What to teach a smart twelve-year-old?
March 29, 2015 3:51 AM   Subscribe

I've been hired to privately tutor a smart 12-year-old who hates learning, not on a specific subject but rather a general educational enrichment. I'm looking for ideas, resources and relevant thoughts on how to spend an hour a week with this kid and make the most of it.

Recently I have been hired by a family to tutor their son: a very bright 12-year-old boy who picks up on things very intuitively, but has very little patience for reading, and harbors antagonism for anything clearly labeled “learning”. My position is not to tutor him on a specific subject, but rather to provide some kind of educational enrichment for him. So far I’ve shown him an online game for learning to code, which he had fun with for about half an hour; I’ve shown him a book of Escher’s impossible drawings and we discussed them; and I’ve tried to follow his interests to help him develop some general knowledge (for example, he knows how to play a certain Nirvana song on the guitar, so we looked up Wikipedia articles on grunge music and Seattle).

His interests, as described to me by his mother: Guitar (he's been studying it for a few years), geography, science, etc. Very general.

His interests, as I have gathered from two lessons with him so far: Sports. Specifically, basketball. He hasn't developed a taste in music yet (he doesn't really listen to much), and when I sent him on a Wikipedia scavenger hunt to find out about some subjects, he didn't enjoy it and tried to find the answers without reading the articles.

I’m kind of stumped. I can feel his resistance to learning and I’m having difficulty finding subjects that will really grab his attention. In addition, other than a grab bag of topics to teach him or discover with him, I’d like to be able to plan a learning process, a few weeks at a time, to relate each lesson to the next.
posted by alona to Education (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I forgot to mention an important caveat: We live in Israel, and his English is basic (he already has an English tutor as well). So specific sites/books that require a high level of English literacy aren't relevant.
posted by alona at 3:54 AM on March 29, 2015

If he's into basketball and other sports, what about introducing him to a bunch of statistics around those games? Stats nerds enjoy a lot of sports on a totally different level.

When I was that age, and a bit older, I got really into anime. It inspired me to learn a bit of Japanese, both speaking and reading/writing. Anything like that that may interest him? Is there guitar music in another language he'd enjoy translating?
posted by olinerd at 4:00 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

12 is maybe a little early, maybe not, but you guys could look into a "university of life" curriculum. Talk about how he wants his adult life to be, see what he needs to start putting the building stones in place for that. If the plan his parents are pushing for is one that is unattractive and requires university studies this may be a way of dragging his feet or turning his back on it. If he has a non-academic bent and thinks that he will get a job, maybe go check out one of the jobs he thinks he would like, or let him get an extra-job after school in the same branch etc. You can sneak in a lot of learning by preparing him for grown-up life, there's civics there, there's a lot of math if he prepares a budget to work out how much he needs to earn to live a life where he can afford an appartment, video games, decent internet, go to concerts now and then, a holiday a year etc. A lot of information-seeking in looking up, what does a holiday cost, do you need vaccines to go there? Why? etc.
posted by Iteki at 4:10 AM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

In addition to the good suggestion about statistics related to sports, physics or kinesiology relating to basketball as well? For physics, I'm thinking specifically about the reasons why you shoot properly (with an arc) instead of in a straight line, or use the backboard in a lay-up, or how you can guard someone moving to the basket without getting called for a foul. That could extend to other sports - in baseball, the harder a ball is pitched, the harder the resulting hit, in (American) football, the shape of the ball has a lot of implications for how it moves, etc. There are a number of English resources on this topic, though not sure how much is in other languages. Similar, kinesiology could come out of how the body moves in sports and why certain body types are more often found in sports or excel at different skills in a sport (I don't know whether he follows a professional basketball league, but in the NBA I know there are a number of examples, and I assume it would be similar for leagues abroad), or about how to train (i.e., oxygen consumption, muscle building, etc).

Maybe you could also think about history/world studies by focusing on sports development historically or a comparison of sports worldwide or a history of a competition (World Cup, Olympics or the like)?
posted by Caz721 at 4:30 AM on March 29, 2015

Depending on the budget you have, build something with him. . Don't study do.

Lego robot, make a catapult, Go birdwatching.

