While working with our son Joseph on his homework and skiing earlier this year, I was reminded of the importance of fundamentals. The challenges may have seemed an epic struggle from his perspective as an eight year old. As an adult, I was better able to put them in the proper perspective. Upon reflection on the seemingly unconnected events, I find they are both important reminders about learning and life in general.
Like other children and some adults, Joseph was having difficulties with math. He was struggling with his third grade homework multiplying three digit numbers by two digit numbers. After observing him work on his problem set and asking him questions, it was clear that he understood the process even though he was getting frustrated. I discovered that he was struggling because he still didn’t have his basic multiplication table memorized. It was taking him far too long to figure out what the answer was for each simple problem ( 4 x 6 = 24, 8 x 8 = 64, etc.) and sometimes he got these wrong. After working with him over several days to master the basic multiplication table, he was able to confidently and more quickly solve the larger and more complex multiplication problems. Even though he knew he was having problems with the basic multiplication, he couldn’t diagnose this fundamental weakness as the root cause problem. The combination of the lack of experience and perspective often makes proper diagnosis difficult, especially when you are in the “thick of things”.
The other reminder occurred while we were skiing over the President’s Day holiday in Lake Tahoe. On the first day, Joseph selected ski lessons based upon his previous season’s experience since we hadn’t skied since then. This group very quickly went to the top of the mountain and did a rather challenging intermediate (blue square) run that may have been closer to a black diamond. At the end of the day, he told us the instructors moved him down a level at the lunch break even though he was doing well because he was “too slow”. Later that evening we were reviewing a friend and fellow parent’s GoPro video clip that included Joseph on part of this rather difficult run. As it turns out, Joseph was wedging (snowploughs or “pizza” skiing in the new vernacular) most of the way down. He clearly overcame the mental challenge of skiing but was using brute force to make his way down the mountain. The instructors clearly determined that his technique was lacking and moved him to a more appropriate class. Even though he was disappointed at being “demoted”, he later acknowledge that he (re-)learned a lot of fundamental techniques that greatly improved both his skiing ability and enjoyment. Watching Joseph ski a few days later, it was clear he was substantially more efficient and confident especially with his parallel turns (now called “french fries”). Motivation and enthusiasm are important but they can’t always compensate for a lack of technique or fundamental mastery.
When things aren’t working out or you want to grow to the next level, it is important to analyze the situation from the proper perspective and consider if there are fundamental weaknesses. That is what good teachers, coaches, and consultants do every day.