Thursday 26 February 2015

On tutor turnover

Due to an interesting conversation I had with a tutor this week I am re-posting this post.  All the issues are as relevant as ever.  And with a new TE Strategy about to hit the scene, probably worth another look.

We have some great things happening in the entry level of the tertiary sector.  We work with learners who have the high needs and learners who are very demanding.  We work with learners who have experienced failure and without our help will repeat those patterns of failure.  We work in a tough environment and do it well.

We also have some systemic problems that continue to limit the kinds of success we all want.  One of our biggest problems is high tutor turnover.  This is compounded by poor organisational knowledge management.  In other words, tutors leave often, and when they do, they take large chunks of knowledge and experience with them.

Why is high turnover a problem?  Isn't it feeding us new blood?

Schoenfeld's recent work with teachers provides some troubling findings.  He found that teachers up until the fourth year of teaching were primarily focused on mastering classroom management.  The actual educational gains of students were low, because the teacher was attempting to master the demands of running a class and learning the system.

The next four years of a teachers' career was focused on learning content.  They needed to master what they were teaching.  Let's call this subject knowledge.  Again, the learner gains were very limited.  The teacher's attention is split.

The next four years were spent mastering pedagogical knowledge - actual teaching to students.

Consequently, it takes 12 years for a fully trained teacher to begin to teach students really well.  And this is with a teaching degree, support and constant PD.  Not to mention regular pay rises and a supportive organisation (we assume).

Our sector has about a three year turnover period for tutors.  Several years ago it appeared to be less. There is little hard data so this is based on my observations.  At the time I asked every group (at workshops) that year how long they had been in their jobs and took note of the results.  One quarter had been in their job less than six months (sample was about 1000 tutors) in 2012.

It is not hard to see that tutors are occupied with mastering classroom management, developing content knowledge, and administration knowledge (NZQA, Assessment Tool etc) in their first few years, rather than developing great pedagogical knowledge.  To be blunt - Tutors are struggling to get a handle on the job and leave before developing high quality skills.  Consequently learners (the most demanding across all spheres of education) are not receiving the quality they require.  I don't say this in a judgmental way, I tutored for eight years straight (25 hours face to face contact 49 weeks every year) And STILL struggled.  I tutored a programme last year and STILL struggled with the competing tensions.

The turnover erodes learner progress,  tutor development and institutional progress.

Why do tutors leave? 

I believe the reason tutors leave is twofold:  First is the growing discrepancy between their actual work outcomes and the demanded work outcomes.  Most tutors enter the sector because they want to help people get more out of life.  This is the real reason they are in the job, or at least a large part.  This can be called the 'actual' outcome.

Actual tutor outcomes:
  • Positively impact people who need support
  • Build confidence
  • Work with and encourage young people 
  • Developing real skills that will pay off in the real world
  • Minimising negative behaviours and maximising positive ones
  • Demonstrate to people what can be achieved

Demanded Organisational outcomes
  • NZQA Unit & Credit achievements
  • Movement on L&N assessment tool
  • Attendance
  • Completion rates
  • Learner employment

Now I know it is not as easy as all that.  But my suspicion is that the tutor role no longer reflects the values that attracted people to the role in the first place.  Hence, the downside of the role is no longer equally balanced by the positive side - and people simply leave (actually, the people with options leave).  All jobs have aspects that we struggle with, but those tensions are balanced by other positive factors.  The tutoring role is out of kilter.


Many years ago during my degree I did a case-study of an organisation that was having difficulty with staff. Upon investigation it was clear that the staff had gotten themselves into a cycle of complaining and this cycle was now self-perpetuating.  The staff worked hard and well.  But when they got together the conversation always gravitated toward how bad things were getting.  Any negative thing that did happen tended to be taken as evidence that the whole organisation was negative. Management was largely absent but because the staff were highly committed they continued to perform at their very best.  The management were unaware but the staff as a group were on a downward trajectory.

Long story short, I interviewed staff and came up with some solutions based on some theories I was using (mostly motivational theory). The main solution had to do with the personality, traits and motivational make-up of the tutors.  The tutors were short term task oriented, yet highly relational.  They were motivated to make a difference for their students - not motivated by money and  not by achievement.  What did they need most?


I designed a plan based on the make-up of the staff and also drawing on Herzberg's two factor motivation-hygiene theory.  To my mind this is one of the most valuable ways of looking at the PTO sector. Look it up if you don't know it.

As a part of the plan I designed a meeting every two weeks with each staff member.  This would I believe have interrupted the cycle.  But it had to be personal and face to face.  Group rewards were ineffective with this group.  For example, a group trip away as a thank you to everyone would not be effective (this turned out to be a hygiene factor rather than a motivational factor).  They needed individual affirmation.  It had to be real and specific.  Any hint of in-authenticity would blow it. It didn't require money, it required genuine appreciation of a job well done from a senior.

