For over 20 years education franchises have exploded, evolving from neighborhood tutoring programs into national educational franchises. Today, they are changing the way kids and adults learn inside and outside the traditional classroom. Para-school instructors are filling a need students have to master subjects they may have struggled with in a school setting. More and more parents are supplementing their child’s education when they aren’t sure if the traditional school route is preparing them to excel in college.
The major problems of public schools—class size, bullying, lack of parental involvement, a one-size fits all approach—are increasingly addressed by independent learning centers. Regardless of the center’s name, be it Kumon, Sylvan, Huntington, etc., in the end the learning will ultimately be dictated by the intuitive teaching skills and philosophy of the educational professionals who work there.
If you ask parents, public educators and students in Tacoma, you will hear the name Carol Irish, a one-on-one para-school professional for over 10 years, with a reputation for helping kids learn well above grade level with a phenomenal success rate. We asked Irish to describe the foundational fundamental philosophies of being a great educator and instructor of Kumon. She will tell you it is based on the basic belief of her mentor Toru Kumon.
“Children are born with unlimited potential. Every child can excel by developing his or her ability through study at the just-right level. That is the reason I say: ‘Give it a try! Or you will never discover your true potential.” Toru Kumon
We asked Ms. Irish what makes a good educator?
“People learn at their own pace. Unfortunately, in a traditional classroom environment, it is difficult to do when you have a class of 30 students. Although here at Kumon we can have a dozen kids in a room, we work with each one at their own pace.”
Critical thinking has become such a hot topic, entire organizations are now dedicated to it. And one of the keys to good thinking, according to Carol is seeing patterns. “I’m very good at math, and while I can do advanced math, I can also work with kids on fundamentals. No one gets made fun of for asking honest questions. I’ve learned over the years that we’re not just about teaching kids to pass tests, we want them to learn to see patterns, to think on their own. I always ask them questions. They teach themselves.”
“You need to see yourself as more than an instructor and guide,” adds Irish. “The heart and soul of what we do is self learning. Tutors are focused on solving a problem. I am interested in teaching children to learn critical thinking that leads to problem-solving skills. There will always be problems, both academically and in the day-to-day world. We have to guide children through the process of solving their problems. This not only helps with grades and performance, but builds great confidence as well. When they have their ‘aha’ moment, they have ownership of their knowledge.”
Irish is ahead of the curve. A recent study at New York University shows students entering college sorely lack critical thinking skills to process information. “Students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event,” according to sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. For example, the students couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.
The teaching of critical thinking skills is just part of it. The benefits of a one-to-one partnership built by para-educators like Irish are immeasurable. Parents love it too because their children no longer face the anxiety of going it alone academically or coming to their parents with problems the parents can’t solve. Karen Wilson, a parent of one of Irish’s students could not agree more. “Help from someone like Carol has been invaluable and we are so grateful for their staff! Our daughter … is now in 8th-grade math as a 7th grader! She (our daughter) is organized and accountable for her work. Most importantly, (she has learned) to think through math problems critically.”
To a good educator, mastery is something each child can achieve: “Kumon’s goal is to move kids into international level standards that are more rigorous than US standards. We are supplemental to school, an extra layer of learning that rockets kids into a higher orbit, so as they move from childhood to middle school to high school and vocational school or college, they are confident, self-directed people. The emotional and intellectual support makes a world of difference in how a child grows up.”
Irish knows from personal experience “Look, it worked for me. College was much more difficult than I expected. While working with kids and teaching them to learn, I boosted my own understanding, learning and even grades. These are all my children, and I am with them all the way.”