confusion within the child. What has been learnt? What are the key points? How do you evaluate what has been learnt? How could you apply this knowledge?

These techniques are neither novel nor are they the only way to make a success of teaching one-on-one. But if in a small way, they help change expectations and make the child look forward to the lesson, then I would argue progress is being made.

By Walter Kerr