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Thursday 24th January 2013

Okay, so I am one of the lucky few who was just born with an innate ability to teach brilliantly. Lucky old me! But what do I do that is so fundamentally different to what is done by so many (not all) ‘trained teachers’?

I suppose that I am cutting my own throat here by giving away the secrets of my trade, painfully acquired over 23 long years. And it HAS been painful - I utterly loathe teaching A-levels. When I hear wannabe ‘tutors’ saying smugly “I love teaching” I simply smile inwardly to myself - what they often seem to mean is that they enjoy showing-off their superior intellectual prowess in front of young people. That’s easy - any idiot can do it. Haring off into philosophical abstractiona about your subject and teasing out young minds must be quite delightful fun. But it’s not what I do. Biology is a four-square body of facts to be commanded and I regard that as my only task. My students love it as they can get ‘education’ at school - but when it comes to passing examinations I am The Main Man.

If it is done properly biology tutoring is a tedious, repetitive, disciplined process largely devoid of the pleasure deriving from exercise of imagination. But it is a hurdle that must be surmounted to get to the next hurdle. I therefore take quiet ‘pleasure’ in helping young people to surmount that hurdle. The student’s ‘pleasure’ usually derives fron being able to ‘do it’ at long last, after months of incomprehension - and that is another source of personal ‘pleasure’ for the tutor. The money is also a great help! I groan inwardly when I have to give my seventh lecture of the day on ‘carbohydrates’ but I am damned if I am going to skip onto something more interesting at random (teacher-style) for my own pleasure, as that is not what I am paid to do. Because that is the first tip for being a successful biology tutor - PRESENT THE FACTS IN A LOGICAL, ORDERED SEQUENCE.

How often, when asked about a topic by a student (say, for example, Protein Synthesis) have I put on a cod Irish accent and said “Well, as we say in Ireland when giving directions - I wouldn’t start from here if I were you!”? To understand protein synthesis you have to understand protein structure; to understand protein structure you have to know what atoms, bonds, molecules and amino acids are; you also have to understand what the nucleus, rough endoplasmic reticulum and nuclear pores look like and do; you also have to know about the structure and functions of DNA and its relationship to genes (and preferably alleles). Only THEN can you get stuck legitimately into protein synthesis without risking hopeless confusion.

It has to be said that the modern A-level biology specifications (which are a joke in my opinion) are not at all helpful in this respect - their structure resembles a sort of academic chop suey with no real logical structure at all, better suited to pub trivia quizzes than training in an academic discipline. A good tutor must therefore STICK TO THE SPECIFICATION (in general you are being paid to help pass an examination, not to ‘educate’) but must NOT BE AFRAID TO REARRANGE THE SPECIFICATION INTO A LOGICAL TEACHING ORDER.

Science is therefore not a disconnected set of random boxes to be memorised out of sequence - it’s a bit like trying to memorise a table of random six-figure tables. Very few people (and nobody we could regard as ‘normal’) are ‘Eidetic’ - ie have a ‘photographic memory. For most of us a good memory derives from three factors, which a successful tutor must utilise to the full:

1) DESIRE TO DO IT. This is why most young people can remember the names and ‘phone numbers of numerous friends but find it difficult to remember that glucose is a reducing monosaccharide. When I first started tutoring in the mists of antiquity my then-girlfriend in Hong Kong commented “Oh, God - you’re not going to be one of those enthusiastic teachers are you?” This rather set me to thinking - young people are not entirely daft: those that love biology aren’t going to drop their love for it (unless ‘turned off it’ by a particularly spectacularly inept teacher, which I have seen happen). In the same way those who really don’t want to do it are not suddenly going to become enthusiasts by a process of diffusion from myself. It’s a tricky act and a good tutor needs a good balance of ‘stick and carrot’ to surmount this one. Flattery, gentle sarcasm, humour and sympathy all have their place in the process of getting young people to do what you want them to do. Anger and impatience definitely do not! There are, broadly speaking, three types of students in this respect: those who love biology and just need a bit of logical structure; those who see biology as a huge chore and need logical structure AND encouragement; and those who simply aren’t going to ‘get it’ under any circumstances.

By the way, you have to be able to recognise this last class and not be afraid to suggest subtly to parents that maybe tuition is a waste of time and money and that maybe a year or two of shelf-stacking at Tescos would be a good idea in terms of stoking the inner desire to succeed. I know what I am talking about in this respect - a couple of years of menial jobs after a less-than successful school career filled me with massive enthusiasm to take the then-Oxford Entrance Examination and pass! In all the years that I have been tutoring I have only actually said this to a handful of parents (after many years of trying to find subtle ways of not saying “your child is basically brain-dead.”). On almost every occasion except two the invariable response has been a deep sigh and “Yes, we know they are thick - but they ARE my can you keep trying?” Under these circumstances the knack is to make the lessons as light and amusing as possible while continually showing the student that you are on their side and that they CAN do it if they try. Oddly enough these students usually end up getting some sort of a grade and even enjoying it!

By the way, if you fundamentally hate young people, or can’t see why they do the things they do, then don’t even attempt to be any form of teacher. This may seem pretty obvious, but from the consistent reports I get from my students about basic intellectual brutality and persecution from the same old teachers there must be quite a bit of it still about!

Where was I? Oh, yes - factors contributing to good memory that biology tutors should exploit!

