On Learning and Personal Initiative


Browsing through education news I came across this article announcing “Province Delays Launch of New Curriculum”. We are already part way through the implementation of the new curriculum, and I have been asked on a number of occasions my opinion of it. With my tongue in cheek I will often reply that I am hugely in favour of it; it ensures demand for my tutoring services for years to come. I have seen at least four major curriculum changes/redesigns over the past twenty years each announced with great fanfare and greeted with great optimism, and to my mind none of them have improved on the curriculum I experienced in the 80s and early 90s. Each time it seems a revolutionary solution has been found, and then five or six years later we find ourselves back at it again.

Why is this the case? Why do we keep trying to fix education, and why can’t we seem to fix it? I think the logical answer is simple: we are trying to fix the wrong thing. I am not saying that the curriculum does not have problems (it does, and they are getting worse) but changing what is taught is not as important as changing how it is taught and how it is learned. Nor is the problem the teachers. While there are good and bad in the teaching profession as in all others, teachers and students alike are victims of the real culprit: the education system itself.

Now, when I refer to the education system, I am using that term in a broader sense. I am not referring only to the way in which schools are organized, or to the administration at the local and provincial levels, or to the formation of teachers; but also to pedagogy, to the underlying philosophy by which the system operates and sustains itself, and to the expectations it engenders. What I have to say on this topic could fill a book (and maybe it will), but I have learned by observing the glazed looks that come over people when I start pontificating, that I’d better keep it short and to the point. So I’m going to dwell on one specific problem the system enculturates: lack of personal initiative.

Here, for example, is a typical student’s experience learning math. The teacher tells the students what to learn. Then the teacher tells them how to do the problems, often with itemized steps. Then the teacher assigns the homework, setting which questions are to be done and when they are due. The teacher checks if the homework is done and may check that the students have done it the right way, or show them how to do selected problems the right way. The teacher then writes a test, sets a test date, marks the test and tells the student what they did wrong and what they need to correct. The teacher assigns the student a mark, and may allow a make-up test.

Does anyone see the incredibly huge problem here? At what point in this process does the student get to show any initiative? Absolutely everything is spoon fed to them. One of the most common ailments I am asked to cure is weakness at problem solving, and relatively early on in the process we will reach a roadblock where the student finds they can’t remember what they are “supposed” to do. At this point I will ask “Ok, so what should we do next?” and I am greeted with the fish out of water face – mouth opening and closing but no sounds coming out. They seem utterly confounded when I won’t tell them the steps they forgot: “I mean I told you I couldn’t remember – what do you want from me?” The real crime is that they have forgotten that they know how to think.

If you are wondering how the scenario might be different I can tell you, from personal experience. Thanks to my ADHD I was unable to learn math properly from the math teachers at school, and so I was forced to teach everything to myself – I didn’t know any better. So I took the text-book home and figured out what to learn, in the order which made the most sense to me. Nobody told me what the rules were, so I had to figure them out myself. Now at times if I wasn’t sure about a rule I would ask the teacher about it but it was I, not the teacher who took responsibility of what and when to learn, and what information the teacher was to provide me with. I learned to be skeptical when a teacher told me something that did not seem logical; to test it myself to be able to sort out what was true. I almost never did the homework assigned; my friends thought I got away with murder but what they did not know was that I assigned myself the problems that I recognized would teach me best, instead of mind numbingly repeating the same steps over and over with different numbers. As for tests, by the time I ever got to the one the teacher provided I had already given myself many of my own, so I knew exactly what was coming, and I knew that I knew it perfectly.

I wish I could tell you that I am smarter than other people, but the truth is, I was lucky. Because I do not have a “normal” brain like everyone else, I was forced to adapt in ways that were different from others. I unintentionally avoided many of the poor learning habits that the students who come to me now seem to have absorbed. This perspective of a maverick learner provides much of the value I can give to the students I teach. Good learning habits like consistently taking personal initiative are key to success in this life.

How ADHD helped me become good at math…..


I recall ten years ago telling a friend of mine who is a counselling psychologist that I had just been diagnosed, as an adult, with relatively severe ADHD. His response was something along the lines of, “how on earth were you able to do so well at school?” I am on the inattentive and non-hyperactive side of the ADHD spectrum, so in class I appeared to be the model student… I sat there quietly, at the same time praying that the teacher wouldn’t pick me to answer a question as my brain was probably out the window and I didn’t want to have to try to pretend I had been paying attention.  Because I achieved high marks and won scholarships, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong. Nobody suspected that I had a learning disability – well at least I certainly didn’t.


In reflecting on my time at school I have tried to understand why my problems did not cripple me, and I have come to a bit of a bizarre conclusion: I think my attention deficit problems actually helped me to be a better student, particularly in math, and here are some reasons why:


Firstly, I was forced to essentially teach math to myself. I actually learned very little math from my math teachers because it was very difficult to pay attention in class. This was a very powerful advantage for me because it enabled me to learn the information in the way that best suited my needs. I was able to answer the questions I had rather than in the pre-packaged forms that someone else determined would be best for my consumption. This is not to say that one should not listen to teachers; rather that our school system proposes a trade-off: teachers have compiled and organized the information in a way that is generally efficient for the purposes of studying and academic achievement which is good, but as a result students lose the opportunities to learn how to self assess and take initiative for their own understanding.


