Slashing giant slalom turns like an executioner while skiing 60-plus kilometres an hour down a steep black diamond swoosh in the Laurentians of Quebec has this to say for itself: It's a new trick an old dog can learn. According to the latest in physical learning theory, the old dog can do this even if he or she has been skiing the same way for 57 years – as long as the old dog is willing to learn the new trick in more than one way.
I discovered this recently when I was invited to Mont Tremblant, the ski resort and flirtation lab 130 km northwest of Montreal, to ski for two days with the ski school's best instructors and a group of hard-driving skiers I had never met before. It felt like the plot of a murder-mystery weekend. According to Justin Fogarty, the lawyer/ski instructor who invited me along, "to be creative you have to do things outside of what you normally do."
I figured we'd start slowly. Unfortunately, thanks to a first tracks ticket, I was on the hill by 7:45 a.m. At 9 a.m., after five icy, getting-to-know-you blasts down what are often three-km-long runs, I joined my party of five fellow learners. It was minus 30 with wind chill lashed across it.
Our group's instructor, Roger Castonguay, was tall and swarthy and wore a pencil mustache and goatee that rakishly offset the famous red one-piece ski suit all Tremblant instructors wear. Meanwhile, the people I was skiing with – a former instructor and a former ski jumper among them – were all experts. They didn't really like to stop: They just threw themselves downhill at blinding speeds, carving turns in the hard mountain snow as if it were Kobe beef.
I'm a pretty good skier of the old-fashioned, tidy-panties Stein Eriksen school (so named for Norway's gold medallist and world-renowned ski instructor): I've raced, I can ski ice and deep powder, I know how to telemark, I can get down more or less any slope on any kind of skis, handily if not prettily, despite a bad knee and a nervous-Nellie disposition. I like skiing trees and powder, and making short radius turns.
But in the early 1990s, the shaped ski was invented, with a wider tip and tail and a narrower waist – a ski that turns of its own accord and makes average skiing a lot easier.
To be challenging, shaped skis require an entirely new style of skiing. I had never learned the new style; in fact, I hadn't taken a lesson in 30 years. Next to my comrades, ripping new-school down groomed black diamond runs like bolts of alpine daring, I looked like a baby waddling across the lawn in a (very full) diaper. If I hadn't been so afraid to stop, I would have been terrified. The Tremblant school of ski instruction dates back to the early 1950s, and is as known for its pedagogical methods as it is for its perfectionism. Today, there are four levels of instructors, Level 4 being the sublime if not especially well-remunerated peak of perfection. (Q: What's the difference between a Level 4 ski instructor and a large pepperoni pizza? A: A large pepperoni pizza can feed a family of four.) Students are divided not just into five skill categories, from beginner to expert, but into four learning types as well: Watchers, Thinkers, Feelers and Doers.
What's less known is that instructors divide into similar categories, according to their natural learning and teaching modes. Pedagogical styles are a hot subject in university athletic departments across the country these days. An instructor's instinctive teaching style doesn't have to match his student's learning style, but an instructor – of skiing as much as soccer or math – does have to take the full range of a group's learning styles into account.
As Bruce Kidd, the former Canadian track star turned professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto, points out, an effective teacher will vary his assignments to appeal to all learning styles. "That way, in a large class where you can't individualize it the way you can at Tremblant, you can at least improve the odds of people learning," he explains.
Castonguay, a Level 4 instructor, was, by his own admission, a doer, a lover of active experience. He didn't say much beyond "I'd like to show you some of my favourite runs," before blasting off downhill. Doers like trial and error, and are excellent teachers for skilled skiers (and other doers and feelers), because they maximize on-snow time. We had skied two hours of demanding trial-and-error runs when I asked Roger what learning type I was.
"I'd say you are part watcher and part thinker," he said. This is the worst, least instinctive, most mulishly deliberate combination there is. A watcher/thinker is basically a seized rectum on skis. But Roger had already begun to casually drop offhand remarks into his patter to accommodate my love of theory. "Let your inside ski relax a bit," he'd say, almost as an afterthought. "It's less tiring." Or he'd shout from the bottom of a pitch, "Try to push your downhill ski ahead a bit, as you come out of the turn." Or even (skiing through the trees) "Ski the spaces, not the trees!" It was like skiing with Bode Miller and Yogi Bear melded into the same person, at once intense and casual.