2) REINFORCEMENT. It’s a basic bit of dog psychology that the human brain is designed to reject visual information. It has to, otherwise it would be filled with useless visual and auditory ‘junk’ memories within seconds of your being born! On the other hand it is vital to remember how to, say, skin a bear or weave a basket when shown by your caveman mother or father. There therefore has to be an INPUT-OUTPUT system in order for the brain to lower these barriers to learning. I gave my students four-colour notes on every topic (more on this later) but it is vital that they WRITE their own notes based on these in order to utilise the effects of an input-output system. When I was living briefly in Malawi in the 1980s the richer kids used to pay for lighting oil so that they could ‘study’ in the evenings. I’d see them at their desks with their fists on their temples, books inches from their eyes and I’d ask them what they were doing. The invariable response was “studying, sah!” Sadly they were not - they were just reading, and much research shows that people retain a small fraction of technical facts when they read. However, if they had written their own notes that figure would go up to about 70%. It really isn’t a difficult concept. So get your students writing something at an early stage - not enough to ‘turn them off’ (they get enough of that at school) but enough to see how writing things improves their memory of it. And the writing must be TOTALLY RELEVANT to the task in hand - past paper questions from their own examination board are ideal as this is directly related to the task in hand. They get enough of ‘posters’ and ‘presentations’ from their teachers at school so I have no truck with this trendy, pointless rubbish.

When I have finished with my own full-time students they will have reinforced their work four times (of five if you include what they remember from school). The first time is when I run through the inital notes with them; then again when they do the old past paper questions on each topic that I have prepared; then again when they do the complete past papers on each unit and a final time just before the examination when I give them a comprehensive oral grilling on the basic facts in every unit. I find that most girls (and some of the more conscientious boys) are also able to discipline themselves to do their own REVISION NOTES (see my TEN RULES FOR PASSING A-LEVEL BIOLOGY) which is a further valuable layer of reinforcement.

3) LOGICAL ORDER and hence ASSOCIATION. We have covered the necessity of this already. I use the analogy with my students (who often arrive with faulty ‘memory techniques’ brought on by the random nature of school-teaching) that it is the difference between trying to learn disconnected, out-of-order boxes of facts (school-style) and looking at each box as having a little arrow that leads logically to the next box. Science is logical and therefore its study should also be so. If they have not heard of stage ‘memory acts’ I tell my students about them - the reason that the person in question can remember dozens of people’s names and ages and addresses and so forth in any order is because they ASSOCIATE each fact with another. Silly memory tricks are not to be scoffed-at either - I still remember that the Ureter is above the Urethra because ‘e’ is before ‘h’ in the alphabet and that the synapses of Sympathetic nerves are more Central (rhyming the initial ‘S’ and the ‘C’). Do not understimate the power of association and remember that it works best if facts are presented in logical order.

Another of my teaching mantras is IF IT AIN’T WRITTEN DOWN IT DON’T EXIST. I do recall during my time at Oxford (where the teaching was often such rubbish that they had to be highly selective so that you were bright enough to teach yourself) that quite a few of my tutors droned on for an hour and became actively annoyed if you wrote anything down. Needless to say such ‘education’ went in one ear and out of the notes, no reinforcement. Utterly useless! Quite a few of my students seem to have ‘Lecturers’ teaching them - “just listrn to what I am telling you and don’t write anything down” is, I am afraid, a recipe for educational disaster. At the other end of the spectrum just giving students written handouts is also useless. I make sure that I present my students with four-colour written notes to take away with them, based largely on diagrams without too much writing. In general if there are more than four lines of writing then I’ve gone wrong. But at the same time I explain the notes to them - and furthermore give them a few relevant questions from their examination board to do at home, not just to test them but to test myself.

Above all I remember always that IF THE STUDENT DOESN’T UNDERSTAND THEN IT IS MY FAULT AND NOT THEIRS. I tell them that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but it really IS stupid not to ask if they don’t understand. Okay, so I’ll feel stupid if they don’t ‘get it’ - but I am paid to feel stupid so it’s not a problem.

The last important point with regard to RELEVANCE is that you must make sure that what you teach is RELEVANT TO THE SPECIFIC EXAMINATION BOARD. This is where years of practice come in and why I charge a lot more than a graduate student ‘doing a bit of tutoring’. For example, experience tells me that OCR draw their transverse sections of leaves the wrong way up (for historical reasons to do with old inverting lenses - the ‘O’ and ‘C’ do after all stand for Oxford and Cambridge, homes of the old fogeys!) It also tells me that AQA lie about flagella being present only in prokaryota and not eukaryota. I also just happen to know that the IB wants students to say that the 'nonsense' strand of DNA is used in protein synthesis and not the 'sense' strand. There is no such thing as ‘generic biology teaching’ - every board has its own little unique style, which is why I am reluctant to teach at University level unless I have seen reams of previous lecture notes to gauge the lecturer’s little foibles. Even the words used by different examiners for the same thing can be wildly different in biology and you have to use the appropriate ones.

The very last point is that tuition is expected to be CONCISE. Students having tuition from me comment frequently “Wow - it took you 20 minutes to cover photosynthesis: the school took three weeks over it and I still didn’t get it!” Just stick to what the specification says and cover it in APPROPRIATE DETAIL and you will win a friend for life. Apart from all else if you cover topics quickly there is less time to forget the first bit!

So in summary what a good biology tutor does has to be RELEVANT, WRITTEN DOWN, LOGICAL, REINFORCED, CONCISE and (preferably) PAINLESS. A lot of this seems to be absent from many school lessons which in many cases give the impression to the outsider of being quite the opposite.

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