My Turn: What is “Shadow Education”?

A woman with short red hair and a dark suit smiles at the camera.
Lana Yeganova, Ph.D. | Provided Photo

You may have come across the term “shadow education” while researching tutoring options for your child or while flipping through an education magazine, but what does it mean exactly?

Shadow education is frequently used to describe private, supplementary tutoring aimed at improving student academic performance in various subjects. The term was coined in the early 1990s, and within the last two decades, shadow education has expanded to reach almost all corners of the globe, becoming a part of daily life in an increasing number of households.

Researchers noticed a large increase in enrollment in shadow education programs in Germany during this expansion. In another cross-national study, it was found that approximately one-third of all 15-year-old students from 64 different countries/economies participate in shadow education.

At Avatar Learning Center, we see shadow education as an increasingly necessary tool for student success and academic achievement, especially among younger children, whether they are a rock star student or need a little extra help grasping concepts. Especially for young minds interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), we believe supplementary tutoring is becoming more and more essential.

Shadow education offers students a space to develop critical thinking skills and establish themselves as proficient problem solvers, key factors for academic success at any age. And, with access to technology and online resources becoming increasingly widespread, engaging in virtual forms of shadow education is rising in popularity.

Online tutoring may also be more cost- and time-effective and even more convenient for busy parents and kids with packed schedules.

Our experience shows that children respond positively when learning environments foster this critical, exploratory thinking that aims to help them understand the “why” before the “how.”

By incorporating fun brain teasers, images that help children understand the problem and highly personalized lessons that require and encourage their participation, we see students come to class excited to learn. This can sometimes be the difference between strong students and those who may be falling behind their peers.

The importance of starting early

A common subject that many students seek tutoring in, and struggle with, is math. This is often due to the way it is introduced. As educators, we believe that introducing mathematics enrichment education in early elementary school (K-2) generally leads to accelerated improvement in students’ knowledge, core proficiencies and logic and critical thinking skills, as well as an increased interest in mathematics.

Interestingly, we have observed that students who seek tutoring with the goal of remediating poor academic performance generally enroll later in life, from seventh grade and up. In these cases, while tutoring provides immediate help, it does not generally lead to the same progress that may be achieved when starting enrichment programs at an early age.

By the end of middle school, students who have not connected with math in early years may develop an adverse attitude towards the subject and are overwhelmed with problems that are not necessarily complicated but require a systemic approach.

Introducing tutoring at a young age helps children build foundational skills needed for more complex problem solving, resulting in more time and space for creative thinking and discovery to take place, which are often much more interesting to a young learner.

Final Thoughts

Starting early and building the foundational blocks students need to succeed contributes to keeping students engaged and positive about not only math, but other STEM subjects as well. If we as educators and parents can work towards providing a supportive, stimulating environment where children are empowered to learn, students can do more than keep from falling behind; they can excel.

Lana Yeganova, Ph.D., is one of five women who co-founded Avatar Learning Center, an online tutoring center which includes families and instructors based in Washington, D.C. She teaches math at Avatar and lives in the Potomac area.


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