We had our first family ski vacation after the Christmas holiday. Sara is quite adept on the slopes and is an experienced skier. For the rest of us boys (5, 7, 9, 12 and me the elder 40something), it was all new learning. I suffered through a day and a half finding my feet and learning how to maneuver the skis just to execute the most basic moves such as "the wedge" so I could stop and how to stand on an incline without shooting forward or ending up skiing backwards. I'm not going to kid you, I was a danger to myself and others on the slopes for at least the first half of our time out there in Colorado.
My ski instructor the first day was a grizzled veteran named Alice (sun-bleached hair, a weathered, wind-burnt face and a commanding voice that could bring everyone on the mountainside to attention with one bark). She repeatedly took my poles from me because she was insistent that everything I needed to be able to do could be mastered just by lifting my feet and turning my ankles. I wanted to believe her but was mostly just angry she took my gear away!
I learned a great deal about skiing and was reminded of what being a lifelong learner actually means during our two and a half days on the slopes. Here are the essentials I took from the experience:
1. Sometimes prior learning is just interference. As adults, we often convince ourselves that our prior knowledge is sufficient to get us through any new situation we encounter. It's not, and sometimes it actually gets in the way of new learning. I water ski - and can do so somewhat proficiently, but I quickly learned that not much about skiing on water translates to what one needs to know to ski on snow. Posture, balance, position - all quite different. Life lesson: there's no substitute for doing it.
2. The true emotional countenance of the learner is MODESTY. I was very humbled out there. I think it is good for adults to occasionally experience a situation like that. Again, most of us spend most of our time in our comfort zones - whether that's physical or mental. I'm fine on a treadmill at the Y or a long run on the trails. But put me on skis on snow and I could barely stand up. I wasn't in peril on the slopes, but I was woefully pathetic at this for a while. I had to work hard to execute basic turns and stops - while children a quarter my age whizzed right by and others two decades older than me went swooshing past with the greatest of ease. A good lesson in acceptance.
3. Frustration occurs when your ability to process new information and make sense of it in a timely manner is overwhelmed. Frustration can be valuable, but only if the learner can recognize frustration, stop the scenario playing out, and then subtask. I had a meltdown on the mountain morning of day two. An emotional meltdown. I had careened to the side, tumbled hard near some trees, and my left ski came off. For some reason, for several minutes I could not sort through (a) my anger at my ineptitude (b) how to snap my ski back on without sliding away from it because I already had one ski on (c) how I was ever going to get down the rest of the run without a similar mishap. I sent one ranting text to my wife and sat and seethed. But after I stopped seeing red, I was able to breathe deep, take one step at a time, knock the snow off my boot, get latched back onto the ski, and go.
4. Age should not be a barrier to new learning, but kids are more willing to take risks than adults. We should commend our kids for the courage and capacity they show every day in the classroom and in life, encountering new situations and learning through them. I think it is entirely possible for adults to embrace the values of lifelong learning (experiment, try new things, get out there, go for it!) but that does not mean it is easy to do so. To the contrary, I think that our prior knowledge base leads us to a life of habit and routine. We become very accustomed to the patterns we set for ourselves, and we are reluctant to deviate from those patterns. What I was awed at with kids on the slopes -the amazing young people out there- was how they were not afraid to biff, bail, crash, wipe out, or otherwise wreck - and just get back up and get going again. Just to be able to balance on a snowboard while coasting downhill rocking heel-to-toe? Wow. That perseverance is something we should all strive to demonstrate, in schooling and in life.
5. The bunny slope does not prepare you for life on the mountain, kids. I learned that one the hard way, but I think it's applicable to our schooling and life situations, too. I got real comfortable day one riding the conveyor belt up to the top of the tiny bunny run and gliding to the bottom (about 15 yards total). Heck, the grade on the decline was nothin'! Of course, it wasn't until I rode an actual lift up and stood staring down a mountainside run of several hundred yards of a comparatively much steeper descent that I actually realized this. Life lesson: no matter how challenging or rewarding the classroom experience is, it's not the real deal. Ultimately, the real lessons of life are harsher (and also much more rewarding) than the controlled artificial ones we create in our schools - whether academic schools or ski schools.
Did you have some great life lessons from an experience you recently shared with your family? Whether it was a vacation trip or a personal goal you were questing after, I would be interested in hearing what you took from that experience. I share these lessons above because I think it is important for all of us who are parents and educators to remember how challenging learning can be, and to keep encouraging our children to keep after it - while we continue to pursue our adult learning goals. Here's to you achieving your most important life goals in 2010.