Secondly I did not buy in to some of the implicit presumptions of the school system, because I never paid attention long enough to absorb them. For example, many people would say 85% or 90% is math is a very good mark. For me there were two marks in math, 100% and fail. People used to think I was joking if I was severely disappointed to get 98% in math but in fact I was. Math is one of those rare subjects where there are actually a limited number of rules, and it is possible to understand something perfectly. I think that many people believe achieving perfection in math is far more difficult than it really is; and for many of the students I teach overcoming that belief is often the most difficult thing. It requires things like replacing the thought “to be perfect I have to know how to solve a thousand different questions” – which seems impossible to me – with “to be perfect I have to apply these four or five ideas consistently” – which to me seems almost trivially doable.


I knew enough of myself to know that my memory was unreliable – so memorizing different steps for different problems was completely out of the question. I was therefore forced to take all the information and rules and pare them down to the minimal set of rules that had the widest application. a skill which is at the heart of efficient learning. I also had to learn how to derive new rules from more basic rules because I always feared that I would forget something, so while other people memorized for example the exponent laws, I learned how to generate every single one from the basic definition of what an exponent was. Going into a test I knew I would not be able to remember how to solve most of the questions, so I became comfortable very quickly with applying the concepts I understood well in an unfamiliar situation – which is the skill at the heart of problem solving.


These are all things that I am not convinced I would ever have done if I had been able to learn things the way “normal people do”. This is why I say that it is very true that ADHD made me good at math.

A Reflection on Bullying

Yesterday I was reflecting on the alleged bullying controversy at the Vancouver School Board. According to the report, senior staff had to go on sick leave because of bullying that was occurring in the workplace. It strikes me that our skins have become very thin these days. I can recall being bullied at school when I was young; and although there were days that I walked home from school in tears, there was no question that, although I would have to once again face my tormentors, there was no question that I would be marching back to school the next morning. I wonder about this sudden fascination we have to root out bullies and bullying; despite all our efforts to promote politically correct behavior are things really so much worse now than they were when I was young?

Granted social media and the internet has provided a powerful new medium for those who would trample on the dignity of others, and has enabled said trampling to be done with a greater degree of anonymity. I do think though that in its admirable desire to succor the victims of bullying, our society has missed out on a few aspects of the problem.

Bullying is a fact of life. It exists in the school, in the home, in the workplace, on the field and in the arena. Wherever human beings interact there is the potential for offense to be given or taken, for coercion to occur, for people to motivate their employees/students/peers/coworkers through intimidation or fear. Bullying did not stop when I left elementary school, or high school, or university. As an employee and now as an entrepreneur I have continued to experience attempts at being bullied, but now there is a major difference.

One of the many things for which I am most thankful to my parents is that, while they did not let me hide from the bullies at school, they did teach me to develop a strong sense of confidence in myself, a strong sense of personal value and identity that has ultimately inoculated me against bullying. I learned that the stronger the personal awareness of my own value and dignity, the less power a bully had over me. I also learned that at times, what I perceived as bullying was a combination of inappropriate behavior on someone else’s part, and excessive sensitivity on my own.

In my capacity as a tutor I believe that this is one of the most important lessons that I can pass on to the young men and women entrusted to me. Students need to be made aware of their innate dignity, to understand their incredible capacity for learning and creativity, to embrace their passions with determination, so that they can receive criticism and deflect aggression from a position of personal strength. Students also need to be able and willing to take a position and defend it, even if it is unpopular, because they are convinced of the truth, aware but unfazed by the criticism they may face.

I think of Winston Churchill, just prior to the Second World War, standing virtually alone against the forces for peace and appeasement with the courage to say “Britain has been offered the choice between War and Shame. She has chosen Shame, and will get War.” Churchill stood up to perhaps the greatest bully of the last century with great courage and conviction. When another such bully arises we will need a generation of people with similar conviction and courage to rise to the challenge.


Online Tutoring Becoming More Prevalent


This year, I have found that many of my students have been choosing to work with me remotely (online). In fact there is a general trend toward online tutoring as per this article https://thejournal.com/articles/2016/09/30/online-tutoring-market-expected-to-grow-6.15-percent-over-next-four-years.aspx

I have been thinking about this, and have come up with several possible reasons for the shift.

It is evident that, as online courses and online tutoring become more prevalent, students are starting to see the advantages that remote tutoring provides. Of the most self-evident reasons that students choose online tutoring, the flexibility factor is certainly one of the most prominent. With online tutoring, students and their families don’t have to make elaborate travel plans in order to attend a session. The tutoring session happens wherever the student is. With many schools now having WIFI, the tutoring lesson can actually take place in the student’s school, perhaps during a spare block or break. This means that the tutoring session can occur closer to the time the material was taught initially, and can also free up students’ time for other things.

