THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE
by Joan Rostad
Teaching succeeds when the outcome of the lesson meets the intent of the student taking it.
In the United States, where educational philosophy is rooted in the transcendental theories of Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson--all advocates of the spontaneous expression of one's individuality--there lingers a belief that teaching is merely a matter of inspiration, intuition, and genetics. One is born to teach, or not. In the traditional view, the acquisition of teaching skill is a three part progression: learn the subject, get a job, and ad lib. (In the case of American ski instructors, the progression might rather be described, get a job, ad lib, and learn the subject.) This classic educational philosophy is proudly displayed at colleges and universities throughout the country, where Ph.D.'s are expected to teach--spontaneously--without any training or experience other than their own higher education.
The high value of spontaneity in our culture has damaged the quality of teaching in our classrooms, and, I believe, on our slopes. Free-form teaching is just plain sloppy--and sloppy work guarantees sloppy results. There's a saying common to championship circles: Out of discipline comes freedom. I've heard the phrase from top athletes and trainers as diverse as tennis ace Chris Evert, champion figure skater Elvis Stojko, PGA professional Tom Weiskopf, and horsemanship trainer Pat Parelli. In teaching, as in any human endeavor, quality begins with a thorough understanding of the fundamentals--whether the fundamentals are the school figures practiced by a competitive skater or the teaching styles studied by an educator.
Teaching succeeds when outcome equals intent--a fair measure of value for any profession. Likewise, ski teaching succeeds when the outcome of the lesson meets the intent of the student taking it. The intent of our students probably has more to do with increasing personal freedom than something of a technical nature. People want the freedom to ski with their friends without fear intruding on the fun. They want to be at liberty to enjoy the resort's smorgasbord of terrain and activities. They want to meet other skiers like themselves, and perhaps find a new skiing buddy. They want the self-confidence to venture into a ski shop on their own, knowing they have the power to make sound buying decisions.
At its best, teaching makes our students more free than they were before. It empowers the person and uplifts the spirit. To achieve this quality of teaching, the professional must be aware of what options exist in teaching and how to apply them in a disciplined way—with intent, not haphazardly. The options available to us are known as teaching styles. This article explains what they are and how to use them.
WHAT ARE TEACHING STYLES?
Teaching styles came to life for me through the work of educators Musska Mosston and Sara Ashworth (Teaching Physical Education, Merrill Publishing, 1986). They describe teaching styles as the patterns that
emerge when teaching decisions are made. There are three basic classes of decisions: those that happen before, during, and after the learning episode. Who makes these decisions--the teacher or the learner--differentiates the patterns, or teaching styles. Mosston and Ashworth view these styles as part of a continuum, like the colors of the spectrum, ranging from lesser to greater independence (and responsibility) for the learner.
Their "spectrum" has eleven distinct decision patterns that lead increasingly to the learner making the decisions and the teacher serving more and more as a facilitator. The eleven styles of the spectrum are: command, practice, reciprocal, self-check, inclusion, guided, convergent, and divergent discovery, learner-designed individual program, learner-initiated style, and self-teaching. These styles, which we will explore in more detail below, can be grouped into basic, discovery, and learner-directed categories.
Each of Mosston and Ashworth's teaching styles is particularly suited to reaching a specific set of objectives. No other criteria exist for valuing one style over another. The first five styles have the objective of reproducing basic information--facts, formulae, or specific movement patterns. Aerobics, for example, because it requires the choreographed reproduction of a set of movements, is well suited to a command style of teaching. A discovery style, whether guided, convergent, or divergent, encourages students to think on their own. The last three, which are learner-initiated, propel learners to develop the methods and determine the means for self-teaching.
THE BASIC STYLES
The basic styles are "how-to" styles. Mentally and physically, the learner is chiefly engaged in recalling what to do in the specific instance, and making it automatic.
The command style gives directions, such as: "Keep your eyes on an object down the hill." Ski teachers rely on the command style to impart the basic skills, to reproduce the movement patterns of the ATS Skiing Model, and to instill the rules of etiquette and safety.
The command style is one of the more efficient teaching styles, and is clearly the style that best introduces a subject. A problem arises, however, if the instructor does not extend beyond the command style during a lesson. This style allows the learner only one decision: to show up for the lesson. This is bound to chafe the average American adult or child. Indeed, I believe this is the chief cause of the negative attitude about ski school among some of our former students.
