Nordic Ski Instructor

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Teaching skiing

Teaching: [ role | ethics | styles | alternatives | terminology | preparations | lessons ]

Teaching styles

There are probably as many teaching styles as there are instructors, and whilst copious amounts have been written about techniques themselves, the method of getting the message across to students is often ignored. The assumption is made that either the instructor has a strong 'teaching background' (presumably in a classroom teaching environment, which often has little relevance) or that teaching skills are innate, and cannot be taught.

It is highly likely that the reader is either from a teaching background, or has the strong desire (talent?) to teach anyway, and that is possibly why few words are written in ski instructor manuals on this subject. At any rate, particular teaching styles might lend themselves well to one instructor with a very out-going personality, but would sit very uncomfortably on the shoulders of an introverted instructor (if there is such an animal). Much has been written about authoritarian vs. democratic leadership, facilitator vs. autocratic dictator, and so on. No matter what your personal teaching style is, it is important to focus on the student's needs, and not on the skill being taught. No one style of leadership is better than another, except in predefined situations: a versatile instructor is able to lead a group of reluctant school-children with authority (and lots of charisma!), and is also able to lead peers in a more laissez-faire and democratic style.

In any case, it is wise to be aware of the different styles and approaches to instruction, either to discover new ways of teaching difficult techniques, or to revitalise old and easier ones. Being aware of other instructor's teaching styles can also avoid the embarrassment and potential conflict in teaching ex-students of other instructors who might use contradictory approaches to yours. How is it possible that one instructor might use a contradictory approach? Quite simply, there are so many factors involved in learning to ski that it is easy to focus on one aspect with student 'A' and achieve results, and yet notice that the same 'aspect-focussing' with student 'B' will only make things worse.

The instructor must be flexible in teaching approaches in order to be able to pursue successful learning paths with every student in a given class. Unfortunately, there is little time available on instructor courses to develop all teaching strategies, and often the impression is given that path 'X' is the best to follow when teaching skill 'Y'. This is not because dogma dictates that this is the only way to achieve the goal of the lesson, but because experience has shown that this method has produced good results more often than not - and will therefore save everyone time and effort.

Some styles that are more familiar are outlined below - you possibly use one or two, or a combination of them already.

Traditional method

The traditional method of teaching a technique such as this is to line everyone up at the bottom of the slope (or somewhere else) in a position where the students can see the instructor demonstrating the new skill to learn. The instructor demonstrates at normal speed - the speed at which one would expect students to be able to manage towards the end of their lesson. The technique is then repeated at a slower speed, possibly with some (usually too many) key words of explanation to assist them in understanding what they must do. Time is then allowed for practice - usually one student at a time so that the instructor may observe each student carefully. This is usually followed up immediately with some 'helpful' advice, usually after only one or two attempts, in the form of telling them (individually, but often collectively) what they are doing wrong and how to 'correct it' for their next demonstration.

After merely half a dozen or so repetitions each a free-for-all usually ensues to allow the instructor to circulate through the group (and warm up after having stood still for so long), with the added benefit of creating a more informal session that allows individual star performers to progress further whilst the instructor focuses on the slower developers. As the average level of skill advances, the instructor usually makes the technique more challenging by creating obstacles in the path of the students, or by allowing the students to climb further up the slope for more speed. The instructor will invariably introduce A Game to finish off the lesson on a supposedly happy and co-operative (or competitive) note.

This formula for teaching is unfortunately often reinforced through Instructor courses and assessments, and although it is considered a successful formula for most situations, it lacks any real flexibility to cope with a variable group of students, is often unimaginative in its approach to realistic (practical) skiing, and generally develops an 'instructor versus students' hierarchy.

However, it can work extremely well in short lessons, or when there is a lot of material to cover in short periods of time, such as during Instructor courses. This style is also excellent for identifying those students who are not able to perform the skills encountered, to whom follow-up lessons are then easily applied. This method also has the added advantage of reinforcing the skill and skill level required to 'complete' the lesson.

Self-paced method

This style is practically the opposite of the traditional method, in that the student is more in control of the rate of learning, but otherwise has similarities in the way in which material is presented. In this case, however, the students are given a series of progressions to perform - either as a whole group, or as individuals.

It is then up to the students to decide how far they will progress, with the instructor assisting and providing feedback and further progressions. Individual development occurs at different rates, and it is important for the instructor to be able to keep up with each individual, and provide a lot of individual feedback. Flexibility is paramount here - from time to time some students will excel and possibly get bored (or demoralise other, slower, students), so lessons have to include lots of fun, and sharing if possible.