Learn a new song on the guitar to expand his taste in music, stop motion animation, painting, get him interested first and the learning will follow.
posted by wwax at 4:35 AM on March 29, 2015 [15 favorites]

The biggest hurdle here isn't so much his interests (though they are important), but rather the script he already has in his head that he does not enjoy learning things. He has attached this idea to his identity and now he's going to have trouble focusing on tasks regardless because you can't put 100% into anything when 20% of your brain is going "but I'm not good at this because I hate it." I would suggest not allowing him to fall back on his ideas too much. Don't mention anything about him not liking to learn anytime when you're around him. Don't even imply it. That only reinforces the idea he has. Also don't give the impression that you're going to "fix" his hatred of learning because then he has to quit after a half hour of coding just to hang on to his identity as the kid who hates to learn. Just teach him with the understanding that if he achieves his goal he will get a nifty prize. (This worked when I tutored a little boy.) And each tutoring session should light up the reward system in his brain a little bit. Making sure he feels really great when he gets things right will probably get this done. With time hopefully, he'll start to realize that "learning" is just a label. Like the label on my facial pads say "firming facial pads" when the ingredients clearly make it better for acne than for anti-aging. Labels don't mean much.
posted by rancher at 4:49 AM on March 29, 2015 [12 favorites]

Two online games he might like: Euclid: The Game and Phylo. If he just likes them as games, that's great. They're fun and work different brain skills. But if he gets interested, Euclid could be a jumping off point for exploring geometry or logic and Phylo for genetics, molecular biology, bioinformatics, etc.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:53 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree that you should build something or do something with him. Make it about the project and only research enough to find out how to build/do the project. It might spark his interest enough that he'll be willing to read more to do another project.
posted by christinetheslp at 5:25 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sales and marketing? I did a great enrichment course at about that age about the commonly used strategies in advertising. It's made me suspicious of hype ever since.
posted by kjs4 at 5:50 AM on March 29, 2015

Teach him to fly! Modern computers are more than capable of being great flight simulators. X-Plane (works on Mac and Linux as well as Windows) and Microsoft FSX (Windows only) are both fantastic and easy to get started with for anyone reasonably computer savvy, and not terribly expensive.

It's exciting, doesn't feel like learning, and the math and physics are probably at the right level for a bright twelve-year-old. Also a great opportunity to learn English.
posted by colin_l at 5:54 AM on March 29, 2015

Also, you live in a great place for "general educational enrichment." Masada, Caesaria, Beeth Shean, etc. Fun places for a kid to wander around in awe of these incredible stone spaces. And you can discuss in any direction - engineering, social, historical, etc.
posted by colin_l at 5:59 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might try reading Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals for inspiration. The protagonist in this semi-fictionalized auto-biography sounds a lot like your pupil, and his tutors had various ways to cope that were entertaining and variously successful. (It's also a delightful book, laugh-out-loud hilarious, educational, and touching.)
posted by Capri at 6:52 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Absolutely MAKE stuff - make a robot, grow plants from seeds, build a musical instrument, look up Arduino tutorials, visit a fancy telescope to look at stars, science projects that go crazy/explode, learn how to fish and make your own lures, go camping, etc.

Is there a makerspace or hackerspace near you? That would pique the interests of many 12 year old kids --- a bunch of adults making awesome things with awesome machines and computers. They often have teenager nights or programs, or maybe someone there could do some informal tutorials on a given topic.

The key is to take "this is productive learning" right out of the script. No wikipedia unless he wants to look something up. No assignments that involve writing for awhile. Make everything about hands-on experiential learning and the rest will follow.
posted by barnone at 6:58 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, make things as barnone said. If you want to work in writing eventually, then have him share what he's made with instructions as an instructable or on his own site (hey, making your own site is educational!). There are some neat instructables on making guitar-related things, also robots which barnone already mentioned, and lasers! Everyone loves lasers.

One of my colleagues once told me that she thought that if she told her class (of adults) that she would give them an all expenses trip paid to Paris on the condition that they must make all the arrangements (find and book a flight and hotel, get your travel health insurance, etc.) themselves (not their parents, not a friend, etc.) she wouldn't have to give away a single trip. Figuring out how to get things done is a useful skill --- if you put up web page, have him research how to register the domain name, what kind of software/platform he wants to use, etc.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:27 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

Speaking of knowing how to figure things out, if you're going somewhere have him help make the plan: "We're going to X historical site/museum/whatever on Wednesday: Can you find out by Tuesday what buses we'll need to take, what time we should leave, and how much money we should bring (figure the admission cost plus bus fare and some money for lunch or whatever)? Let me know by Tuesday so I can get everything ready."

