It’s funny how a change of context can change the roles you take on, and cause you to re-examine things you thought you knew. On Friday, as part of a trip to Finland with a group of my students, I had my first experience of learning to ski. With this group I am usually the teacher, but this was a great opportunity to reverse the roles, and learned a lot from it, not least how to get down a slope at some speed strapped to two pieces of plastic without falling over…
My world is usually dominated by thinking, both my work and much of my interests involve thinking things through and trying to understand them in my head. This experience reminded me that this is not the only way to learn, and certainly not the only way to be.
The point at which I started to have any success, and each point when I made a breakthrough, was when I stopped thinking and started feeling. When I stopped concerning myself with deciding exactly where I wanted to go with the skis and what I was going to do with them to get there, and instead focused on responding to the snow beneath my feet, trying to follow the flow of my descent rather than plan it.
The first instruction I had was basically to have a go, and keep practicing until I found out how to do it. This got me started, but I struggled a bit until student Gabriel came to join me and executed a masterstroke of teaching. He quickly picked up that I was trying to understand how the whole thing worked, and that my confidence wasn’t going to increase until I did. Instead of cajoling me to just try it, he met me where I was and explained how each part of the skis worked, the different positions I needed to use with my feet and the reasons why these were effective. It was still a case of trying to stop thinking and start feeling, but his well timed efforts to give me the information I wanted to think about gave me the confidence I needed to take my first steps (slides?) down the training slope.
Thanks to his teaching, I quickly moved on to the larger slope, but just as quickly came unstuck at the point where I was too far down to back up, but on a slope I felt was too steep for my limited confidence. In came another student, Sophie, who cajoled me step by step into getting down the slope in stages, very patiently coaching me each time I fell over on what I needed to do to remedy my mistakes. Where Gabriel had recognised my need for thinking, Sophie saw that I was right at the edge of my comfort zone, and gave me the support I needed in the very small chunks I was able to action at each moment.
I fell over a lot, quite spectacularly, and often when I was doing things I had done fine not long before (try coming off the ski lift four times in a row after many previous ascents without incident). However, every time I needed it someone came to help me up and help me figure out how to improve.
I realised a lot about myself from the whole experience. For starters I may be very used to learning, but a very specific type of learning of which physical skills like this is rarely a part. I don’t often feel out of my comfort zone with intellectual learning, but with this I certainly did, and getting to that place again was a good reminder of this. Learning alongside others was also interesting, as some of our group approached this very differently to me, launching themselves in and much more ready to lose control. I realised I find it more difficult to be out of control, yet in this case relinquishing some control was exactly what I needed to do.
I also realised just how great some of the people I get to work with are. The students I am travelling with are just about to start a very challenging experience teaching in Finnish primary schools with the same expectations as they would on a UK school experience. After getting to know them and experiencing their great qualities as teachers, and more importantly just as great people, I am not just confident they will be OK, I am actually really excited to see how they shape this experience. I wish I was a pupil in those classes they are about to go into.