Personalised touch on the slippery slope

30th March 2007 at 01:00
I can talk about it now. The bruises, trauma and humiliation of half-term are distant enough by this time for me to share with you my latest attempt to learn to ski. I accept that it's a ridiculous ambition for a man of my years, but the family wanted to ski, so off we went to the Dolomites.

Our instructor was a patient Italian called Lucio. After the first group lesson, he took me to one side and said: "Roger, you ski like a giraffe with a tin tray under each leg. Please, I teach you on your own."

"On my own? - I'm English," I wanted to reply. "Just give me a teaching assistant to support me while I'm included in the main group, then she can explain to me what you've said and console me when the rest of the group have whizzed on ahead." But Lucio was having none of it. "It is I who teach ski," he said magisterially. So individual tuition it was.

I felt a bit sweaty in the spotlight of one-to-one. No hiding place. I thought he might tell me what to do and let me get on with it before giving me an exam on the last day. I secretly hoped for coursework because my youngest daughter is a great skier and could have helped me. Let's be fair - the ski school would want to look good in the local league tables.

But this wasn't about assessment. This was assessment for learning. Lucio skied down backwards, watching my every move. "Roger, please. I tell you bend the hips. Watch me. Like this. Now, why not you do as I say?" Because there is some connection missing between my brain and my body, Lucio. It is not for want of trying. It's not my fault. Blame my parents for not taking me on ski holidays. He somehow kept his patience, humour and positive belief that by the end of the week I would be a skier.

Assessment for learning is being a good doctor. I'm just not sure how realistic it is to expect teachers to do this for classes of 30. That's why next year we are planning much more one-to-one literacy and numeracy for those who really need it. Lucio diagnosed one fault at a time and had a bag full of remedies for each. I was leaning the wrong way, so we played aeroplanes, skied with sticks under our knees, behind our necks and in places that modesty forbids me to mention. He never repeated his explanations but always looked for a new way to get me to learn - much like my piano teacher, Alastair, who doesn't just tell me that every piece sounds as if it's being played by Pinky and Perky with their trotters tied together. Instead, he focuses on just a few problems, shows me a new technique, and amazingly the piece always sounds better next time.

Yes, I am learning to play the piano as well as ski, but not both at the same time. And I bought a boat last year. My sailing's not going too well, so I'm also learning to swim. My inability to do anything well might indicate a misspent youth, except my snooker is poor too. I suppose I'm the kind of person who just can't stop learning. It must be why I became a teacher.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon

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