Lessons from ski school:

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Ski instructors are brilliant at making their learners progress in an extremely complex and challenging area. Instructors love their jobs and who would blame them? I imagine that most become instructors because they love the mountains but many become excellent instructors because of the style and processes they adopt every single day.

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Ellmau, Austria – first skiing holiday

When I was 11 years old, I went skiing for the first time. I realise how lucky and fortunate I was to have that opportunity. I still remember the name of my first ski school instructor – Sasja. Sasja taught me for 12 days in total (we went back the next year) and I learnt so much and made so much progress that I knew then I wanted to ski as much as possible and perhaps one day be a ski instructor. I also found a love for apple strudel.

Fast forward 19 years and alas, I am not a ski instructor. It wasn’t that I was bad at skiing or better with strudel – I’m actually alright at skiing which is surprising considering my lack of ability in any other sport – but ski instructors are generally able to speak 3 languages and have the ability to go skiing for months on end. Even as a real life grown up, I still insist on having lessons when I am lucky enough to ski purely because I know that within 2 hours of instruction I will be better than I ever could skiing for 2 days on my own.

I am in awe of how ski instructors teach and how as a consequence of their teaching, you feel like anything is possible in the space of a few minutes. I was lucky enough to gain a space on my school ski trip last year and go again on my second trip this half term; this year, I came to a real understanding of why I enjoyed and progressed so much in Sasja’s lessons all those years ago and thought a lot about how we could learn from ski instructors like her.

Thankfully, I can now ski backwards without worrying about falling over and I had the most enjoyable week pretending to live out my dream ski instructor life for 4 hours every day.

Apparently, I even ski like a ski instructor (which I believe means over exaggerating every movement and the fact I wear a red jacket and put my hair in plaits). I will never have Sasja’s white blonde hair, blue eyes or dutch accent but I can, at last, give advice to beginner and intermediate skiers about how to complete the next steps and hopefully feel the same sense of achievement I felt every time I had a ski lesson. Just to make clear…whenever I was having a brilliant ‘skiing backwards being bossy’ moment an actual qualified ski instructor was always close by doing the real thing – never just me!

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So, what did Sasja and all my other brilliant instructors do so well that made progression seem seamless and what are many of us therefore not doing in our classrooms to make the progress there feel stilted and difficult? Quite simply, the best instructors break everything into component parts. They tell you how to do it, model it, check that you can and then check again before checking a bit more. Yet it’s more complex than that and such practice chimes inexcusably with many discussions gone before about explicit teaching. There is definitely something in how ski instructors plan their week’s worth of lessons that we can’t ignore.
What do ski instructors do well:

Whether we like it or not, ski instructors (or instructors of any kind) do stick to the basics of direct instruction which are that:

  • Learners are taught in small groups whom are constituted by ability.
  • Attention is focused on the teacher.
  • Scripted presentation of carefully designed instruction.
  • Active responding as a group and individually.
  • Responding is cued by the teacher.
  • Frequent feedback and correction.
  • High pace.

https://psych.athabascau.ca/open/engelmann/direct.php

Here is how I have seen some of these principles in skiing lessons:
Small and focused group work:

On the first day of ski school, learners are usually all lined up and asked to ski a short distance so that instructors can determine their ability. These groups are nearly always small (maximum of 10 on our trip) and learners have all been measured against the same skill in the same way. We did this prior to the trip and it was clear that actually, the ski instructors would have been better at completing this than we were as teachers. We based our decisions on students’ and parents’ opinions of their own skiing and this was hardly ever accurate. The ski instructors did intervene in some cases and moved students around based purely on their ability. One thing I noticed this year was that students asked to move groups quite a few times. Often, this was down to confidence rather than ability. On some occasions, the instructors and teachers agreed and the student would move but it was clear that when these students did move purely because they were unsure about their ability or because they wanted to be with friends they either stopped making progress at all or regressed. What I found really interesting was that ability to complete this task was the only factor taken into account when grouping students. When we create sets or groupings in school or the classroom we often take into account a whole range of elements – usually a mix of data and subjective observations. These often contradictory factors ultimately lead to mismatched and badly formed groups. Although this could lead into another post about setting and ability groups, it cannot be denied that the group size and rigidity of the ski instructors decision making led to good outcomes.
Clarity of instructions and ‘so that…’

Small focused groups is just one reason why students make such progress when skiing. In particular, instructors instruct. They instruct clearly and precisely. They give a huge amount of time for one skill at a time to be tried and mastered and tried again. They wait for everyone in that group to master the concept before moving on. One day, when I was with an advanced beginner group, we practiced turning in the same way all day: for 4 hours. By the end of the day, the students were almost all confident in stem christie. The best ski instructors I have ever had or had the pleasure of watching teach are also those who explain why but do so briefly and succinctly.

