Awareness Counts in TutoringWhen attempting to tutor seniors in computer literacy, one is well advised to first assess the client’s awareness. By awareness, I mean a general tendency to look at the environment and to see what is there. We are all creatures of habit who work with observed patterns to reduce our mental workload. For instance, every day I call my dog and say, “Let’s go check the mail.” He bounces around and happily walks with me to our communal mailbox. Of course he has no idea of what mail is or why one should check it. His knowledge of English is limited, but he does recognize the pattern of sounds in “Let’s go check the mail,” and he associates it with a short walk and sniffing exercise. People are the same way.

Many times I have watched new clients do simple tasks in their normal way without my help. I do this to try to understand their current level of expertise and awareness. Often they will have a pattern of clicks and mouse moves that gets a job done, but if I interrupt the flow of their clicks, they can get lost and need to start over. At that point if I suggest they consider the functions invoked by clicking, they might look puzzled. “Use left click for actions; right click for options,” I will tell them and show how right clicking usually opens a drop-down window with various options on it. Obviously left-clicking on a highlighted option activates the function. This is so natural to me that I truly cannot remember learning it, but most likely I picked it up from experimenting. That is, no one told me; I just played around and found a pattern that explained the functions of various clicks.

In contrast, many self-taught seniors will play minimally and instead of finding functional patterns that can be used in many tasks, they will find a limited pattern that is often a rote series of keystrokes that produces a desired outcome such a reading an email. This difference in behavior comes about in part because of the different payoffs afforded by finding patterns. I enjoy figuring out some clever pattern in nature or computers simply for the joy of reducing the things I need to remember. Spotting a pattern means you can use it to predict things without remembering all possible combinations. But many clients do not share that joy. They approach a computer or any other physical obstacle with the intent of minimizing the distasteful work they must do to get a specific task done — like checking the email. Their series of keystrokes is the equivalent of my dog responding to “Let’s go check the mail.”

This is not a putdown on the clients. They have found a way to get what they want without too much hassle. The way they have found is extremely limiting, and some of them realize that. The ones who realize their limitations might sign up for classes or hire a tutor. Some will aggressively start a program of self-education. But many of the struggling users will probably lose interest not because they lack the smarts to advance beyond checking email, but because they do not have the more powerful patterns in mind. They are limited by having found a path that works to get them where they want to be before they had an idea of the whole map.

Knowing this can help a tutor prepare an appropriate lesson, but care must be taken to work from ideas known to the client and add things to it. A common mistake is for the tutor, who does see the whole map, to attempt to jump over the intermediate steps and give a client powerful tools without simultaneously providing a logical bridge from the known to the novel. This is tempting because the tutor knows that if only clients could understand the reason some software was constructed the way it is, they would be better able to use it.

To this day I fall into that trap when lecturing about Excel. For a novice who only has a partial grasp on what spreadsheets are all about, discussing advanced formulas and special things like pivot tables can be a real negative. Failing to introduce the powers available by building on existing knowledge can convince a client that spreadsheets are just too complicated to learn. This does a real disservice to students.

The challenges presented in helping students to overcome their initial patterns of usage are why I prefer individual tutoring lecturing for a large class. I prefer the one on one exchange, and my students often teach me new things.

Economically, tutoring does not make as much sense as teaching a class. Even though the teaching is more efficient when there is a close relationship between student and teacher, the mass efficiency of teaching a large class with lower individual efficiency is why universities have large lecture halls. Of course we can also argue that those lecture halls are now obsolete since educational material can be delivered even more efficiently via online classes. But from the instructor’s point of view, the psychological rewards of watching an individual go from novice to competent user under direct tutoring can be greater than the psychological rewards of taping a lecture for unseen online students. At least that is true for me. This does not address the greater financial rewards for lecturing to mass markets.

As I help senior become more aware, particularly aware of how computers operate, I become more aware myself. Maybe that is part of the charm of tutoring.