The Study of Skiing (or how I feel about prizes, bribes and grades)

Last post of The Adventure of Learning series.

I did something last week for the first time. I skinned up the ski hill and skied down, all by myself.

It doesn't sound like much, but I'll explain why for me it was significant.

Two winters ago, was my first season on telemark equipment. I didn't learn to telemark though, not even close. I mostly cross country skied in the fields and woods around our chalet.

Remember that little cabin? Good memories.

Last year was our first winter in this home (this is our last). Living at the ski hill we decided to take full advantage of the opportunity and buy a family seasons ski pass. Our goal was to practice skiing as much as we could in the groomed terrain and then apply that skill to the backcountry. Backcountry skiing is a very rewarding activity (we prefer it to ski hills) but it's physically challenging and it's hard to learn the basic skills while dodging trees.

Two years ago I started with skis that worked well for backcountry rolling terrain. They were usable for downhill but more difficult to maneuver. Last March, we took advantage of an end of season sale and switched me to a more downhill friendly ski. These babies.

Months of practicing last winter, a few telemark lessons, and then an upgrade in my equipment (first the skis and then full-length skins in December) has yielded a marked improvement in my technique. And as my technique (in other words, my ability to get down the hill without "falling down the hill") has improved so has my confidence in my abilities.

Before this week I had never gone up and skied down a mountain alone.

Maybe it's the extrovert in me. I like doing physical activity with other people. Maybe it's the fact that I broke my leg alpine skiing as a child on a run I felt scared to ski, while my family had all skied ahead of me.

I don't know why exactly but I felt a first a wee bit nervous skinning up alone for the first time. The nerves subsided as I climbed higher and higher and my confidence grew. I felt so physically strong. I felt clear headed listening to the wind and the sound of my breathing as I huffed up the mountain.

That first ski down alone was glorious. The snow was perfect and it was like floating down, with minimal effort. After all the sore muscles of last winter, pushing myself physically beyond what I normally do, after the embarrassment I felt as the "beginner telemark skier" on our small community hill, this pure joy at skiing was both completely foreign and wholly welcome.

Halfway down an eagle flew over head and that was just the icing on the cake.

As I told Damien when I tromped in the door, smiling and warm in spite of the cold, it was "skiing without the angst". Skiing without the physical pain of learning a new skill and without the worry of anyone watching. It was freedom. On skis.

The next day the conditions had worsened. The snow was crusty and wind whipped. But my confidence stayed with me because the experience I had the day before. I knew I could do it.

So what if the conditions weren't perfect? The sun was shining and I felt strong and capable. It was a good feeling.

What do our children learn when we study?

Last winter I was writing a series called The Adventure of Learning. I was writing it as a learner, as a student myself studying both French and telemark skiing, and a bunch other things. (My French studies are on hold this season because of the intensity of our hike preparations).

This is the conclusion to that series. And it answers the question: what do our children learn when we study?

It's important for our kids to see us learning. For them to see us apply ourselves to study and to struggle through it.

I'll take it a step further and say, I think it's more important for them to see us applying ourselves to study and discipline, than it is for us to make them study and be disciplined.

I'm not saying we don't encourage our children to study and be disciplined but you can't "make" someone learn. You can inspire, teach, create the right conditions to encourage learning, but you can't "make" it happen.

Learning to telemark ski was really hard work. It felt vulnerable. It took courage.

That's what I want to teach my children about learning. That sometimes it's a struggle.

And then I want to teach them this also.

That when you push through the barrier, when your muscle memory takes you down the hill instead of sheer will, when your fingers remember the right keys, when the concept mentally "clicks" and all of a sudden "you get" long division or solving for x, when you've practiced "proving" enough words that you finally read them, whole, it is so worth it.

By that point though I don't have to teach them, because they know:

Learning is its own reward.

That's what our kids learn when we study. That's what they learn when they study.

Prizes, bribes, and even grades are not the reward for learning.

There is a place for grades, don't get all panicky on me. Grades are necessary in certain situations to assess knowledge. I want to know the professionals I trust have passed their exams to become doctors and car mechanics. But grades have taken on something completely different in a conveyer belt education system. They have become the reward. The knowledge, the skill, the thing being learned no longer matters, only making the grade matters.

Radical notion: an exam should be welcomed as a means to test knowledge, to test oneself, to assess your level of understanding of the material. The grade is not the reward, knowing what the test assessed is.

Celebrate the victories in your learning environment, but don't bribe your kids to learn, or study, because knowing the skill, having the knowledge, owning the strength and confidence that comes with that - skiing down the mountain on your own - is the reward. And if you shortcut that reward with false prizes you take away the joy of the real reward - which is learning itself.

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  • Aaron

    Aaron on Jan. 28, 2014, 12:18 p.m.


    Oh I am jealous.  We cross country skied a few times here in South Dakota before the snow became a thin layer of hard ice and then disapeared all together.  We are waiting for more snow but seem to just get wind.  Oh well.  

