kitchen table math, the sequel: Lessons from Ski School

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lessons from Ski School

I just picked up my kids from a day of ski school. It was a great experience for everyone. The kids seemed to enjoy the day. And as a parent, I felt like they learned a lot and were challenged appropriately for the day.

The experience made me wonder: What if academic schools were taught like ski schools? Here are some things that might change:

1. Children would be grouped by ability, not age.

Ski schools are organized by ability group, with age separation only for adult vs child. This means that the classes have children with different ages. For example, my older son, who is 8 years old, was in class with 10- and 13-year olds. And my 5 year old was in class with 3 and 4 year olds. From what I could tell, instructors, parents and children weren’t rattled by this notion.

If schools were to do the same, children would be in class with their academic peers, not their age peers. This would make it easier on teachers and students, as students would be able to focus on building the skills that they need to build, not on some arbitrary standard that someone their age should be able to do, and teachers could focus on skill-building for *all* students in the class since they would have similar ability levels.

2. Parents would be given very specific feedback about what their child need to do to get to the next level.

At the conclusion of the day, I was given very detailed feedback. For example, my older son needed to stay on the “fall line” consistently as he did the moguls. When I probed further, the instructor told me in detail what my son needs to do because the instructor had a very clear idea of what a skier of a given level should be doing.

Imagine being given very specific feedback in a parent-teacher conference: “Currently, your son has mastered 456 of our 1,234 spelling words that students need to master at this level. To get to the next level, we are focusing on subset of 124 words, mostly dealing with long vowel sounds. Here’s a list of the reference words, with your son’s progress noted.”

It would make our job as parents easier, provide transparency into the classroom, and help me answer the question “What do you do all day?”

3. Students would only be allowed to advance to the next level when they have demonstrated mastery of the current level.

My older son is attempting to get to the next level. However, they will not advance him until he consistently demonstrates the skills that are required at that level. And there is no negotiating this point. Everyone recognizes that promotion without mastery is a disaster waiting to happen.

Imagine hearing something similar from your child’ teacher: “Your son/daughter needs to become proficient at all multiplication tables up to and including 12x12, as measured by our proficiency exam . . . he’s very close, but he’ll need to focus on these problems to advance to the next level.”

4. The instructional approach and techniques at the beginner level would look quite different from that at advanced levels.

In the beginning of ski instruction, instructors use the “wedge” to teach skiing. It’s an artificial construct to help students learn how to turn and shift their weight from ski to ski. As the student progresses, the wedge is abandoned as skiers are taught to ski with their skis “parallel”. In the final stages, independent use of upper and lower body is taught. Each of these stages looks quite different, yet no one worries that it won’t eventually work.

What if the same approach were used in reading instruction? You might get this in your child’s backpack:

“Dear Kindergarten Parents,

. . . In reading instruction, we are continuing to teach children letter/sound correspondences. We are limiting our instruction of vowels sounds (e.g., short a, long a, long “o”) to isolate the effect of an “e” has at the end of some words. During this phase, the stories your child is reading won’t be “authentic”. In fact, they will sound contrived and silly because we are focused on helping them to improve their tracking skills with decodable text, and teaching them how to use punctuation marks to identify sentences and paragraphs. Eventually, as they become proficient decoders, the stories will become more authentic and sound more like stories you are used to hearing as an adult. Please bear with us and help us make this phase of learning fun by emphasizing tracking, going left to right when they read, and helping them use punctuation marks to tell them how to group words. When they don’t know sounds, simply provide the sounds to them and help them feel good about their experience with reading.”

And here’s the kicker . . . everyone in the ski school system seems completely happy with it. There is no jealousy across groups because a skier who is a “4” would be completely unsuccessful skiing in a “5” group. And parents aren’t pushing for their child to be upgraded to another level because they know it would mean misery on the mountain.

If we could only get educators to realize the beauty of this approach . . .


momof4 said...

In my experience with 4 full-time jocks, most sports work like that. Skill builds on skill and everyone understands that practice is essential. Mastery is required for promotion, even at early ages. The father of 3-year-old twins just told me that one twin had earned his starfish badge and was moved up to the next group, leaving his twin sister behind. Even at three, she could understand the teacher's explanation of what she had to do to be promoted.

Only in education are the concept of practice and mastery disdained.

SteveH said...


What ever happened to "snowplow" and "stem christie"?

I've thought about this for a long time and the conclusion I come to is that educators like to think that academic learning is so much more than skills. In fact, they don't even like to talk about any sort of bottom up connection between skills and wonderful things like understanding or critical thinking. There must be something magical that goes on. If a child is not discovering the knowledge, then it must be valued lower.

Even parents buy into it. I've seen parents who were all for practicing basic skills in soccer and baseball get all sort of funny when it came to academics, as if they were going to damage their kids with "drill and kill".

I guess it's more interesting to talk about how the brain works at cocktail parties than the benefits of ensuring that all kids master the times table in third grade.

lgm said...

