Welcome to this episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. My name is Ludo Millar, your host, and today we are welcoming on a guest, all the way from New Zealand. That guest is Lizzie Grace. So, welcome Lizzy.[Lizzie]Hello, nice to see you. [Ludo]
Yeah, so Lizzie is an English tutor and is the Founder of Scholar’s Atelier which pushes the bar for students with academic struggles and for those in community, and we love that. We love community and we love challenging student. With a background as an English teacher in a high school, Lizzie has self proclaimed quickly become tired of the system and the way in which it drags down students, in particular those who need help the most. So Scholar’s Atelier provides the tools for students to truly learn, to gain knowledge, and Lizzie espouses a knowledge-rich tutoring approach, and I can’t wait to learn more about this today, to become knowledge rich, as it were.
Now in an earlier email exchange Lizzie wrote that: when we talk about tutoring, people often talk about the skills we’re helping students to learn. And yet, for Lizzie, students make more progress and crucially enjoy their learning more, when they get to consolidate these skills by putting them into practice. What we might call ‘acquiring knowledge’. So, let’s all learn something new today. Let’s all acquire some some knowledge today. Lizzie thank you so much for coming on.
I think we’re going to dive into our first question, to really get to know you a little bit more and that question is: what is your why as a tutor?[Lizzie]Yeah, okay. So I guess I was always being set up to become a teacher. I think in primary school, I was setting myself homework and then I’d do the homework, and then I would get a different colour pen and mark the homework and give myself feedback, in my best linked-up writing and all of that. So it was kind of always on the cards that I was going to be doing something in education. And from that I guess it’s grown into, like, I think it’s really important that we live in a society that’s filled with people who are interested in the world and who know something about the world and who can sort of engage with the world and engage with what’s happening in it, and particularly through the written word, through the written language.
Yeah, and then sort of the other side of that is that, you know, I really liked doing that work because I find work really interesting, and this is a job where I can carry on learning about it and learn new things and share it with my students.[Ludo]
Well, first of all, I’d love to be one of your students Lizzie, if that’s how you approach it … [LAUGHS]. It’s just about learning, kind of, encouraging an interest or curiosity about the world through your tutoring, through your teaching. That’s such a special, such a worldly approach to improving a student’s understanding of who they are and their place in the world and what they know about the world.
Now, the motto of the Scholar’s Atelier, your company or business, is ‘Read carefully, right clearly, think deeply‘. Can you go into this a bit further? What does this mean? Where did it come from?[Lizzie]It was sort of actually just a placeholder at first, I think. I had to enter a tag line on something when I was signing up for somewhere, where I was listing my services or something. And sort of had to come up with something on the spot and kind of stuck with it from there. But really, the idea that it came from was that I kept finding myself thinking, as an English teacher in the classroom, start with really what I think we should be aiming for students to do in English, in particular but also really is one of the main points of schooling and education is that I want every student to be able to read a text and understand it really well, not just understanding the gist or roughly what it’s about. But really getting the detail and understanding what the author is trying to say. And then once you’ve got that understanding from reading a text, you want to think really carefully or really deeply about that text, and you want to be able to form your own opinion and look at all the different sides, and think about how it relates to other things that you’ve read and other things that, you know, and then you want to be able to express those ideas and those opinions, and particularly for me from writing, because that of course is how you can communicate with a really wide range of people. And then of course you’re also participating in that cycle because then people can read what you’ve written and they can think about that, and then they can write about what you’ve written, and so on. So I guess from that perspective, I think sometimes it makes more sense to have to think deeply portion in the middle of it, rather than at the same time I think the thinking is, it’s the most abstract ones. That’s why I put it near the end. And also because the thinking sort of infuses the whole process. Good thinking is good reading. And good reading and writing leads to good thinking. So they all feed into one another. [Ludo]Okay, now I’m going to ask you the trickiest question of today. Which one is your most important out of those three? [Lizzie]Oh, that’s good, that’s a tricky question. I don’t really think that you can separate them out. I think you can’t suddenly- you can’t read well without thinking and you can’t write well without thinking, I guess. If I had to choose between reading and writing, I guess I’d go with reading. You know, you can always- I guess if you can’t write well you can go on a podcast … [LAUGHS] [Ludo]
‘Okay, I won’t tell writing you said that, I promise.[Lizzie]I don’t know, you need all three. [Ludo]Well maybe that’s the most important point then of that is that reading, writing, thinking in whichever order you do them, are the basis for understanding yourself, understanding your craft and helping others understand you, and therefore as you said. I love that bit about, if an individual is able to do those three then they then pass on that cycle to someone else and so on and so on, so on. And you can really see that happening throughout a classroom, can’t you.
Now, something that you opened up with when you first contacted me was this idea of knowledge-rich tutoring and clearly this is something you’re passionate about; you very much believe in. It’s throughout your entire website and your entire persona online. So why is knowledge-rich tutoring so effective?[Lizzie]Yeah, so, like you’ve already articulated, when I’m talking about knowledge-rich tutoring, I’m talking about putting content, and knowledge at the centre of that tutoring experience, rather than focusing on those big generic skills.
