Meeting two of my four new Year 7 classes this week, I am once again reminded of a key difference between classroom teaching and one-to-one tutoring: the role of student questions.
The importance of questions from the class has, in my opinion, been over-emphasised in education over the last decade; indeed an ageing display that I really must get round to changing in my classroom celebrates the role of "great questions", the brain-child of our then Deputy Head.
Questions are indeed important, but in recent years we have at times been told to encourage them to excess. As so often, this move has been driven by specialists in the Humanities, who seem to shape every INSET I have ever sat though. Notions like "there are no foolish questions" and "everyone's opinion is equally valid" might work to a degree in an RE lesson, but such an approach is frankly disingenuous in many other subjects.
Excessive questions from the floor can truly derail a lesson and this is never more true with Year 7. In my first two lessons this week I have had several children so bursting with excitement and desperation to share their ideas that their arms are waving like a windmill. As Ben Newmark has argued in his excellent post on this topic, students like this can dominate a lesson to the detriment of the majority; in a class of 32, it is my duty to divide my attention and focus as evenly as I can, and allowing one or two students to dominate with questions and anecdotes is unfair to the others. Moreover, as Ben also argues, children who are obsessively thinking about their next contribution are not focusing on the lesson, nor are they listening to anyone else.
Tutoring, by contrast, can be based entirely around a student's desire to ask questions. Tutees who gain the most from the process are the ones who come with a barrage of questions and this can be a wonderful outlet for children who feel frustrated by having to wait their turn in the classroom. By contrast, it can also provide the opportunity for those less confident students to ask the questions that they might not feel able to ask in class (including the foolish ones); one of my key aims as a tutor is to encourage these questions right from the start, providing a safe environment for a child to start this process - for those who are significantly behind in their subject and who have spent months or even years trying to hide at the back of the classroom, it can take some time to break down these barriers.
Once a child is confident with a private tutor the opportunities are endless, but both student and tutor must remember that these opportunities are peculiar to the one-to-one relationship and cannot be mirrored in the mainstream classroom. As someone who tries to do their best in both worlds, I am constantly reminded of this fact.