My experience is otherwise. The educators understand perfectly well, but when they use acheivement grouping they are badgered to promote everyone to the top. If they don't they're accused of racism or the top children's parents are accused of tutoring to get ahead. (funny how tutoring aka private coaching is ok and necessary to make the varsity cut in several sports as well as all-county and all-state band).

Ever been at a school board meeting when someone floats the idea of endingn social promotion or adding a Transitional 1st grade program? Bring flame one wants their kid to be 'behind' his age peers. So now, we have hidden tracking so the poor kids that are behind aren't so frustrated and we wait for Gr. 7 to put the official labels on the classes (honors, regular, remedial) in each grade.

CassyT said...

What ever happened to "snowplow" and "stem christie"?

My teen-aged sons began skiing last year. Down the hill, I could hear them telling themselves "pizza", "french fry", "pizza", "french fry", which they they had learned from the classic Timeshare episode of South Park.

SteveH said...

"The educators understand perfectly well..."

It's all a big lie?

They would teach content and skills, and separate kids by ability if they could?

lgm said...

Educators already sort by acheivement and ability as much as they can under the political radar. It's that hidden sorting that leads to children not being prepared for 8th grade algebra because they were in the wrong stream in primary.

RtI, sped, and inclsion are huge $$ in the budget. RtI and inclusion are not ability grouped -they're acheivement grouped. Sped is a combo.

As my principal has told me..yes, we'd like to subject accelerate to the child's instrucitional level, but we can't guarantee the safety of a younger child in the high school, so we prefer not to. It is dangerous to excel too much in the general population.

Anonymous said...

Drop the mandatory-school age to 16(at most), thereby removing the dead wood who are being warehoused until they can leave. Move all kids with serious behavioral, psychiatric and cognitive problems to separate placement. Remove the persistently disruptive - they aren't learning and they are preventing everyone else from learning.

Insist on mastery before promotion and acceleration upon mastery, regardless of age or grade. Problem solved; there will be a whole cohort who will accelerate into HS together.

Of course, it won't happen, since it would make it obvious that all aren't academically equal or interested. And it likely would result in the wrong "diversity" pattern.

Anonymous said...

"If we could only get educators to realize the beauty of this approach . . ."

naa they'll just try to tie skiing with arithmetic in order to appeal to the kinesthetic learners.


Catherine Johnson said...

they'll just try to tie skiing with arithmetic in order to appeal to the kinesthetic learners


Catherine Johnson said...

my district would balance skiing with understanding skiing

Catherine Johnson said...

they will not advance him until he consistently demonstrates the skills that are required at that level

This reminds me of the summer, after 6th grade, when C's math teacher sent home what I recall as a list of 26 separate skills he needed to brush up on.

He was 11.

How was he going to brush up on 26 different math skills?

Was he going to write his own exercises & then do them?

And if so, how was he going to correct them?

Write his own answer key, too?

Or, if the thinking was that he needed to get himself a workbook complete with answers containing all 26 skills, how was that going to happen?

The miracle of Google, I suppose.

Catherine Johnson said...

There is no jealousy across groups because a skier who is a “4” would be completely unsuccessful skiing in a “5” group. And parents aren’t pushing for their child to be upgraded to another level because they know it would mean misery on the mountain.


That's a point I've tried to get across here. The reason we had 'pushy parents' getting their K-5 kids into the accelerated math class (which has been gone for 5 years now) was that all of the tracks were too easy -- and no one knew what was actually being taught in any given year.

If parents could read a published scope and sequence and look at honest assessments showing exactly where his child is in the sequence, things would be different.

Many of us here have had kids in over their heads in math, and NOBODY enjoyed it. It is a MISERABLE experience.

The problem for all of us was that the next level down was way down; there was no appropriate placement for our kids.

Jennifer said...

The other big difference between ski school and academic school is that ski instructors are skiing experts, hired for their expertise and expected to teach same. They aren't given special training to raise their consciousness and help the undeserved and then expected to teach "the whole child."

Tracy W said...

I suspect another difference is that at ski schools if you're not learning something you're not left for a year until you're taught it again.

This strikes me as the major problem with traditional holding-kids-back, and why studies say that the results are so bad. Let's say a kid starts failing at the start of the school year, so they have to sit through most of the school year not understanding anything, before they get held back and get to repeat what they didn't get. Or alternatively, a kid starts failing towards the end of the school year. So they're held back and spend most of the next year repeating what they already knew. Neither are good for motivation. Remedial education should be far more immediate than a year. Especially for kids.

Catherine Johnson said...

Jennifer - good point

Tracy - Do you remember that awful article about LA schools, where they were having kids take algebra 1 over and over and over again until they finally gave up & quit?

What a nightmare.

At the time, I was horrified, but now that I know what I know about why kids can't do algebra I'm even more horrified.

That isn't exactly what you're talking about, but close: it was a case of having kids re-take the exact same course they didn't get the first go-round - without ever taking them back to the prerequisite knowledge they need to learn algebra.