We finally stopped for the day at 2:30 p.m. In the old days, trying to learn on my own by sheer repetition of memorized rules, I would have skied until the lifts shut down at 4 p.m. But Tremblant's high-speed chairs and gondolas (and the fact that ski school students get to go to the front of the line) had granted us at least 20 runs, or almost 18,000 metres of vertical descent. There was no need to push it, no need for punishment. Punishment is old school. It doesn't work.
I still felt inept, but I watched Roger carefully, and did my best to ski in his tracks. I rarely managed five turns in a row that felt right. But as we took our last runs to the bottom for a beer, I noticed I was skiing faster, more in control, more aggressively and confidently. It wasn't just a question of practice and repetition: Something had changed in the mechanics of my turn. I had learned something new from Roger, but because he was a doer, and not a thinker or a talker, I couldn't yet put into words what it was.
The notion that people have distinct learning styles and that being taught in that style results in more efficient learning, has been around since at least 1984. It's called the meshing hypothesis and is still widely used by educators and coaches alike. One popular version of the hypothesis, the Kolb Theory, locates students on two intersecting axes of learning – feeling versus thinking, watching versus doing – and locates four styles of learning in between those modes (accommodating, diverging, converging and assimilating).
It all looks very impressive. There's only one problem: lining up a particular learning mode with a particular teaching mode doesn't actually make any difference to performance. Major studies in 2008 and again last month in the Journal of Educational Psychology have demonstrated this conclusively.
"There is no empirical evidence supporting the meshing hypothesis matching learning style and teaching style," Ashley Stirling, a lecturer in experiential education in the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Toronto, says. "What there is support for, if you look at experiential learning theory" – the latest thing in pedagogical circles –"is that all four modes" – thinking, feeling, watching and doing – "must be addressed in order for learning to be most effective. Learning is not just about taking in information. It's about how we take it in and how we make sense of it."
I am more comfortable relearning to ski by hearing the theory (thinking) and (watching) someone do it, but, to learn it well, I have to do it and feel it, too.
This became instantly clear with Kathy Prophet, my instructor on our second day at Tremblant. She was the polar opposite of Roger. They were both breathtakingly beautiful skiers, but there the resemblance ended. If Roger was a doer with a touch of feeler who relied on trial and error to learn and teach, Kathy – also Level 4 – was a watcher and a feeler.
Kathy stopped me twice a run to give me what the instructors like to call "tips." First she explained what she wanted me to do, theoretically – that was for the thinker in me – then she demonstrated, and told me to follow her lead (for the watcher).
"Start your turn higher, Ian, by transferring your weight to your outer leg at the end of the previous turn."
"Point your belly button at your outer ski tip through the turn, Ian."
"Bring your forehead to the handle of your pole, Ian, when you plant it on the steeper slopes."
"Ian – Ian! Keep your ankles and knees apart. You want to feel the wind in your crotch." That was the first time I ever agreed with that.
But I also had to ski, to turn the theory into felt practice, and in doing that I passed through all four modes of learning. The more I skied, the more everything came together. My turns got deeper, quicker, more precise. I felt as if I was working the hill, rather than the other way around. Whole pitches came together at once, and now I knew why. I was skiing as fast as anyone else. And this is the best thing: I felt 20 years younger. I am not exaggerating.
Five and half hours of Kathy's or Roger's time normally runs $499. But in a group of five friends – and by then it felt like we were pals – they bestow a day of graceful wisdom on you for just $145 each. That's not a lot to pay to learn to love your favourite sport all over again.
Who knows? Maybe the new experiential learning theory could even help the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is no empirical evidence linking learning styles and athletic performance, but everyone is helped by learning a task in all possible modes. Physically, most elite athletes tend to be feeler-doers (accommodaters) or doer-thinkers (convergers).
"What will make them into a Wayne Gretzky," Stirling says, "is if they can shift toward learning strategy and watching other players. That will help them learn more efficiently as people and players, and will hopefully translate into performance."
Old dogs can learn new tricks, as long as they're willing to fetch in all the different ways.