Experience PCK While Skating Away From a Bear

I experienced a random act of Pedagogical Content Knowledge this afternoon so I rushed home to blog about it.

Photo: Sherlock 77 – Flickr

My kids have recently gotten into ice skating, which is convenient given that there’s a rink less than a mile from my house that has public skating every Sunday afternoon.  They like me to skate with them (which sure beats sitting on cold bleachers for two hours) but there’s one problem…

I hate ice skating–and most winter sports for that matter.  I’m all for skill-based physical activity, really. Running, swimming, ballroom dancing, rock climbing…anything that could be used effectively for escaping an angry bear…I’m all for it. But I have problems with risking serious injury for sports that require big equipment and wouldn’t be helpful if I were dropped sans equipment from a helicopter onto a Norwegian fjord.

Photo: B.L. Miers – Flickr

But, I want to support my kids and maintain the islands of common ground which I know will shrink like the polar ice as they enter the tween years. And so today I got on ice skates.  At first it was horrible.  Thanks to a year of yoga (see? useful), I could balance but I had no idea how to move.  And as my husband pulled me along the ice (Husband: “Ice skating is SUPPOSED to be romantic.”), I was loudly explaining all the reasons this experience was NOT consistent with adult learning principles and why I demanded to be pulled back to the gate (because I couldn’t get there on my own–I was stuck).

To my mind, there are 5 big pillars of Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy (which I realize is not the end-all be-all of adult learning, but it applies to me just fine).

1.  Adults learn only when they understand why they need to know. (See bear argument, above)
2.  Adults learn based on prior experience. 
(I have been ice skating twice in college and the aftermath was the most painful EVER)
3.  Adults need learning to be relevant to their lives
(This was the only reason I was on the ice–I want to be relevant to my kids).
4.  Adults prefer problem based learning
(How not to get hurt…Easy.  Get off the ice).
5.  Adults prefer to be in charge of their own learning.
(I had no useful understanding of how to skate–I was completely dependent on my husband who has had one 15 minute free lesson and therefore thinks he’s a teacher.  Humph.)

Elements of this argument (along with citations) were clearly heard across the breadth of the rink.  My comments were loud enough (or my performance so ridiculous) to grab the attention of an older man spinning in the middle of the rink.  I’d seen him there before–not an instructor, not a rink guard, just a guy who is really good at skating.

He looked amused and skated over to offer assistance.  That was excitingly luxurious–despite being in school, very few people explain things to me anymore–they expect me to figure it out myself. So I eagerly put my listening ears on, not only for skating advice but also for a meta-analysis of how he was planning to coach me, an outwardly resistant middle-aged woman.

I have no idea if he has a pedagogical background, but he was fabulous.  First, he told me what I was doing right (balance, thank you). (Note encouraging words, setting me up to be self-efficacious…I can do this!). Then he said “I have three very important lessons for you. These are critical.” (Note explicit instructions that what I’m about to hear is critical for success; these are need-to-know words as well as an “advanced organizer”– I’m prepared to listen for three things)

1.  It is ok to touch the railing, but do not hold onto it or to anyone else (like my husband who I kept forcing to drag me around), because it ruins your balance. Use a stance like a ballet dancer at the barre.

2.  Beginners should march, not try to glide. Gliding will come over time.

3.  Don’t look down at the ice, look straight out (He said he’d been watching me and that this was my primary problem–and he was right).

I thanked him, he left, and I followed his instructions so successfully that I was off on my own having fun within minutes.  Although I still maintain ice skating won’t help me escape a bear, I was able to use my “coach’s” lessons to access prior knowledge (NOT prior ice skating experience, but there were similarities to other activities) and to problem solve (push myself to skate out around the other struggling people at the rail) and to learn relevant things (my kids LOVED that I was on the ice and therefore I LOVED it…I had two little cheerleaders gliding around me at all times.  I have sweet kids) and to be self directed (now that I had some basic knowledge with which to start.)  My “coach” popped up just once more to say he was proud of me, I followed directions quite well. What a nice skater guy.

But the PCK…oh the PCK!  Let’s break it down:
1.  Subject matter expert:  The guy knows how to skate really well, spins and all.  He’s an expert to me.
2.  Pedagogical expert:  Whether or not he has the training, he has the adult learning skills down pat enough for this example.  There was encouragement, advanced organizers, cues for need-to-know, he treated me respectfully, not like the ice idiot I am…he was brilliant.
3.  PCK: He was able to spot what I was doing wrong and break it down into three easy-to-consume pointers.  And they were the right pointers, too, because they were ones I could use to begin to build my own expertise (ha! that’s a relative term) through self-directed learning.


On a separate note, last night I turned off the men’s skeleton to watch a Jon Stewart rerun.  The “Moment of Zen” was a tribute to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a clip of him talking about something a teacher had told him about acting.  It’s such a powerful message, and one that I personally need to hear frequently so I’m embedding it here so I can get to it whenever I need it.  Enjoy.



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