Unmotivated students will perform poorly using this method, and may prefer traditional teaching methods, but in cases where skill performance is the main objective (once again, during Instructor courses and clinics, SkiXC Award testing, etc.), motivation is rarely an issue. With adults, this style allows individual freedom, but within an instructor-controlled environment.

Peer-teaching method

This method is most-often used on Instructor courses, and assumes one vital point: that the students all have a greater degree of comprehension of the task at hand than normal (beginner) students. It is typified by the instructor taking less of a leading role in the dissemination of information relating to the task at hand, and is often seen in the form of the instructor asking many leading questions of the skill to be tackled.

All students are invited to participate in discussions and critical evaluation of each other's performance. The lesson progresses at a rate chosen by the students, and the direction in which the lesson heads must be carefully guided by the instructor if it is to be successful.

The student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction tends to be more equal, and an instructor-dominant hierarchy is considerably lessened. Students are also encouraged to think more critically of the skill itself, and they also learn to learn! This can lead to a greater understanding of the skill, although care must be taken to ensure that students ask each other relevant questions, and ones that follow on from each other in progressive steps. A tremendous amount of confusion can occur if the 'wrong' questions are asked, or if the 'wrong' answers are suggested.

This method is only ever successful if the instructor knows exactly what s/he is talking about. If the instructor does not fully understand the skill being taught, the lesson can easily fall into total confusion. Consequently, it is extremely important to know the capabilities of the students, both in terms of their physical, and mental, capacities. Open-minded beginners and experienced instructors will generally benefit more than intermediate skiers or inexperienced instructors. In any case, it is important that the instructor maintains control of the situation if it is to work.

Person-orientated method

A method that is often neglected is that of person-orientated teaching, due to the predominance of skill-orientated lessons and ski programs. Because of this, most students can only apply to be taught specific skills, such as 'Advanced XCD', or 'Skating for Intermediates'.

Beginners, on face-value, appear to be better off, with programs designed to get them off and running (i.e. non-skill specific) - and yet the majority of instructors who teach at this level have a fixed routine of skills that they present to the group, regardless of the individuals within the group.

A good instructor, using this method of teaching, will ask the students how they can improve their skiing, rather than asking what they would like to learn, otherwise the inevitable response will be 'Make me a telemarking whizz...'. Careful questioning will allow the instructor to discover what the student(s) really want (and might realistically achieve), and all that is then required is to present a series of activities that will bring the students as close as possible to a realistic goal, having made it quite clear what a realistic goal is for each individual (e.g., beginners might need to be forewarned that they may not become a telemark whizz in a one hour lesson).

Disadvantages of this method relate to the degree of variance that might be encountered in any group of skiers - especially larger groups. Students may not get enough attention in this instance, and unless the instructor is well-prepared for all possible skill levels, and has terrain and snow to satisfy all, the group will rapidly disintegrate into a messy jumble. However, if the group is small enough, or has nearly-identical aims, then it will produce a more satisfied group of individuals at the end of the lesson than any other teaching method, especially if the identified goals have been attained.

Tour-teaching method

Most students want to learn how to cope with a variety of terrain, and apply skills that they have learnt or are about to learn. Yet many instructors isolate the skill from the terrain, and encourage practice by repetition in a given instructional area carefully prepared to maximise learning. Tour teaching is practically ignored by most contemporary instructors these days, in favour of staying in one location close to various amenities.

This is one area that Alpine instructors often excel in - it is difficult when skiing on lift-served areas not to use a variety of terrain when teaching. By way of contrast, Nordic instructors will often chose one spot or slope and instruct to death on it, only moving off for the regulation 'afternoon winding-down tour' at the appropriate time.

Think of ways of fully utilising the terrain, starting with terrain suitable for learning the essence of a technique (and showing its practical use), and moving smartly to nearby terrain that will provide more of a challenge as students progress within the lesson. This then creates a tour lesson that will show the application of the technique, and its limitations, rather than developing students' abilities to cope with only one portion of terrain, but at varying levels of 'distractions'. Slope skiing instruction is often a good example of this: by staying in one place the students will learn how to handle only one gradient and type of snow, but by gradually moving onto more difficult slopes and snow conditions the students will learn to understand, with instructor guidance, the limits of the technique and their application of it.

Teaching: [ role | ethics | styles | alternatives | terminology | preparations | lessons ]

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