1. Lessons in learning 3
Understanding learning and how to get the most from your next lesson or winter sport holiday
When learning anything in lessons you’ll go through many different phases: from conscious to sub-conscious doing and beyond:
- You start by conscious thought on the task, where you are concentrating hard on what you’re trying to do
- Then after a while being able to do it without much thought but needing that concentration when an exterior force (i.e. ice, steepness or crowds) interferes and changes the task slightly
- Finally moving on to doing it without any thought and even being able to think about other things while doing the task (i.e. helping someone/the kids/friend, navigating to a new lift or run) and the task does not suffer even when the terrain or degree of difficulty changes
These three phases or stages of learning a skill were first proposed by Fitts and Posner in 1967 and are generally known as:
- Cognitive, sometimes known as “The Awareness phase” In this stage one is still working out what needs to be done to make it happen, this requires a lot of attention to the step by step processes. It can be tiring and the results are often slow and inefficient.
- Associative, sometimes known as “The Practice phase” In this stage the basic movement pattern is clear. The movements are more subtle and the outcome more consistent. Some attention may now be directed towards other aspects of performance.
- Autonomous, sometimes known as “The Acquired or Automatic phase” Finally after much practice this stage is reached characterized by consistent accurate apparently effortless movements are used to produce maximum result from minimum effort. Little or no conscious attention is needed.
Easy as ABC, 123?
This process isn’t necessarily linear, moving from one phase to the next, it could be cyclical or rolling. Nor is each stage equal in length nor time, individual learners can and do spend more time in one stage than others or the same learner might spend more time in one phase doing a certain task but fly through doing another task.
Once you’ve reached the autonomous phase or acquired a skill or task, you now can choose to test your achievement in some way to reach a higher goal;
- Make it different in some way, more simple or difficult, change the terrain, or the focus within the task in order to continue improving
Doing this will return you into the earlier phases of the learning process but maybe from a different angle, this is how a given skill or technique is honed and refined. With a bit of imagination almost any drill or exercise can be made more complex in order to further test the durability and adaptability of our skills. The further along the process of refinement you are the less the external and internal complexities of the task will interfere with the success of the doing of it. (See any of the drills to see how they can be made more complex).
Different strokes for different folks
In 1983 Howard Gardner proposed his theory of multiple intelligences as opposed to a general intelligence concept that covers all. Different people learn in different ways (and at different ways at different times) and this will shape their learning curve. Traditional IQ tests are aimed at a general or classic intelligence; however, the idea that there are others that may not be covered in these tests provides new options and wider scope for the learner and teacher alike. I wish some of my teachers and I had been aware of this when I was at school! It would have enabled them to work with my strengths instead of struggling against my weaknesses. We all must’ve had a child in a class who seemed academically poor but was good at sport or wood/metalwork or could play the piano without reading music.
This idea remains disputed in some circles due to absence of proof in tests. So I will list Gardner’s headings below and leave the reader to decide;
- Linguistic (good with spoken and written words)
- Logical-mathematical (good with numbers, problem solving)
- Musical (good with sounds and rhythms)
- Bodily-kinaesthetic (good with co-ordination)
- Spatial (good with objects relative to the surrounding space)
- Interpersonal (good at understanding others)
- Intrapersonal (good at understanding oneself)
These and others that might also exist are what really shape our interests and enthusiasms and therefore our learning. They may give us a head start in a job or activity and make some people seem pre-disposed or natural to a given task.
Practice It makes perfect, right?
Not necessarily, practice makes permanent-well not exactly permanent as most things can be changed with the right desire and effort. You become better at what you practice at, so, practising a weak technique will make you better at doing just that. You will ingrain that behaviour (becoming what some would refer to as a bad habit) like a computer’s default setting. Perfect practice makes perfect! So what is perfect practice?
- Knowledge of what, why and where to practice
- Honesty of where you are in relation to the given task/template
- Time and dedication to what you’re rehearsing
Some words that describe the kind of practice we’re after; quality, dedicated, intelligent and purposeful.
Nothing can really replace quality, dedicated, perfect practice that has a purpose, design or an aim in mind. Your instructor should be aware of this and should be able to find a route to help you.
Unlearning a bad habit is harder than learning good habits from the start. Ideally in lessons we should never be taught something that we then have to unlearn to progress.
Thousands of times
It is generally known that you need to practice things thousands of times before they’re autonomous or acquired.
When practising you’re aiming to replicate success or create a new success or updated default setting. Just plugging on doing the same thing over and over may not be in your best interest or interesting.
This autonomous phase of learning could become a robotic mindless action, without the touch or flair that people talk about when they describe a great performance. These can be learned through practice and refinement; consider an actor or singer who has learned their words but deliver them flat and without the emotion they need to make them come alive.
This is why practice sessions need to be:
- Focused, to get the desired outcome by reproducible design (conscious or not)
- Varied, to make this outcome adaptable, inventive and useful
- Fun, to keep it fresh and engaging
This enables the process to be developmental and progressive.
“I’ll always just keep getting better, won’t I?”
When choosing the name of our Snowsports school my wife Barbara came up with the name Alpine Learning Curves because it is a phrase we hear all the time, i.e. “it was a steep learning curve, when I changed jobs recently” also the fact that when skiing we will make curves on the snow. Hopefully you will keep improving and your learning curve will be a constant fast or slow rise. This is a bit over hopeful really as we will at times encounter problems and plateaus along the way. These are not always technical in nature, they could be;
- Psychological, physical, tactical, environmental or equipment lead issues and each will require different solutions to overcome them
If often we get used to a particular way of doing something, regardless of whether it is the most efficient or effective. Then when instructed to try it another way it will feel at the very least different if not wrong or weird. Here the trick is to avoid frustration (See example later) whilst getting in the quality, dedicated proper practice that will lead you back on the upward curve. To improve performance we may also need to challenge what we are doing, change the task in some way:
- Simplify it or the terrain you’re practising it on
- Make it harder, more complex or try it on different terrain/speed
- Challenge the way you think about it, there may be another reason to the purpose (see, why do we snowplough later chapter)
When I was learning to play golf, a scratch (low handicap) player known as “one putt Joe” suggested that I try a change in the way that I was gripping my golf club. He told me to move the thumb of my right hand from one side of the club to the other. I asked “what difference can that possibly make?” He said “try it” The difference was remarkable: I got steadily worse. I lost all ability to control the ball’s direction. My score cards went from the mid 90’s to well over 100. I got steadily worse and more frustrated. After some gentle encouragement to keep working at it and a week or so of (dedicated, purposeful) practice, something changed. I shot my first ever round below 90 easily. In fact it was 88. My on board computer had a new and more effective default setting.
For me the thing that makes this story or life lessons really cool is that the advice came from my Dad, Joe Beer senior.
Conclusion; Good instructors can adapt and use many different delivery styles in order to develop your awareness of the looks, feelings and sounds of good performance. To limit oneself towards your initial “preferred” ways of learning will do little more than re-enforce existing limitations. Expand your learning in all directions and you will be on the road towards greater learning and performance independence.