This works especially well if the place you're going is his idea. "You want to do X/go to Y? Great, let's do it. Make it happen." I had a high school French teacher who said she would take us on any field trip we wanted as long as all she had to do was show up. We had to make whatever arrangements were necessary for the venue, get the school's approval, coordinate permission forms, etc. etc. and she would take us. We had her take us out for lunch at a french restaurant and to a couple of french movies in the theatre. At the time (and still, really) I thought she was just lazy, but now I see there was actually some value in this for us.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:42 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

How about some philosophy discussions? What can you really know for sure? That's a pretty interesting question that most 12 year olds probably haven't thought deeply about. Can you trust books or teachers? Can you trust your own senses? Can you know for sure that you're not a computer or a brain in a vat?
You could also talk about the various trolley car thought experiments.

How about the possibility of extraterrestrial life? There's a post on the blue today about the question of whether it's a good or bad idea to send messages about ourselves into space in hopes of a response. You could talk about what has been done so far to try to search for extraterrestrial signals, about the possibility there was once life on Mars, about other places in the solar system that could possibly harbor life, and about the search for planets outside our solar system.

You could also talk about UFO sightings and people who believe aliens have visited earth, as well as other weird and interesting things some believe could be true - the Bermuda triangle, ghosts, ESP, Bigfoot, etc. It could be educational to start by reading all the cool, spooky stories and supposedly good evidence, then look for debunking information. As part of a general unit on skepticism, you could also talk about urban legends and find some examples of false claims commonly circulated by email or posted on Facebook. Chances are you'll come across something he heard from someone else and assumed was true.

Maybe you could show him some interesting, thought-provoking movies. If his parents are okay with it, The Matrix might be a good one. On the lighter side, there's the Back to the Future movies, which could lead to investigating what scientists think about the possibility of time travel, discussion of time as a physics concept, or just some lively conversation about what time period would be most interesting to visit if he had a time machine. Would he like to see his future self? Would he like to see what earth looks like 5000 years from now, or is there too much risk of seeing something awful and depressing?

Maybe you could also toss out an interesting new fact every time you meet. Does he know there are fish that can change from male to female or from female to male? Does he know that there are ten times as many bacteria in his body as there are human cells?
posted by Redstart at 8:32 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also chiming in here about the sports stats. Start simple. Watch a basketball game and just keep a running tally of points and rebounds. Then ask him who he thinks the most valuable player was. Then compare your tally with the printed box score, which will be super in-depth. Then go look at the game story in the newspaper...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:41 AM on March 29, 2015

Sounds like he might need a friend to talk to more than anything else. How is he socially with other people?

I'd say teaching social skills by way of carrying on conversations and getting to know each other is something to seriously consider.
posted by Busoni at 9:11 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

What a great gig. Philosophy 101, Socratically. Archaeology, with field trips. Crafting, make a Japanese stab book (for recording experiments?)

Mad scientist stuff: a big enough fresnel lens will melt tarmac, Mentos/coke, potato clock, cornflour oobleck + a hammer, electronics kits (spy stuff like parabolic mics is good for 12 year old boys), build a smartphone microscope + one of those insect collectors where you suck on a tube.
posted by Leon at 9:33 AM on March 29, 2015

New idea: Why not co-conspire with him to figure this out? Let his parents in on the plan first, in case he "snitches" then say to him "Hey, I can see you don't want to do a bunch of extra math worksheets and stuff*, but your parents want you to do something educational and so I kind of have to do something that they will think is educational. What do you want to do that would be fun but that I can tell your parents is actually supposedly educational. Like we could build a robot and tell them you're learning mechanical stuff or make things out of lego and tell them you're learning engineering, or whatever? Like figure out what neat thing you'd like to to and then we can figure out how to tell your parents it's educational."

*Make the alternative sound as school like as possible so that the cool stuff really sounds like fun and not educational, since he's obviously blocked on the idea of education.