So rather than saying I’m just helping you with your reading or I’m just helping you with your writing, we’re finding out stuff about the world by reading about it, and writing about it. And there’s quite a few reasons why I think that’s really important. We’ve got lots of research, lots of evidence backing up the benefits of knowledge for learning and thinking, and for everything else that we want to be able to do at school. And I think it’s important to note also that knowledge only really helps you do those things when it’s actually in your head. The most common objection to this kind of teaching is: ‘Well we’ve got Google. We’ve got Wikipedia. Why would I, you know, why should we waste time filling students heads up when they can look them up?’, but you can’t actually think about information that’s only on the Internet in front of you in order to think about it, it has to actually be in your head.
And so some background knowledge has a huge impact on r eading comprehension. And, you know, how much background information you have, how much you know about the topic is one of the strongest predictors for how much you’ll actually understand the different- a given text, more than knowing particular strategies, or anything like that. It’s just, ‘Do you know other stuff about what you’re reading about?’
And then on the flip side of that with writing, you know, obviously when you’re writing, you have to write about something, and you have to have some content, and a lot of the time what I find is, students will come to me or parents will come to me saying that the trouble is, you know, it’s writing and knowing how to write an essay. And I sit down with the student and we work on that and it becomes clear pretty quickly that they know how it needs to be structured, they know that they need an introduction, body and conclusion and they know they need a topic sentence and that sort of thing. They know what an essay is supposed to look like. What they don’t know is actually enough information to be able to say something interesting about what they’re supposed to be writing an essay on.
And so, yeah, that’s what you’re reading understanding and understanding what you read. They’re really, really important for being able to actually write about something interesting. And then just that more abstract sense of being able to think creatively, or think critically. That’s often what’s proposed as the alternative to taking lots of knowledge, but a lot of that kind of thinking comes from making connections between the different things that you know, or combining different things that you know in different ways. And so having a really strong base of knowledge is really important for that too.[Ludo]So I’m interested, is this something that you have talked about explicitly with your students? This knowledge-rich approach or is this something that you infuse subtly and gradually? [Lizzie]It’s mostly infused, and sometimes it sort of comes up naturally. I’ve had a few- you know, sometimes students sometimes with their parents, and they’ll sort of bring up you know- they feel like they’re actually learning something, whereas they sometimes- obviously they are learning things in school as well. But I think it’s a bit more explicit for students when they can get to the end of a tutoring session, and they can say, ‘Oh I know something that I didn’t know at the start of this hour’ rather than just that awful I asked them what they’re doing in school and then they’re like, ‘Well we’re reading some stuff. What are you reading about? What have you learned about it?’ That can get really caught up in that sort of skills-based thing. So sometimes I do end up discussing it a bit more explicitly with students, if they’re bringing it up and bringing that sort of thing up and sort of making those comments about, you know, what they feel like they learnt, and other times with other students, it’s a bit more just in the background and feeding into my planning and things. [Ludo]Yeah, so you’ve kind of touched on this a little bit but I feel like, as the basis of this conversation, I’d love to just explore this a little bit further. What is the true power that you’ve seen in this style of learning for students? What is it that it brings them at the end of such an approach? [Lizzie]Yeah I think there’s a few things. What I said, sort of, the sense of, you know, having that sense of progress, I think can be really good, particularly for students who struggled, and let’s go in the past. I think it’s easier to get to a point of, you know, ‘Okay, I’ve taught you something about ancient Mesopotamia or the French Revolution, or Shakespeare or something and you now know these facts that you didn’t know before’, whereas those sort of skill-based improvements to, ‘I’m a better reader now’ or ‘I’m a better writer now’. Those take a lot of time and they can be quite hard for students to spot. So I think that sense of making that really obvious progress through seeing your knowledge build is really satisfying for students.
And also, a lot of the time they find it really interesting, you know, like with those examples like I said before. I tend to bring quite a lot of history stuff and because I know that students in New Zealand, don’t get taught a lot of history at the moment, although there are starting to be some little shifts in our curriculum around it. But yeah, I think that they find it really interesting because they’re learning new stuff, and so that often gets them a bit more excited about everything. And that I find is a good balance for the more skills-based reading and writing stuff because you know there’s- for most people, there’s nothing fascinating about paragraph structure. But most people can find something interesting about a piece of literature or some history, if you present it in the right way.[Ludo]Yeah, but I’d love to know from our listener base out there, if there’s anyone who really gets up in the morning for paragraph structure. [Lizzie]
I kind of do.
