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Base camp on the Mt Everest of Understanding
As tutors we learn something new about high school students and their relationship with school and studying every week.

We work with students of all abilities. Some just need a tweak here and there. While others are only at base camp of the ‘Mt Everest of Understanding’ and are going to need to work exceptionally hard over the next few months leading up to their exams.

Over the last few weeks the two of us have been talking about students who are considerably behind at school (but have perfectly capable brains). We think we may have pinpointed the reason they are finding school so ridiculously difficult.

The problem in itself is actually quite simple…

They don’t understanding the basics

Let us share with you a recent firsthand experience.

Last week I [Clare] met a new student about 15 years old who was learning about acids and bases in chemistry. First I asked if she could tell me what an acid actually was.


I then asked if a hydrogen ion meant anything to her… nope. I then asked her to tell me in her own words what an atom was. “…umm, a circle?”.

Clearly this girl was in way over her head. Here she was being taught about acids and basis but had no idea what an atom actually was!

Now that we’ve noticed it, we’re seeing it in many of our students. And it’s no one’s fault. But if the problem exists, there is a way to fix it!

If your teen is struggling, it could very well be because there are massive gaps in their foundation knowledge of the subject.

We believe it’s happening for a number of reasons…

Firstly, there really isn’t enough time available in class for teachers to make sure every student is keeping up with the pace. There’s a huge amount of material to cover and not really any leeway to stop every 5 minutes to make sure David gets it.

This is particularly common when students haven’t grasped important concepts from years previous.

Secondly, the real world context of what students are learning at school often goes unmentioned.

A high school student might be able to tell you that an atom has protons, neutrons and electrons, but most won’t be able to tell you what an atom actually is.

Hmmmm…. This isn’t good!

Spouting on about electrons for half an hour is certain to anaesthetise almost anyone. But explaining what atoms are and how they make up everything in the physical world can be incredibly interesting!

[Especially with the aid of interesting/engaging videos on Youtube]

Once the real-world context of something is explained the boring bits become relevant – and therefore much more interesting.

A lack of foundation knowledge plagues all subjects – not just chemistry

Students come to us with trigonometry problems without understanding any basic algebra. You can’t rearrange a trigonometry equation if you haven’t had a single algebra lesson. Well you could, but you wouldn’t have the faintest idea of what you were doing, and consequently you’d be likely to forget how almost immediately!

This is a bit of a worry. But if we know it’s happening we can all now do something about it.

As a parent, what can you do at home to help?

It’s important to work out where your teen’s deficiencies lie. The best way to do this would be to sit down with your teen and have a chat about what they’re learning.

If your teen is nearing the end of high school you may struggle with their calculus homework, for example, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help.

The best way to help is to act as their student. Get them to teach you, to put it in their own words, to draw you diagrams – basically just make it fun!

It will soon become very clear if they actually understand the basics of their subjects or not.

What if there’s an obvious deficiency?

If you feel there are Grand Canyon-sized gaps in your teen’s knowledge the first people to ask for help should be your teen’s teachers. They will have a good idea of what your teen will need to do to improve their understanding – we’re sure they’d love to talk with parents who are genuinely interested and want to take action!

Or you could try and tackle it yourself. Work out where their knowledge gaps are and turn to books or the internet – particularly websites like Wikipedia – to find out anything about anything!

A lot of adults have no clue what an atom is either, so you could make it a family learning session!

Otherwise there’s always tutoring. Sometimes it’s necessary for your teen to have one-on-one help with someone for an hour to sort out the basics so your teen can get on with school without feeling like they’re being swallowed up.

And lastly, we can’t emphasise enough what a fabulous learning tool the internet can be. Interactive videos and animations can explain to your teen what an atom is in a way one person talking never could.

The final word

So if your teen is feeling lost in what they’re learning at school, they shouldn’t freak out, and neither should you! It could be that they’ve simply got a few gaps in their basic understanding, and they just need a bit of patch work.

You’ll be amazed at how your teen’s attitude towards school and learning can transform if they start to see why what they learn at school is interesting and how it relates to the world around them.

Image Credit: Joe Hastings on Flickr
Image Credit: Dreamstime


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