You might consider rolling your eyes when explaining what his parents want or talking about "Tricking" his parents into thinking it's educational, but that's kind of a gray area since you don't want to A) Undermine his parents B) Teach him that it's ok for semi-authority figures to encourage him to keep things from his parents.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:34 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

A different tack - to get him fired up about learning, plan some lessons around some things *you* want to learn about. Give him a model for being excited about learning, and don't peg it too low, you want him to not understand some stuff on the first go and ask questions / research on his own to fill in the gaps. This would probably work best with field trips or making stuff/projects.
posted by momus_window at 9:55 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was going to say something similar to the above, but without the eye-rolling. As ...penguin said, you don't want to undermine his parents or feed into the notion that they just don't "get" him, which is why they came up with this "lame" idea that he needs a tutor, etc.
posted by she's not there at 10:01 AM on March 29, 2015

There are a lot of great suggestions in here.

But you know, I think it would also be kind of instructive for you to get an understanding of why he says he hates learning. Is there some traumatic event tied up in this? Is his hatred of reading related to a learning disorder like dyslexia? Do teachers bore him to death because he already knows everything halfway through the explanation, and so he's associated learning with boredom? Start asking him questions about his resistance to certain things.

I think your path will instantly become a lot more clear if you have a better understanding of what his actual concerns about the learning label are.
posted by zug at 10:37 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am a private tutor, and when I encounter that sort of generalized hatred for learning, it's a red flag which usually means one or more of the following:
1) Kid has an undiagnosed learning disability.
2) Kid has PTSD or some other form of trauma.
3) This is a therapy problem, not a tutoring problem.
3a) Kid has an issue with parents, usually relating to fuzzy lines around expectations and consequences, parents reacting with similar hatred to some event in their lives, or other things that have nothing whatsoever to do with learning.
4) I am a bad fit for the kid in question. (I love horses, writing, and art; I cannot honestly talk about most sports with genuine interest.)

I am mentioning these things because they are not things I can fix, and trying to fix them is exhausting. If they aren't the problem, though, these are some things that have worked for me.
1) Ask them if they want you to stop being cheerful. Sincerely. If a kid is smart and annoyed, and I give them happy-bouncy-smiley face, they tend to be annoyed WITH me.
2) A kid who likes sports might prefer you act more like a coach. This is to say, you have a plan, you are constantly testing to see how he's doing on that plan, and you have crystal clear instructions that he needs to react to immediately.
3) Ask him if he wants to earn a reward after 10 sessions of tutoring (if the parents are on board). I often do this when I'm trying to figure out if we have an academic problem or an emotional problem. Basically, in exchange for putting effort into whatever we're doing, the kid "earns" a day toward a reward. If they screw around, they don't earn the day. Depending on the kid, set these expectations and rules very clearly.
4) Throw around balls while you're tutoring. Make up competitive games and keep vigorous track of the kid's record. Do these games as a reward for good behavior.
5) Keep track of kid's progress in a certain subject. Input numbers to show progress (or not). Often when people hate something, it is because they do not see how they can possibly win; they don't see where the end point is where they can be satisfied. Give the kid places where he can meet your expectations.
posted by Alex Haist at 11:33 AM on March 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

I have 3 thoughts:
- although logic was already mentioned above in passing, I have remained impressed with my Philosophy 101 college teacher who just wanted us to be able to explain why something did or did not make sense in simple words, and then let us loose on newspaper articles and marketing material to find the worst offenders,
- has he ever seen the xkcd cartoon or the associated What If articles? the humor and the snarkiness might kind of sugar-coat it enough so he doesn't notice he's learning some things,
- by coincidence I stumbled on this youtube video of a TedX Teen recently (I am not saying you should show it to him, just that the issue of "resistance to learning" as told by a young teen matched your question)
posted by forthright at 3:27 PM on March 29, 2015

I was homeschooled, and I totally agree with wwax's point about learning by doing instead of by reading. There is a poisonous narrative kids pick up in school that learning is 'boring' and 'not fun' - when you learn by living life and following your interests, it becomes obvious that learning is absolutely fun and fascinating and necessary to achieve any dream you have, not just something your parents want you to do or so you can earn a grade.