    Saw a video the other day I thought might bring even a bit more inspiration:

    Take care and keep working on that tele turn.  (I am jealous)



    • renee

      renee on Jan. 28, 2014, 9:09 p.m.

      Aaron, thanks for the video recommend. I loved it! Exactly our outdoors and life philosophy. Do awesome stuff together!


      • Lori

        Lori on Jan. 29, 2014, 1:37 a.m.

        Cool video!  We have our one day of snow here today (since or BIG snow 3 years ago), and my 9 year old boys are still out there in the dark.  They know a good thing when they see it.  The world is a playground to them!  


        • renee

          renee on Jan. 29, 2014, 1:46 a.m.

          Lori - I can just see them, literally. I've got your family photo here on the table! (PS. thanks for sending that).


  • Shelly Sangrey

    Shelly Sangrey on Jan. 28, 2014, 8:34 p.m.

    This kinda fits in with what I was just discussing with my kids today...okay, it was more like a lecture. I was venting my frustration at the fact that a ”nerd” like me who is constantly reading and learning could give birth to so many children who, at this point, seem like they have absolutely no interest in learning anything at all. I really try to be a good role model in this area, but their learning seems to have come to a complete standstill lately. The only time I can get them to do anything lately is when I initiate it. Where is the freedom in that?


    • renee

      renee on Jan. 28, 2014, 8:44 p.m.

      Shelly, when this happens to me I try to remind myself to think outside the box to see what learning is happening, even if it's not "school subject-able". The kids are always doing something and even when it looks like learning is at a standstill, it isn't, although we do have periods where everyone needs time to decompress and learning does look like it's at a standstill.

      But I don't believe learning truly stops in a home environment of inspiration, resources, activity, meaningful work, and encouragement, but it definitely might look like something other than what you're expecting ; ) That's always the challenge for me, going with the flow of what learning really is happening vs. what I "envisioned". PS. my kids don't learn the same as me either. 


      • Shelly Sangrey

        Shelly Sangrey on Jan. 28, 2014, 11:34 p.m.

        Thank you! You're always able to put things into perspective for me! I know in my heart that they're learning, but there's a nagging voice in my head telling me that that explanation won't satisfy the school district. I really do hate these strict regulations. I really do think they only hinder natural learning.


        • renee

          renee on Jan. 28, 2014, 11:41 p.m.

          Shelly, I don't know if you're referring to testing or general reporting. If general reporting, consider recording what the edu-crats want to hear. I'm not suggesting lying, I'm suggesting getting creative and viewing your children's interests through a "bureaucratic lens" (yuck) and coming up with "educational" terms for their activities. This is fairly easy for you younger children, most kids interests can vaguely be categorized into school subjects - math, reading, writing, history, science, phys ed. etc. To give you an idea for your older students check out this list of High School Credit Courses and see if you can't frame your kid's interests according to those credits, I bet you can, I do : )


          • Shelly Sangrey

            Shelly Sangrey on Jan. 28, 2014, 11:54 p.m.

            Thanks again. The funny thing is, I had planned to write a post about this very subject, and today, after seeing the kids seemingly do nothing other than pet the cats and argue, I just froze. I hope you don't mind if I link to your site when I do post.


  • marie

    marie on Jan. 29, 2014, 7:06 p.m.

    This reminds me of my first college calculus exam years ago. Even though the exam questions were a level of complexity/difficulty beyond homework assignments, the magic was that those exam questions helped me understand the subject better. 


    Regarding the other commenters' frustration that their childrens' daily activites are not seen as "educational" a portfolio of projects are really helpful. My absolutely not-science-motivated nephew got lots of positive attention (in a public school biology class) for making a movie about a rabbit colony in the local park (his motivation was figuring out how to edit action scenes for a future zombie apocolypse film he was developing with siblings, lol)


  • Amber

    Amber on Jan. 30, 2014, 4:35 a.m.

    On Sunday I took my first mountain bike ride in, oh, 12 years?  Maybe 13 years?  I've ridden on streets and such here and there, but this was the first time on a trail with rocks and sticks and such since before my oldest child was born.  Sure, it was two miles - but there were hills!  And rocks!  And I felt old and out of shape (to be fair, I did just have a baby two months ago, so I keep reminding myself to not expect too much from myself!) and I almost turned around at the first big uphill.  My husband encouraged me though, and I swallowed my pride and walked the rest of the way up the hill.  The rest was easier, like he said, and I made it there and back.  My two older kids (who ride this trail about once a week with their dad) were really proud of me when I came back and reported that I had made it all the way out and back, and sympathized about the big hill.  It was good to be able to share with them that I wanted to turn back but instead I walked up the hill and managed to make it.  I like being able to be a real person to them - not just mom who is ubiquitiously there and just sort of taking care of things in the background - someone who struggles and tries to persevere in things that are hard.

    Congratulations on your skiing accomplishment!


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