From what I've seen as a ski school trainer, divisional clinic leader and examiner, practice should have a higher profile as a teaching tool. After all, skiers benefit from actual practice more than from any other means of improvement. Of course, the skier must practice correctly or all one has is a well-executed mistake. That's where the ski instructor comes in--to provide the feedback and correction that makes the practice beneficial.
The instructor also must decide whether to mass, block, distribute, or randomize the practice. Shall the student practice part-skills or whole-skills? What is the optimal rest period between practice sessions?
When is overpractice appropriate? What role can mental practice have in a person's performance? The list goes on, depending upon the teacher's knowledge about the practice style. (An excellent source of information are the chapters on practice in Coaching, Athletics and Psychology by noted educator Robert N. Singer.)
Reciprocal style teaching has two objectives: to promote social interaction between pairs or small groups of students, and to provide more continuous feedback to the students throughout the lesson. This style is task-oriented and based on a set of performance criteria determined by the teacher. Criteria may be explained verbally or contained on a "criteria sheet." One student--the doer--performs a specific task, while another student--the observer--compares the performance with the criteria, offering feedback accordingly. The teacher works with the observers, not the doers, so as not to undermine the observers' role and their relationships with their partners. It's important to recognize that the observer does not evaluate but simply compares. For example, the task may be to keep the skis equidistant through a series of turns. The observer compares the distance between the skis based on the first turn that the doer makes. It doesn't matter if they are "nice turns" or not.
Self-check is a style intended primarily to wean the student from a dependency on outside feedback. It is not an appropriate style to use with novices, because it asks for self-evaluation, which is difficult to do when learning a new task. A lesson segment in the self-check style might involve skiing a run with the poles balanced across the wrists. The criteria could be to maintain the flow of movement down the hill without upsetting the balance of the poles. The learner decides how well he or she followed the criteria after performing the task. The teacher helps to interpret possible sources of problems or by pointing out inaccuracies in the learner's self-assessment.
The inclusion style allows the student to raise the bar, so to speak, however high he or she wants to jump. The instructor who sets a skill course in accord with this style will offer varying degrees of difficulty within the course. For example, three poles of different colors might designate turns in a slalom course that are closer to or farther from the fall line or smaller or larger in radius. The students then chooses which poles to go by when skiing the course. Similarly, the instructor uses the inclusion style when choosing runs that have an "easy" side, a "hard" side, and something moderate in between. The student, not the instructor, chooses how difficult to make the task.
The inclusion style holds that students will challenge themselves more effectively than an instructor or peers can. Inclusion strategies make particular sense in ski teaching, where the fear of physical endangerment weighs so heavily in what a particular individual will attempt.
THE DISCOVERY STYLES
The guided, convergent, and divergent discovery styles bridge the gap between the recall of specific facts and the invention of new ideas. Together, these three styles teach the ruling principles of a subject and how they interact. Knowing the "rules of thumb" about an activity promotes experimentation and discovery of the various connections between the rules.
Mosston and Ashworth regard guided discovery as the threshold to independent learning. Guided discovery simply involves logically ordering a series of questions or cues to lead the student to an important insight. These insights have to do with concepts, principles, and ideas--not specific facts or instances. For example, the instructor could use guided discovery to teach turn shape, but probably not a specific turn like the wedge christy. A specific turn involves too much "how-to," which calls for one of the basic styles.
My coach and mentor, Jim Weiss, once took me through a discovery progression--on a chair lift ride--that I'll never forget. It went something like this:
"Suppose we take the Safeway parking lot and tip it up about 60 degrees so it's really steep, and then suppose you take your shoes and socks off and ride down this incline on a bike that has no brakes," Jim said, pausing for a moment to let the image sink in. "How are you going to control your descent and eventually come to a stop?"
"Well," I answered, "I'd want to make a nice big turn and head uphill to a stop."
"Okay. What would be the shape of that turn?" he asked.
"It would be as round as it could be," I answered.
"Yes, but what shape is the turn?" he repeated.
"A circle," I said.
"Why a circle?" he asked.
"Because it doesn't require brakes," I realized.
The objective of guided discovery is to discover a "principle that is useful and can apply in many situations." This style can be hard to pull off, because it requires patience. You must have the discipline to allow a thoughtful silence. Wait, however long it takes, for the student to respond before speaking. Never answer the question yourself. Keep the atmosphere open so the student feels comfortable thinking out loud and give feedback to every response and offer encouragement when necessary. If the student's answer is incorrect, say, "Let me rephrase the question..."
