March 19th, 2014

Four Lessons about Learning Discovered on a Chairlift


Chemistry professor Steven M. Wright has written a one-page essay about his niece, Julia, learning how to downhill ski. She was ready for her first ride on the chairlift and Wright was helping her. He’s a professor so he covered the topic in a well-organized, easy-to-understand way. It was a short, five minute lecture that ended with a repeat of the main point, “keep your ski tips up when you get on the lift.”

So they get in the lift line and ready themselves for the chairlift to sweep them up the mountain. Whoosh! And within three feet of getting on the lift, Julia lost her skis. They spend the rest of the ride brainstorming solutions to being ski-less on the lift. Wright reports that Julia did learn her lesson. She hasn’t lost her skis on a chairlift since. And Professor Wright learned his lessons—four of them.

1. It’s all about the learning. “Successful teaching isn’t measured by what I have covered; it is measured by what students learn.” Wright gave a good lecture, one that would likely receive high ratings. But when measured by its effects on learning, it was a complete failure. If students can’t or don’t apply what they “learned,” have they really “learned,” or the more interesting question, have they really been “taught?” Teaching that promotes little or no learning does raise some interesting ethical questions. But there’s no question about the lesson confirmed by this experience. “Coverage does not always equal learning.”

2. Learning requires engagement and motivation. When did Julia learn that she needed to keep her ski tips up? When she lost her skis. At that point (not before), did what she was told become relevant and meaningful. In order for students to discover if they understand, they need to be able to act on what they’ve learned. They may know the formula but if they still can’t solve the problem, chances are good, they really don’t understand. The story illustrates the powerful learning potential inherent in failure and why it is so important for teachers to help students deal with failure constructively. When you can’t do something or are clearly doing it wrong, and it’s something you need or want to be able to do, there’s compelling motivation to figure it out.

3. Process and content go hand in hand. Julia needed to learn to keep her ski tips up—that’s the content lesson. But when she didn’t, she had another problem—what to do on the chairlift when you’re there without skis. When you don’t get the content, you also have a process problem—what can you do about what you don’t understand or did incorrectly? Do you need more information? Do you need to ask a question? Should you try again? Most process issues are resolved with critical thinking and problem solving.

This reminds us how important is it for teachers to not fix problems for students, but to equip them with skills so that they can fix the problems for themselves. Wright shares an interesting image that sums up his learning on this point. “I visualize a student walking across the stage to receive a diploma carrying two suitcases, one brimming with ideas about molecular structure [remember he’s a chemist] and the other teeming skills like critical analysis and problem solving.” We should be helping student fill both these suitcases in our courses.

4. Learning must be on target. The target is the goal—what the students should know and be able to do with what they’re learning. The test, in this case an authentic assessment, was whether Julia could keep her ski tips up and it was a test she failed. Students need frequent, ongoing assessments that test what they think they know. But Julia benefited in a way some of our students don’t. Right after she failed the test, she had the teacher sitting alongside helping her figure out what she should do next.

“With these four lessons, my classroom model falls naturally into place. It must be student-centered and cooperative. Students must be actively engaged in the inquiry of chemistry, seeking theories for relevant data and solutions to authentic problems.”

Reference: Wright, S. M., (2012). Lessons learned from Julia. Journal of College Science Teaching, 42 (1), 10.

  • Susan Sullivan

    Mary Ellen,
    This is just perfect! What a great reminder that we cannot stop with what we think was perfect delivery. Kind of like purchasing that exercise bike for the New Year Resolutions. It doesn't matter that it was purchased and set up…. I really always enjoy your blogs but this is one to touch base with often. I think I will just put a picture of a chairlift on my bulletin board as a reminder.
    Thanks for your insight and passion.

    • basdenleco

      What a great metaphor "picture of a chairlift".
      Thank You

  • Gerard van Os

    A couple of years ago I changed the way I taught a class in exactly the direction described here. I gave students some information, then an assignment. The next week they would present their result, and we would together, so all students and myself, talk about the result and how it could be improved or what was whrong and why etc. Students then get another assignement and the whole process is repeated: they don't make the same mistake twice I can tell!

    I've done this several times now, and the students love it. And I!

    Thanks for the article! It helps me getting this way of working to my co-workers.

  • basdenleco

    Some great points if the participant is not getting the message then the sender needs to acknowledge and change tack.
    Too often this does not occur.

  • Laura S

    Why didn't Julia learn? Because lecture alone is not enough. This is another lesson we can take from this story: Active learning needs to accompany lecture, especially when the lesson involves skill building. Learners need to practice the skills before they are tested on them. We learn from doing. The fact that Julia never made the same mistake again after that first failed attempt proves the point. In fact, Julia is a fast learner if she learned what not to do after just one failed attempt!
    Just telling someone what to do is not enough. Pointing out examples (e.g. "look how the others are doing it") and having the learners practice in a safe environment (Julia's first experience might have been on a bench where she actually practiced flexing her ankles so as to lift the ski tips). Imagine learning to swim or to drive (or ride a bike) simply by sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture on how to do it. We had to practice and we did so in a safe environment (an empty parking lot, with daddy holding the bike and running beside us, in the swallow end of the pool) rather than being thrown into the deep end right off the bat.

  • Moin Khan

    I agree with Laura." Learning by doing" would be a proactive approach and an effective approach.

  • Gerard van Os

    A though came to me while reading Laura's comment: "what does this tell us about e.g. 'flight simulators'"? Obviously there are (at least) two kind of simulators: pure software, and the hybrid kind where your chair also moves accordingly (this is a huge simplification;-) I would say that when Layra says "just sitting in a classroom", this is similar to the software-only simulator. Laura's "safe environment" is then a simulator that has true sensory feedback (movement, noise, light, tactile, vibration, etc.).
    I think that the software simulator is not very usefull for learning and practicing skills as much as the hybrid one. Maybe for congitive skills, but for sensory-physical skills I'm not quite sure.

    While writing: what about using games in learning?

    Do I make any sense?

  • Andrea Ondish

    The visual arts teach critical analysis and problem solving.