Wednesday, February 22, 2006


A case study in education

I've just got back from a ski trip in Austria. Before I tell this story, don't get me wrong: I had a great time. There was snow - lots of it, sunshine on the mountains, and of course, Gluewein and Schnapps for fuel. My skiing even improved, after we decided to have half a day of tuition to brush up on technique. But those three hours were traumatic.

Our instructor, Eric, was of the old school. I haven't come across anything like it since my first year French teacher, who threw board rubbers at us and called us 'Turks and Infidels!'

First Eric watched us ski for a few minutes, over his shoulder and said, 'Have you ever had a lesson?'. I was a bit put out, if I'm honest. I had a lot of lessons as a teenager and was under the impression I was rather good at skiing: definitely lacking control on black runs, perhaps, but able to make quick, neat turns with skis parallel, and even capable of racing slalem in the past.

Eric then gave us some pretty basic tips, and watched us practise them on every turn. We did a turn at a time and then he critiqued it, which went something like this, 'No. No. NO. I told you lean forwards: that's only 50% forwards', or 'No. No. NO. Your left, Your left! Why aren't you trying', or 'You have to try, it's all down to you. Why can't you GET IT?' The simple answer to why I couldn't get it was because I was shattered and confused by the sheer scale and intensity of the criticism (it went on for three solid hours like this).

As tears threatened (and I'll admit, they even dripped off my nose at one point), I took my mind off it be thinking what a perfect case study in bad educational practice it was. If you stand over a seven year old struggling to write a few words, and each time they form a letter, you say, 'No. No. NO. Why Aren't you trying! What's wrong with you?' That child will soon start forming the letters with more difficulty, maybe forgetting where to start putting the pen to the page. They will get confused. They will hate writing, and they will hate you. They will avoid writing when they can. This is how you cripple a learner.

I was grown up enough to manage to say things like, 'What did I do right that time?', 'Was that any better?' and 'Could I ski ten turns to get the hang of it before you feed back?', but it shocked me how it made me feel like a defenceless child so quickly. And I paid £60 for it.

I have to admit though (through clenched teeth), after putting his tips into practice for the next two days, I was a far better skier. Damn.

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