Convergent discovery differs from guided discovery in that the learner, rather than the teacher, orders the steps that will lead to one correct answer. When we ask the learner to compare and contrast, put movements into a sequence, arrive at conclusions, or extrapolate from the known to the unknown, we are using the convergent discovery style. The teacher's role is to decide whether the students will be comparing, contrasting, sequencing, drawing conclusions, or extrapolating, in order to choose tasks that will involve one or more of those operations.
In practical terms, the instructor decides what the specific topic of the lesson segment will be and sets up a problem or poses a question. For example, say the topic is bump skiing. The question might be: what are the ways to turn skis in the bumps--that is, what is possible, feasible, acceptable, and finally, what is the best way? The students determine as many ways as they can think of and then try them out in order to compare, contrast, and draw conclusions.
It's important that the learner, not the instructor, decide what options are available and the effectiveness of each one. Carefully listen to and accept all the individual solutions and don't let on that you prefer one solution over another. Let the students try each other's offers before asking them to judge and keep the door open for negotiating or modifying the solutions.
Lesson segments in the divergent discovery style ask students to take the concepts, principles, and ideas learned previously and apply them to new situations. The chief objective of divergent discovery is to appreciate that there may be multiple solutions to problems. "The expression of joy results from participating in evolving new ideas--one's own ideas," say Mosston and Ashworth about this style.
Divergent discovery is particularly suited to the learning of motor skills, and especially suited to skiing. There is always another way to turn the skis or another tactic to meet the conditions. Divergent discovery can be an exciting activity for groups. For example, you might ask the group to come up with four ways to suddenly stop, or three places to turn on a bump, or two ways to ski powder. Select problems that are open to as many solutions as possible and are relevant to the group's goals and ability level.
THE LEARNER-DIRECTED STYLES
Learner-directed styles lead to complete independence for the learner, who stakes out for him- or herself whatever he wants to learn. The three styles include learner-designed individual program, learner-initiated style, and self-teaching.
Learner-designed Individual Program
A learner-designed individual program is what I might ask the junior racers I work with to develop at the start of the season. This program might include objectives related to skiing skills, cross-training and physical development, diet, sleep schedule, and social life. During the season, I would take each athlete aside from time to time to review progress and offer feedback. At the end of the season we would evaluate overall performance and negotiate next year's program.
The learner-initiated style takes effect when the student, having designed an individual program, makes decisions about how to best use the teacher as a resource. When I was a college student writing my senior thesis, I not only decided what steps to take in researching and producing the paper but also had complete freedom in how I consulted with my thesis advisor. For example, I might have asked him to use a command style and explain something factual to me. I might have wanted him to create a practice situation--a rehearsal for the oral examination, for instance. Obviously, I wanted him to evaluate my work. In these ways, I chose the style of our student-teacher interaction.
One student hires me a couple of times a year for a learner-initiated style lesson. She'll say, "Let me follow you for a run, and then you follow me for a run. After that we can decide what to work on." She chooses the runs, the focus, and the teaching style.
Self-teaching, though it occurs outside the ski school or the coaching program, happens all the time. For example, when I research, write, and submit an article for publication, I teach myself. The freedom this style presents is at once exhilarating and awful, because the student is responsible for all the decisions. However, we have the comfort of knowing that when we are able to make all the decisions about learning, we also are able to use all the styles to our advantage.
It stands to reason that the more conscious and deliberate we are in making our decisions, and the more knowledgeable we are about our options, the more effective we will be as teachers. Indeed, say Mosston and Ashworth, "Skillful teaching is the ability to move deliberately from style to style as the objectives change from one teaching episode to another."
The beacon that guides a ski teacher's decision-making, like Lady Liberty's torch, is the ideal of freedom. The student, from beginner to expert, wants greater freedom to experience the winter wonderland at his feet. By understanding that the key issue in ski teaching is greater personal freedom, we can consistently deliver for our students the kinds of experiences they crave, experiences that will make them say, "I had a whole lot of fun, and I learned some great things too!"
Musska Mosston and Sara Ashworth, Teaching Physical Education, 3rd ed. (Columbus, OH: Merrill Boooks, 1986) and The Spectrum of Teaching Styles: From Command to Discovery (New York: Longman Press, 1990).
Robert N. Singer, Coaching, Athletics and Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972).