Why you need to stop talking

Why is teaching one-on-one so hard?

Maybe you think, “It’s not so hard, I do it all the time.” How do you know you’re good at it though? In one-on-one instruction, the best teachers have a questions to statements ratio of 9:1 (for the math-averse, that means 90% of what these teachers say are questions, and only 10% are statements). They ask more questions than a five-year-old that’s just learned the word “why”. This means that most of the time, they do very little talking.

Measuring ourselves by this metric, I think it’s hard to stack up. Why? Because of two related reasons.

1) It forces the student to be the best student possible

Students often hate when you only ask questions. They whine, “I don’t know, just tell me!” They want you to bail them out of the mental struggle they’re going through, but you mustn’t.

This pain is the neural network growing as the brain learns the information. The student is forced to grapple and fail and try again right now, in this moment. They have nowhere to hide. Students are often unfamiliar with deeply comprehending the curriculum like this, so their brains automatically attempt to avoid the strange sensation.

2) It’s really boring for the teacher

  • You have to sit there the whole time watching someone do work.
  • You aren’t supposed to speak, unless it’s a question.
  • Then you have to wait for the student to figure out the answer to that question.
  • You rarely get to show off how smart you are, or how much you know about linear inequalities or acid-base neutralization reactions. 
  • Overall, you feel kind of useless.

Compounding the monotony is the problem that you often end up in a one-on-one situation because the student hasn’t been able to learn from someone else. Their teacher “sucks at explaining”. Personally, that’s my version of the bat signal, and I go into full Math Rescue Superhero Teacher mode, and swoop in to try to prove how great I am. 

But more often than not, once you start acting like an expert, and word vomiting your knowledge all over the place, the student tunes out and ends up back in the same situation: confused.

Now, however, she’s been unable to understand two “experts'” explanations, and she’s more apt to move the blame from, “No one explains this right,” to, “I’m bad at math” (or science or writing or whatever).

What you can do

If you don’t want this to happen…

If you want to save someone from a lifelong mistrust of learning…

Pay attention to what you say.

Teaching one-on-one is more important than we give it credit for.