I would recommend looking at sites for homeschoolers with ideas for interesting and fun projects. Don't give him assignments - have him come up with the assignments based on his own goals. Plant a garden and learn about plants, chemistry, weather, budget for the project (accounting/finance). Take a field trip to a sports event where you can learn about the physics of sports. Geocaching. Orienteering. Making maps. Cooking (recipes: math, chemistry). Engineering competitions, if there are some in his area/country - is he interested in entering? What kind of free places can you tour with him locally? A farm? Do his parents have any friends with cool jobs where he could go behind the scenes, like a radiologist to show him x-rays and CT scan, or a restaurant kitchen, or a geologist/earth scientist taking samples, someone who works in a lab doing chemistry, or something like that? I am no child mentoring/tutoring expert, but I feel like it's key to show kids what they can someday do with the skills and knowledge that they learn. One of the big motivators for me to study hard and become a doctor was that I knew that if I didn't work hard to do the job I would enjoy, I would end up doing something like working a desk job or some kind of sales/retail thing, and I'm just totally not cut out for that and find it mind numbing. You've got to have goals to help you power through the things that you don't find enjoyable (like for me, calculus).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:07 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another thought - try to get him doing something where he has to work on a team with other kids who love learning and are enthused. I think that would make it hard for him not to get sucked into the excitement. Some of the engineering contests are like that, or robot building, or there used to be a program I did back in middle school times called Science By Mail where a team of us worked together to complete the projects. If he can work with a group of homeschoolers, I found that homeschoolers are more resistant to the idea that learning is somehow a negative. I found this Math and Science by Mail program that is offered in Hebrew!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:12 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I found boys of that age liked gangster history, natural disasters, basically historical bad men and scary events. I taught the US union wars with some success.
posted by irisclara at 1:26 AM on March 30, 2015

Dig a hole in the ground. Learn about geology, biology, archaeology, history, chemistry, etc. Get filthy doing it, but dig deeply enough and carefully enough to get all the measurements and samples and pictures you need to see layers for a discussion of archaeology and history, the chemistry and composition of the soil, the small inhabitants of the soil, and so on. Do some basic statistics and estimates (how many worms per cubic meter, blades of grass per square meter). You can work on the hole week by week. Throw a plastic sheet over it, maybe something to keep people from falling in, when you aren't working.

Cut down a tree and examine it. (OK, no. But go to someone who does cut down trees for a living, explain your goal, and get a good slice from a tree that has just been cut down.) Count the rings. Photograph them. Measure them relative to one another. What was going on during those years of thin rings or thick? Can you see color differences in the rings? Can you match those differences to weather records for your area? Can you learn anything about the tree's internal structure by looking at a cross section? What about roots -- another digging project?

Learn a language together, one that neither of you knows, so you're on an equal footing that way, but you bring some direction and structure to the task that maybe he does not. Maybe it has to be a language they teach at his high school, but otherwise he gets to choose the language. Or maybe the selection of a language to learn will depend on family history, especially if he has living relatives who speak it. Get into the culture and history of the people who speak it, of course. If the rest of his family don't speak it, make it a secret language between the two of you. Choose two new personalities (fictional or historical) who you can be when you speak the language. You are no longer you when you learn this language. Practice your accents and behavior and body language. Maybe eventually wear hats and shit, depending on how much this guy wants to play along, to help you get into character. When the hats are on, you speak only French/Latin/Spanish/?. Exchange email in the new language. Send snail mail in the language. Eat meals together while talking in the language. Take walks in this language. Maybe work on something else (the hole, for instance) using this language. Plan a trip to the place, even if it's mainly an imaginary trip you're never really going to take together. If he has relatives who speak the language, he needs to start writing to them.

Family genealogy. He learns about general history by learning about his personal history. His grandparents were from a certain place and time, went to certain schools, did certain things for a living, did certain things for fun, suffered and died from certain awful diseases. Can you learn anything about genetics from your research? Family predispositions to certain ailments? Figure out how to show the tree best, how to calculate how many ancestors he had going back a certain number of years, how to solve problems, how to find elusive answers or make reasonable guesses. He writes a report and creates wall charts. He starts a Facebook group restricted only to relatives and uses it to gather and distribute genealogical information. Get old pictures and identify the people in them. Put together a real book and share it with relatives -- maybe they can order printed copies online. Get the parents to stump up some money for database access.
posted by pracowity at 5:13 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

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