The managers did not do this.  They had their reasons.  However key staff members dominoed out the door. Once one person left, they all went.  I have seen this happen about five times now in the same situation and sector.  The organisation then has to recover and this takes time and hurts learners.

Career pathways

The second way to begin to slow down turnover is to do some thinking around progression plans.  Tutoring has become a terminal job.  That means no pathway of progression.  It means anyone with aspirations must leave to get ahead.  Anyone who needs to save money must leave to get ahead.  As part of an annual review the organisation MUST build in a progression for the tutor.

You can also choose, as many do, to simply let tutors leave and train new ones. But in truth we are kidding ourselves if we think this is a sustainable strategy.  This simply places huge strain on the new tutor (see issue one) and on supporting staff.  But here is the kicker:  The learners will not learn.  You may get them through units, but these skills will be gone within 2 months.  You may get them jobs (great) but you will not have improved their skills.  You may have inducted them into a way of behaving, but you have not improved their skills.

Your organisation needs to be improving every year, year on year on year.  You can't do this if organisational knowledge is rolled back to zero every few years.

Tough talk

The pressure will be coming on soon for PTEs to produce 'real' learning outcomes.  There is a cull coming (we have already seen the start of it) and those organisations that don't begin the transition to become real education organisations will not make the grade.  Mastering the art of moving learners through Unit standards will not be preparation for the next wave.  Those credits will have to reflect authentic skills development. That means if you re-assess any learner in 6 months they should easily pass the assessment.  Ask yourself, what if you reassessed all your learners right now on the units they have passed, with no teaching or support, would they easily pass the units?

We need professional tutors, who want to do this for a career.  This may require an entirely different business model in order for current funding streams to make this possible.  I have some ideas - would love to hear others.

Updated:  Graeme Smith has some great thoughts here.

Exactly why we need better maths resources!

Wednesday 25 February 2015

The zombie apocalypse is here

I have been working on a book/resource designed to transition learners' knowledge and skills with angles to trigonometry. A part of this is the Pythagoras theorem.  A couple of years ago I developed the sheet below to promote discussion and thinking around the hypotenuse.  It's rough, (I repeat - it's rough) but I have a new and improved version so the older conceptual model is below.

The idea is to just let people try to work out what needs to be done and how it might be done.  Confusion is okay (avoid the need to explain it).  This will lead to a conversation about Pythagoras - which presents an opportunity to play with the concept.   Two versions below, the first with more scaffolding.  Yes, they are rough - just concept stuff at this stage.

Would love to know if it works though!

Sunday 22 February 2015

Books you must read 

A friend of mine is on a mission to read books that make him smarter and has asked for some recommendations.  He mentioned that the shallow nature of Facebook has eroded his ability to really think deeply.

Reading books to make you smarter does not mean reading books you agree with. It means reading books that expand your current perspectives and ideas.  They should also provoke you to think more, and put you in contact with the smartest minds in various areas.

I remember doing a study on B.F Skinner and thinking that since behaviorism had largely died in educational thinking there would be little of value in his books.  How wrong I was.  In fact, I ended up reading every single book Skinner ever wrote.  I think I understand his ideas and now have an informed view of what I agree with and the limitations of this ideas.  It also helped me understand the emergence of constructivisim and all its variants.

So I am putting together a list for educators.  Now - these are not all books I agree with, but books that have made me think differently.  They are all very different, but if you read them, you will be better educated and a better educator.  I recommend them all and will update the list over the next month.

The books are grist for the mill.  The first four are a slightly skewed balance between competing views of education.  A good project would be to identify the competing themes.

On liberty - John Stuart Mill
The Advancement of learning - Bacon
Atlas shrugged - Ayn Rand
Pedagogy of the Oppressed - Paulo Friere

Thursday 19 February 2015

The problem of engagement

There is a line of thought in the numeracy discourse that goes like this: A learner's motivation in a certain area can be used to piggyback numeracy content.

An example is a learner who loves cars, and is on an automotive engineering course.  The theory states that they will engage to a greater degree with numeracy if it is presented in the context of car specs, and if the content is relevant to their needs.

It sounds true.  And there is some self-report data to support the idea.  Learners who believe that numeracy is useful tend to achieve better than those who don't.

But, I'm not so sure about all this.

Engagement in 'numeracy tasks' at a micro level is how numeracy skills are developed. Does the relevance of the situation context improve micro engagement?  Not from what I am seeing.

Here are some questions for numeracy tutors:

  • Do your learners engage more in numeracy tasks that are fun or important?
  • Do your learners engage more in numeracy tasks that have clear performance goals (how many can I get right) or conceptual understanding goals (a new way of thinking about an idea)?
  • Do your learners engage in different ways depending on the time of day, or the day of the week?
  • Are your learners motivated by passing assessments, or developing meaningful understandings of numeracy concepts that will be useful in their lives?
Finally, do your learners actually believe that the numeracy content they are learning on the programme is relevant to their needs?  And how would you know?