I have this student, let's call him M. He is the student, of all my current  students, who gives me the most trouble. Actually, he is the only one of my current students that resists real learning, and this has been on my mind for the past few weeks... though it has been an issue ever since I started working with him about nine months ago. And I think I have finally figured out what is going on.
M. is a student with a lot of energy and spirit. He can be funny, though sometimes in a snarky kind of way; he is basically a kind person and can work hard. School has not "broken his spirit", and he is full of life and vitality. I'm guessing that when he is with his friends he is the life of the party. But M. is convinced that the study of math is a useless pursuit, a tremendous waste of his time, and he resists every effort I make to help him see beyond the surface of his math course (currently Algebra 2; last spring I tutored him -- or attempted to -- through Geometry.) He sees math as a series of unrelated processes to be learned, or rather endured. The math he sees is lifeless, as though he were having to memorize a string of unrelated symbols that are ever morphing into something even more incomprehensible -- a Sisyphean task -- and he seems to be putting up with this practice, a form of torture from his perspective, only because he has not as yet been able to convince anyone that he shouldn't have to do this. When I think about our sessions I have an image of M. throwing
himself up against a brick wall time and again, failing to get over the
wall but instead bruising himself on it and getting more and more
annoyed at the wall that is in his path, all the time turning a deaf ear to my
encouragement to look over to the side and see the ladder he can climb to get over the wall without too much trouble. It's the same ladder I direct my other
students to, and they generally see the sense in taking this route....
I am, unfortunately, worn down by this, and about to give up on him. I've told his mother that I will give him one more chance (tonight) to show me that he is willing to really learn and have a good attitude in our sessions. I'm worn out from the battle. But I woke up a little while ago, in the middle of the night, with kind of a Eureka moment, and I wanted to capture this in print before I go back to sleep. What if M. could be convinced to harness his natural enthusiasm and energy in this endeavor towards looking for the reasons behind the processes he struggles to memorize? What if he could see that if he spends his efforts on real learning (getting the big picture, understanding why) instead of on resisting learning (attempting to memorize a collection of unrelated and tedious skills), he would be able to move through and past the courses that have given him the most trouble and get on to the things that he desires to spend his energy on?
I am good at helping students understand the "Why?" of things, and I believe this is the key to real learning. Perhaps I can get him to step back from the battle that we engage in every week and think about the meaning of functions, or the pattern of what he is doing... This is the biggest challenge I have encountered in my tutoring work: helping students to get out of their own way so they can learn. Somehow M. needs to see that he must put his energy into real learning instead of against it in order to be successful. Or maybe it is too late -- perhaps he has fought learning for so long that he is convinced that he can't or doesn't need to do this, and no amount of effort on my part can convince him to change his attitude or his modus operandi. We shall see.