A Good Tutor is the Ultimate Critical Friend

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Date of Publication: 21 January 2019

What does the tutorial method of learning have to do with receiving constructive feedback, and growing as a result?

by Harry Hortyn & Callie Phillipson

When reading Simon Creasey’s article about delivering tough feedback, we found it interesting just how many of his key points are the same as what makes a good tutor. At Oxford Summer Courses, we use the tutorial teaching method for all students aged 16+ and it’s the same technique that’s been honed at Oxford and Cambridge for over 800 years. How it works: after you’ve researched and written your essay (arts and humanities) or problem sheet (sciences), you have an intensive 1hr, 2:1 session with your tutor who carefully attends to your arguments and answers, pushing you to justify your conclusions and helping you clarify any muddled thought. It’s always demanding but the intensity pushes you to come up with your very best work.

As a former Political Theory tutor, I know that when teaching, it can be hard not to rush to telling someone the solution, and it takes time to train yourself (I find sitting on my hands helps stop me interrupting). But good tutoring is like midwifery, according to Socrates. The tutor’s job is to help the student reach the answers, not to tell them. This pillar of independent learning and critical thought is the cornerstone of our academic model.

There’s a fascinating parallel with business: the concept of Radical Candour developed by Kim Scott (who was a boss at google, youtube and twitter) argues that honesty is the best policy – a good boss creates the right environment for honest and open feedback, delivered with care at the right time. It’s the combination of caring personally and challenging directly (see below) avoiding points-scoring or overbearing criticism:

The academic world and the business world have different ways of describing this phenomenon but it’s essentially the same thing at heart: creating space for learning requires a sincere and caring teacher who values the student enough to challenge any errors or mistakes in the spirit of learning. It requires egos to be left at the door and skill in how criticism is delivered; a combination of intelligence and emotional intelligence.

When we started Oxford Summer Courses, we placed tutorial teaching right at the centre. Over the last 10yrs it’s what’s made us different to other summer schools and more authentic to the teaching we were lucky enough to receive at Oxford University. The academic world has known about the benefits of this way of learning for 800 years: the business world is starting to catch up.

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