One of the things I’ve always found challenging with teaching is recognising that the things that I find fun and the things that I find interesting are not interesting to your average 14-year-olds. And so making that transition has always been a bit of a struggle but I think, you know, often we can arrive at some common ground with a nice, bloody bit of history or something like that.[Ludo]Yeah, I think that’s what makes tutors so good at their craft is that they are truly, genuinely a bit nerdy about the fine details and technicalities, but they also have that personability and the awareness to be able to respond to their students’ needs and interests. And if that means, yeah, as you say, talking about a horrible, gory battle scene, or talking about scoring the winner on a football pitch or whatever it is, then we’re able to be flexible and adapt.
But what we really want to do is just talk about the determiners and conjunctions and beginning, middle, end, that kind of thing [LAUGHS]
So, I was going to ask: what are your top tips for effective tutoring in this area? But that, I think, is maybe the biggest one, is being flexible and responsive. Was there anything more you wanted to add on top tips?[Lizzie]Yeah, I guess. Sort of related to that and that flexibility, this is mostly advice to myself, I think, knowing that you can’t teach everything.
And it’s really tempting I think when you’re trying to do this approach to tutoring, you want to be really comprehensive. You become so aware of all of the gaps in students’ knowledge and, you know, if you’re designing the curriculum for an entire school, then you can try and figure out- you can figure out a lot of stuff that you want to teach them. But when you’ve got a student that you only see for an hour a week, and you’re probably only going to see them for a year or two, most of the time and you really have to pick and choose what stuff you think is important. And, except that you’re not going to be able to give them this perfectly well-rounded knowledge about everything in the world. But from there, I think a lot of it is making sure that the knowledge you’re teaching an adolescent is really central and going back to what we were talking about before, making sure that the students know that the knowledge itself is important, I think, often, the students that I see at least, it would vary depending on where you are and what your school system is like, but the students that I see, a lot of them, they’re very used to the text or the topic that you’re reading about; it’s just there to practice the sentence with. And so getting them to switch into like, ‘No I don’t just want you to prove that you can read, I actually want you to learn about this topic, and find out about it, and they know more about the historical topic or that piece of literature that we’re studying at the moment’.
A nd so getting getting them to reframe the way they approach the text there can make a big difference. And then the other, the other key thing I think is focusing on vocabulary is a really, really good way to do that, particularly if you’re not already sort of primarily centring what you’re teaching around knowledge, building vocabulary is a really good way of bringing that little bit of knowledge into every lesson. But it’s really the vocabulary related to the topic. It’s not just a bunch of words, it’s really those key concepts and those big ideas that you need to know to be able to understand whatever topic you’re working on with the student.[Ludo]Yeah, I think that’s such a key part of my tutoring certainly is understanding the key topics, understanding the related vocabulary around that. Certainly where I might start if I was introducing a new topic of writing was, ‘Right, let’s spend 5-10 minutes coming up with the best vocab we can around this topic and if you run out of ideas, I’ll supplement that with some of my own suggestions’ and so giving them the chance to go first and then helping them by giving them a bit more of a rounded look at it.
What an amazing insight into the way you teach, the way you tutor, Lizzie. I feel like most people would only hear this approach if they’re paying students so I feel very lucky to have heard all this just as the host of a podcast just, you know, without even paying but I hope that by speaking about that a little bit, you’ve understood your own approach a little bit more, and those of you listening. I hope there are some really practical tips and tricks that you can implement in your own tutoring from today and perhaps also help you think a little bit more widely, step back from your own approach and see if you can direct it towards more of a knowledge-rich style.
But just before we finish her, I’d like to know a little bit more about Scholar’s Atelier because we haven’t talked too much about you as a business leader, as an entrepreneur, but what would success look like for your business in 5 years’ time?[Lizzie]Yeah, that’s a tricky question, definitely. I’m really just getting started so really my main focus at the moment is just, ‘I want to keep doing what I’m doing and get better at it for quite a bit longer probably’. I’d say, my main goal, sort of related to that and going beyond that a bit, is building up my curriculum a bit more to be a bit more systematic, you know. At the moment, that’s happening in rounds you know I do cover similar topics, with different students, but each time I’m adding a bit more into it and trying out different ways and adjusting exactly what activities I do with a given topic, depending on where my students are at in terms of skills, but trying to get that to be a bit more systematic and particularly getting more systematic around things like vocabulary is kind of the main thing that I’m working on is building up that curriculum side of things. And, yeah, and I think I’m sort of undecided about if I want to, you know, eventually bring more teachers into the business or not, but I think having that curriculum is the prerequisite to whatever I want to do with this next. [Ludo]Okay, so it’s curriculum-focused, building out that framework of curriculum. Wonderful, amazing. Thank you so much Lizzie. You can find out more about Lizzie at scholarsatelier.com, or you can find some of her resources on the famous teacherspayteachers.com site, just type in Scholar’s Atelier then you can find out more about Lizzie’s resources and materials and short presentations, courses, that kind of thing.
Lizzie is an English tutor and Founder of Scholar’s Atelier joining us today to talk about knowledge-rich tutoring. If you want to listen to any of what Lizzie has said, just drag the cursor back and listen to some of those amazing answers again.
Lizzie, thank you very much.[Lizzie]
It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.