I went skiing last weekend for the first time. And today I’m going skiing again.
I decided to take ski lessons for adults so that I wouldn’t break anything. It was a class of about 15 adults all with varying abilities, but all taking beginner ski lessons.
Our first set of instructions was about making sure that we were wearing our pants, socks, and snow boots correctly. It was a health and safety related matter since having your feet freeze in the mountains is probably a bad idea. Our next set of instructions was to learn to put on our skis. The instructor demonstrated and we followed. Some figured it out quickly while others fumbled around a bit. But all in all it went swimmingly … errr, skiingly.
And then finally, our first set of “real” instructions — how to ski! We were all lined up at the top of a small snow dune while the instructor stood at the bottom. He first showed us proper form — how to lean forward into the boots but not to squat too much and how and where to hold the ski poles, etc. also explaining why; we then mimicked as he checked our understanding. Then, he showed us what bad form looked like, also explaining why — leaning backwards, squatting forward, keeping the ski poles too close to the chest, etc. Then the instructor made his way to the top of the dune and showed us how to go down the hill. We watched as he went down the dune and with his momentum went slowly up another dune in front of him and then glided backwards coming to a natural stop. The instructor turned around and gave a few more tips about the sensations we would feel and our natural reactions as we go down the dune. Then he told us it was now our turn to go, one at a time.
It was a good introduction for a lot of reasons:
- He made sure that we were all adequately equipped to begin lessons.
- He demonstrated proper form and made sure that we had understood, or at the least were able to mimic.
- He explained why one form was good and why other variations were bad. He also allowed slight deviations, but re-emphasized the importance of good form.
- Before letting us loose he demonstrated what skiing should look like for us and forewarned us about the “live” pitfalls.
This is good teaching practice, in general.
Earlier this week, I asked this in a poll:
If you've ever been skiing, what happened the first time you skied?
— Manan Shah (@shahlock) February 4, 2016
Though the response was small, it seems safe to say that people fell the first time they went skiing.
Ok. So now it was our turn. One at a time we went forward, skiing down the dune, slightly going up the other dune and gliding backwards. Everyone succeeded, except me. I went down the hill and tipped over. I tried getting up, but was unable. We were never explained how! The instructor came over, his eyes kind of vacant, looked at me and said, “Are you giving up?” … what! No, I’m not giving up, I have no idea how to get up! That’s a materially different problem!
He used this opportunity to demonstrate to everyone how to get up. So he showed me how to unhook my snow boot and lift myself up. Then he said, “No one falls in my lessons.” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that statement. Was I being told that I didn’t fall? Was I being told that I wasn’t part of his lesson? Was I being told that I was his first failure? Who knows.
Next, as we were all facing the direction in which we had skied, we were given instruction on how to side-step up the dune. And again what happens if we do it incorrectly, namely that we would go back down the dune. This time we were to go up the dune in tandem, no need to do this one at a time.
Many students made it up without a problem, some skied backwards, and a few others fell. Me? Well, I got turned around a little and ended up skiing probably a hundred feet away from the group almost back to the entrance. Oops. Now I had to figure out how to make it back to the group. All this while, others had made it back to the dune and the next set of instructions on how to turn were being given. But I was too far away to hear the instructions since I was trying to make my way back to the group. By the time I got to the top, it was my turn to ski down and make a turn.
The instructor noticed that it was me and his shoulders dropped, almost in resignation — “oh dear, it’s this guy” is what his body language was saying. So he told me to come down and turn right. But I had no idea how, so I asked. And he demonstrated, emphasizing not to lean with my body but to point the ski and lean in with my toe or something like this. So I came down the dune and didn’t make a turn. But I didn’t fall either! Wahoo! The instructor pointed out that I looked unbalanced and explained what I was doing wrong. That’s great! Constructive feedback.
And once again, it was time to go back up the dune so that we could practice left turns. This time I made it up, but as I would later find out, my technique was inefficient and I was expending more energy than I needed to. Another person fell going up the dune and was left to figure it out on his own how to get up. Eventually, we were all back up the dune and now it was time to make left turns.
Once again, I came down but was unable to turn. I was given the same feedback because, well, I was doing the same thing wrong. And back up the dune we went. This time, my ski got turned slightly and back I went to the entrance. The instruction that was taking place was about how to stop / slow oneself down by forming a wedge. I missed most of this as I struggled to get back to the group. And when it was my turn to come down I just went straight down unable to slow down. Though I didn’t fall! So success in my books!
Divide and Conquer
Now, another instructor came into the mix and we were separated into two groups. Four of us went with the new instructor and everyone else went with the other instructor. I was in the group of four. A lady next to me looked at me and laughed, “I guess we’re the dummies!” and all I could think to myself was “No, they are just ability grouping.”
The new instructor started us again with going up and down the dune and giving pointers on how to adjust our form. Once it seemed like we were starting to understand, he moved us to a slope that had turns and stoppers built in — a pre-bunny slope if you will. This was all basic practice with the instructor standing midway on the track watching us giving tips.
It was generally good instruction and after a while we moved to the bunny slope. None of us made it through to the end. We were all told that we would be best served taking the intro lesson again, which made sense.
A point of this story is about the parallel in (math) education. As an instructor I understood the triage taking place and also why in certain cases there was no help given. Aside from being a business, if we just consider the educational aspect, we can see that with 15 adults and one instructor, how much time can be given to one student who is clearly well behind the pack? Is it better to sacrifice the one student so that the other 14 can keep moving along? These are sad decisions that instructors are faced with on a regular basis.
From an aggregate view, this makes sense. From an individualized view, this does not make any sense as the education death spiral is an easy one to be in.
A few points to note about this skiing experience and how it translates back to our classrooms:
- When a student does fail even at the most trivial of tasks, there is no need to call attention to the triviality of the task.
- Ignoring a failing student is failing the student.
- Differentiating / ability grouping, especially with kids, has to be done in an emotionally careful manner. Students will recognize that they are in different groups, that one group is more advanced and that they are not in it.
- As an adult and an educator taking these lessons, I didn’t care about how I was treated. But I thought about how my students would feel and I wondered if I had inadvertently treated them like this as well. I must have at some point in my teaching experience. Every educator has. But how do we create an environment where this doesn’t happen? Is it easier to say that it is inevitable?
There’s more to say, but I’m off to my second lesson. I wonder how many others from our “dummy” group are going for their second lesson or if they were discouraged with the narrative they heard and felt?