Let's get nerdy
I have applied the principles of a number of books to my instruction since I first began, and I was (and still am) able to see what helps students and what doesn’t. Let’s talk about how what is needed to maximize the probability your student will reach stratospheric success.
The student, parent, and the tutor come to an arrangement to create a low stress environment in which the student has a degree of control. Why? Let’s first learn about how your student’s brain works, why they need good habits, and why you need to give them control over decisions that impact their lives.
Your Brain's Mechanics
The scientifically rigorous book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman taught me there are two main systems in the brain: the “old” system, which works effortlessly off of intuition, and the “new” system which requires great effort to use. In order to gain proficiency with any skill, the new brain must teach the old brain.
Unfortunately, using the new brain is so effortful, we are often too uncomfortable to do so. Think about your own shortcomings. Are you afraid of calculus? Can you just not learn languages? There is often a skill each of us avoids developing because we can not overcome the disinterest we have of the topic.
Think now of something you do well, and how you got so good at it. Once you exerted enough effort with your new brain, you knew intuitively what to do in order to succeed. Real learning has happened when you feel a sense of familiarity.
The effort invested in 'getting it right' should be commensurate with the importance of the decision.
You get what you repeat
Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit uses grotesque examples to prove how often habits are followed, and that habits are never unlearned. When learning an academic topic, therefore, it is critical that a student develop the correct habits at the beginning of their instruction. James Clear has recently helped to build on these findings in a far more palatable and actionable way in his book Atomic Habits. Clear emphasizes the importance of making small changes in order to harness what Einstein called the 8th wonder of the world: compound interest.
The Effects of Cortisol
The Self Driven Child by Ned Johnson and William Stixrud states that brain development in the presence of cortisol, known as the “stress hormone”, results in numerous mental deficiencies well documented in literature.
Students must develop their brains in a low stress environment at home and at school. At home, parents are expected to love and support their children and not to nag. The student must willingly and voluntarily work with the tutor, who will report regularly to the parents about the student’s level of effort. The tutor can choose to stop working with the student if they feel their performance is lacking, much like how an athlete is coached. These roles are formalized in The Three Party Agreement, the next of the three main sections.
"Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned."
Fall back on those good habits
You have to be trained to fail. The Power of Habit talks about how people almost always compulsively follow their habits, and Thinking Fast and Slow makes the case that this is when the new brain is not active at all; it was too effortful to use. (See the bat and ball problem here) In any case where our intuition has failed us, we can be notified by some redundant procedure — that we have agreed in advance to do — that our answer is not correct. Afterwards, we can investigate the error and answer correctly. We should all have good habits to fall back on for the times where we succumb to laziness — as we all do — and fail to activate our new brain when it would be prudent to do so. The targeted habits for the student will be subject specific.
Deplete your "thinking gas tank"
Kahneman also discusses how the new brain often experiences “decision fatigue.” I like to think of the new brain as having a gas tank. If you run out of thinking juice, you chemically can’t think correctly for the rest of the day. Fortunately, not only does this “gas” replenish after a night’s rest, but if you habitually deplete the gas tank, it will grow in size over time, and you will be able to think for a tiny amount longer each day, changing your brain permanently. Unfortunately, Kahneman also points out that using the new brain is so effortful, that the only variance between people is how much they can avoid using it. Anyone is more prepared to learn when they have a guide. The experience of real partnership between a student and a tutor boosts the frequency and duration of activation of the new part of our brains. Hopefully, the student will learn to deplete their “new brain gas tank” more frequently, netting life changing growth over time.
"A low sense of control is enormously stressful and autonomy is key to developing motivation.”
Don't do everything well, do a few things well
The Power Of Habit says as we learn more skills over time, our brain “runs out of space” to record new habits. What you choose to occupy yourself with over time is what will be developed in your brain permanently. Your habits as a student now are going to determine what type of student you’ll be in college and what type of adult you’ll be after that. The most important task a student has while in high school is to grow their brain.
It may not seem like it to students, but high school is very finite. Students usually get about 36 school weeks in a year. You have both a limited amount of brain space and a limited amount of time to grow yourself as a person. As the 2018 book The Wealthy Gardener by John Soforic put it: “Impact hours are the concrete blocks that form the foundation of all worthy achievement.”
Your student must become acclimated with the idea that it is in their best interest to seek to place a large number of impact hours into a problem, like achieving a phenomenal SAT or ACT score.
“A person who has not made peace with his losses is likely to accept gambles that would be unacceptable to him otherwise.”
Complete Reading List
Many other books have also influenced my instruction, and a complete reading list has been listed below. Some of the books listed are of dubious scientific merit, but I have found some helpful ideas in each of them.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg
The Self Driven Child by William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Why Him, Why Her by Helen Fisher
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy
The Go-Giver series by Bob Burg and David Mann
Nudge: The Final Edition by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Substein
The Wealthy Gardener by John Soforic