My son, Adrian, is an exceptional skier. Now before you think I’m about to take credit for it you need to know that it had nothing to do with me. In my first blog post on confidence (Jan. 27) I mentioned how afraid of skiing he was when he first learned; he’s not afraid anymore. The picture on the left is of Adrian last year (age 9) so clearly fear is no longer a factor.
Every Saturday morning Adrian and I make the 35 min. drive up to Apex Mountain. Adrian is part of the Apex Freestyle Program. Now I’m not saying he’s going to the Olympics or anything, but when your ten-year old tells you that the double-black diamond runs are easy and boring you know he has some skills. Every Saturday he skis with the freestyle program. So we drive up to Apex, I drop him off with his coach, and then I head off for a day of skiing. If my wife and daughter choose to come then I ski with them; otherwise I’ll ski with some of my friends who are at Apex that day. It’s a small mountain so it’s easy to find someone.
This past Saturday, however, was a little different. There was no one for me to ski with so I decided to ski alone. One thing I learned about skiing alone is that it really tests your own commitment to improvement. I am a good skier, not great; moguls are my enemy! I found out that when you ski alone you don’t really have to ski any mogul runs. After all, no one is watching. However, I did head over to a few of the more challenging runs because I do want to improve. After bouncing my way down one of the black diamond runs – I didn’t fall, but make no mistake, I didn’t ski it – I stopped to catch my breath. As I stood – alone – thinking about what I had just done, I kept mentally referring back to the images of Adrian skiing the very same run. I wondered aloud, “How did he get so good?”
I traced it back to two things: First, he has spent a tremendous amount of time on his skis over the last 4 years; last year he skied 25 times. However, time on skis is not enough if you are consistently practicing the wrong technique. Second, and more importantly, he’s had excellent coaching. As I thought about the coaching he has received and reflected upon it within the context of what we know about assessment for learning and sound instruction I realized his coaches did all the right things.
Here’s what his coaches did:
- They figured out his strengths and weaknesses as a skier.
- They made Adrian spend most of his time strengthening his strengths in order to maintain his confidence & motivation.
- They put Adrian on the edge of improvement by introducing challenges that gradually pushed him.
- They gave him specific, descriptive feedback on how to improve.
- They taught him how to recognize his own mistakes and how to correct them.
Here’s what his coaches DIDN’T do.
- Evaluate him every week and send a report home.
- Set unattainable improvement targets.
- Keep the standards for excellent skiing a secret.
- Only tell him what he was doing wrong.
- Set a time limit for improvement.
- Scare him or stress him out by expecting too much too soon.
As I thought about Adrian’s experience, and how proficient at skiing he has become, I realized that his ski instructors got it. Everything they did with him fell in line with the current thinking about formative assessment, descriptive feedback, and the role both play in allow kids (students) to maximize their success. The self-assessment/correction piece was the icing on the cake. By teaching him the standards of excellent skiing and breaking down the techniques into manageable chunks, Adrian is able to now correct himself when something (or he) goes sideways! After all, the person who does the assessing does the learning.
How do we get more of this in our classrooms? I know it’s there, but how do we get more? How can we give our students more opportunities to strengthen their strengths, self-assess their progress, and continually sit on the edge of improvement?