Also, remote learning through online courses and distance learning programs partner well with remote tutoring. In remote tutoring situations, those taking online courses are already comfortable with the online learning experience. It is also true that often the support available to students through the online teaching process is less than what is available to them in the classroom. The teacher in an online course may be available for questions or respond to emails only rarely, if at all. At this point, outside support frequently becomes necessary.

Online tutoring also allows technology to be seamlessly integrated in a lesson or session. When I’m in my office with my headphones on, standing in front of my SMART Board, I’m able to provide demonstrations for the student with whom I’m working remotely as though they were sitting in front of me in my office. At the same time, I can bring in multimedia such as pictures, graphs, videos or other tools that provide good examples or learning aids. There is so much good material out there for learning!

However one of the problems students have these days is that there is sometimes too much material online that becomes difficult to sift through in order to find quality learning tools and demonstrations. A lot of time can be wasted trying to find a good learning tool. A tutor can provide quality tools and demonstrations, leaving the student with more time to focus on the lesson at hand.

For those who aren’t familiar with SMART boards, they are interactive touch screens that hang on the wall of an office or classroom. They are white boards that are somewhat like huge iPads. My SMART board sits on my wall, and I’m able to draw on it like I would in a classroom. But I’m also able to put up videos, applets, graphs, images, drawings, moving functions, and so much more. This greatly enhances the session and the learning experience of any student or group. It can be used as easily in a remote tutoring session as in a face-to-face session.

To book an online session with Michael go to: http://www.theelenchusinstitute.com/book-an-on-line-session-with-michael-mustard


Test Grade

I teach students who are at varied levels of achievement. When it comes to tutoring high achieving students, those with straight A’s or similar, problems that exist are often masked by the student’s accomplishments. However, earning good marks doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t gaps in understanding. These gaps need to be addressed to prevent stumbling blocks.

One of the skills that a good tutor can bring to the learning process is the ability to pry apart and take a good look at the way a student thinks in order to identify what gaps and weaknesses exist. This is so a student can truly excel and achieve his/her full potential.

Also, identifying and understanding these weaknesses becomes crucial when moving from high school to the post-secondary level. Because our school system focuses on methods of performance more than the understanding of concepts, many high achievers are fluent at answering questions, but may not fully understand the concepts they are learning. They may not comprehend why what they are doing works. Problems that are given to students are often systematic – teachers frequently give the same kind of problems repeatedly.

I once had a student I worked with who was very bright, but, although he achieved highly, believed that he was not good enough. In response to this belief, he ensured he did every single question in the textbook and answered all questions perfectly, in order that he would do well on the test. He did this instead of studying and attempting to truly understand the material he was learning.

Because of human confirmation bias (we don’t like to receive negative feedback), high achievers can sometimes unconsciously avoid tackling problems in new ways, or attempt problems that are presented in a different fashion, because they don’t want to feel lost or make a mistake. A crucial skill in university is to take a body of technical skills and to pare it down to a basic set of principles that cover all those skills (i.e., developing mastery).

The willingness to expose oneself to different types of problems and tackle them in different ways is crucial because one can then receive that negative feedback, and make those mistakes that are necessary in order to develop mastery. This is similar to the idea that a carpenter has a number of tools that he/she can use in a variety of situations to address a problem.

A weekly tutoring session, minimum of an hour, is ideal for students who achieve high marks. Usually, there is enough new material in a week that the tutoring session can organise and bring about understanding of the material right at the beginning so the student can create a solid foundational structure. A weekly session will also allow the tutor to identify and work on habitual patterns of thinking and performance, and pick up on gaps or weaknesses in understanding that may exist. Any discrepancies between what was taught by a particular teacher and how that lesson was interpreted by the student can also be cleared up.

Book a session here: http://www.theelenchusinstitute.com/book-an-on-line-session-with-michael-mustard


What is The Mustard Method? (and a little about me)

Hello! My name is Michael Mustard and I have been tutoring for over 20 years. My passion is helping students learn strategies for lifelong success so not only do they reach their educational goals but increase their confidence and thrive in other areas of their life.

During my own university career, I faced unique struggles. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was diagnosed with ADHD and this diagnosis helped me make sense of those struggles. The disorder affected not only my education, but my self-confidence and ability to thrive in other areas of my life.

mustardSince that time, I have read countless books and taken many courses about ADHD and other learning disabilities. I’ve learned how these challenges can be overcome. I’ve discovered how to help students who are struggling in a similar way thrive and reach their full potential. Using all of this information, I have created The Mustard Method, a holistic approach that combines tutoring and mentorship in a personalized way. I’ve used the method to help over 1000 students, some with learning difficulties, and others who are uniquely gifted and need to be challenged in a way their current education system doesn’t provide.

I would love to meet you and help you reach your goals! My academic areas of expertise include secondary and post-secondary math, calculus, physics, chemistry, economics, statistics and English. I also work with many students who are preparing to take entrance exams such as the SAT, ACT, UKCAT, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, and the LSAT.

I am available for in person tutoring at my West Vancouver office or, alternately, online tutoring sessions. I also give seminars on a wide variety of topics.

You can book a session with me here.