Moreover, good instructors explain why along with the instruction. So, when learning to turn you might complete an exercise where you hold both poles in your hand and hold them above your head when you turn before placing them to face back down the valley. This year, one group I was with had to complete this exercise but around half of them did it completely wrong down the first slope. I chuckled and considered how to fix this as they were moving downhill and instinctively the instructor stopped them and demonstrated the technique again. The students tried once more and yet many of them still had their hands facing up the mountain when they shouldn’t and vice versa. In one of my ‘skiing backwards being bossy’ moments, I realised that what I always loved about Sasja and my favourite instructors was how they explained why I had to do exercise X and what the outcome should be. So obviously, I butted in and explained why we needed to do the exercise and what I believed the outcome would be. I remembered that where your torso goes in turn impacts where your hips go and where your hips go your legs go and so on. So I told the students that we want our arms in the correct position so that our body follows and your hips face downhill on the turn so that we are balanced and don’t fall over. Not falling over is usually the ‘so that…’ for most skiing exercises I believe! Either way, explaining why we were doing something using ‘so that…’ is a common feature in my explanations in the classroom and it made even more sense on the side of a mountain. Zoe Elder first introduced ‘So that…’ for explaining the purpose of a lesson. I believe it helps when explaining the purpose of every task so that students completely understand.

Breaking down the complexities:

Another element of ski instructing which I believe is the most impressive is the pace which relies on instructors breaking down the complex task into minute yet meaty sections which each build upon the previous and which you cannot progress onto without the former. The construction of their lessons has not changed in the last 19 years it would seem. Students who could not ski on Day 1 were completing red slopes in stem christie by Day 6. Students who had never been on snow before were skiing parallel because the process works. If only all our lessons and curriculum were broken down like this then I imagine progress could be quicker. If only, we had slightly longer to focus on less. This is something we need to all work towards. Not necessarily a mastery curriculum but ensuring that our curriculum has a clear and defined basis with clarity and form allowing us to build on previous learning.

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Students following the instructor after clear instructions. All attempting to ski in the same way.

I am not stating that ski instructors only follow the rules of direct instruction and this is why they are successful. I do not believe this to be the case and I know that direct instruction is more complex than the name suggests and can often be misunderstood and misapplied. However, as the years go on I am more and more inclined to believe that the principles of direct instructions need to be more widely promoted and affirmed with new teachers in particular who are often led to believe that students’ exploration and engagement with a concept needs to look or appear a certain way. Quite often, especially if teachers feel they are being watched (read judged) then they ensure that students look like they are engaging with an idea through enquiry or exploration in some way but we don’t often watch the explicit instruction taking place before this exploration – it is deemed to be something that shouldn’t be shown off. Too often, we try to hide or complete passing on the knowledge and skills before someone visits our classroom, when really this is what we should be showing off – our well crafted stage management of imparting skills and knowledge to our students should be something we are happy to share.

I have seen similar methods of teaching in other sports and when I visited schools in India. All the signs are that this does allow for a brilliant basis for learning. This year, skiing reminded me of a number of strategies I must continue to apply rigorously in the classroom and many of these are linked to Englemann’s theory of instructions but also supported by and made well known by teachers and trainers such as Doug Lemov. To clarify, I do not believe this is the only way we should cover a topic and I doubt I will ever follow the scripted direct instructions in anyway but I do believe that being explicit particularly at the start of a new concept has huge benefits for us and our students.
What we could do in the classroom:

Overall, for me, watching others teach explicitly has reminded me to implement and encourage both myself and others to:

  • Always know and plan the what over and above the activity
  • Avoid purely explorative starter/plenary exercises (seriously, imagine if ski instructors said to a beginner…what do you think skiing should look like? Give me a great example of parallel skiing. The air ambulance wouldn’t be able to cope!)
  • Use one (undifferentiated) task to provide a baseline at the start of a unit
  • Continue to use ‘so that…’ in objectives and explanations
  • Provide more time to practise and check
  • Encourage demonstration of skills individually and as a group.
  • Slimline our success criteria within units to ensure they remain focused
  • Use Doug Lemov’s ‘wait time’ and ensure students are cued to respond to questions
  • Use choral response more often
  • Keep up the pace of questioning in class.

I encourage us all to consider both the evidence (not really mentioned here but see Joe Kirby’s blog) and when we have been taught something well and why so that we can continue to question and refine what should work when we teach others.

For a much clearer explanation of my ramblings and for much better ideas, do read Ben Newmark’s brilliant advice on explicit explanations here!

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