Researching snowsports instruction: What’s it all about?

Written by Lesley Page, BASI Trainer and National Education Team Member

In 2016, I found myself in a position I never thought I would be in. I had applied for and been accepted as a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. This was surprising because I had never thought of myself as an academic. Although I enjoyed school and had a degree from Durham University, skiing, rather than academia, has been my passion. My adult life has been about my career as a ski teacher. Teaching skiing has been a love since I instructed my first lesson as a 16-year-old at Bracknell dry ski slope.

So how did I end up as a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh? The journey probably started after I finished BASI Level 4 and later became a BASI trainer. Like many BASI members, I have always been conscientious about doing a good job. My instructing practice is about trying to unlock a learner’s full potential. While this is a good philosophy when I have reflected on my teaching practice, there were times when I felt my lessons worked and other times when it felt like they slightly missed the mark. My curiosity about how to be a “better” ski instructor/ trainer led to many explorations that included; learning from other instructors/trainers, asking trusted mentors, engaging in another instructing system, reflecting on my practice and reading books (to name a few). These were all helpful, but I still felt like I could learn more…

In 2015, I decided to enrol on a Coaching and Mentoring Masters at Oxford Brookes University. This was my first foray back into academic life. The course was a balance of critical thinking, theory building and practical application. It was while I was engaged with this that I learned about the PhD being advertised by the University of Edinburgh. The University had decided to support a PhD scholarship that explores the snowsports instructing environment. The reason for this is that research, and particularly PhD research, has to provide an ‘original and significant contribution to knowledge’. The University recognised there is limited research into snowsports education.  With so many people working in the industry and being taught by instructors around the world, it is an area where a lot could be learned.

Candidates for the PhD went through an application and interview process that asked us to outline what research we would like to undertake. This required some careful thought. As there is no set pathway for a PhD (hence word ‘original’), I had to think about what was possible. A PhD is a major study, but it cannot include everything. I began answering this question by considering what I wanted to know, and was also aware of what BASI members wanted to know more about. After much thought, I decided that I wanted to gain a deep understanding of what ‘learning from experience’ is when developing as a professional. The snowsports environment is the perfect place to explore this question. So many snowsports instructors learn about being a snowsports instructor from ‘doing the job’. They engage with their teaching practice and learn about teaching snowsports by ‘doing’ it.

Since beginning the PhD I have been exploring the literature and evidence to understand what current research can tell me about ‘learning on the job’. Through an in-depth exploration of the literature I can say, that put simply, we don’t know much! My research is designed to capture what ‘learning on the job’ or ‘learning from practice’ actually is within the context of snowsports instructing.

Some people might question and ask; “but why?”. Why do I need to explore something that people can anecdotally tell me about? We all know that experience plays a big part in learning about something, so why does there need to be academic research on it? The simple answer is that the ability to share knowledge is how we develop and learn as a society. Undertaking research and publishing the findings is essential if personal knowledge is to be shared in a way that could then inform practice, policy and further research beyond our own unique experiences. At the moment, how we (snowsports instructors) learn ‘on the job’ is individual and personal. This PhD is a way of making known what snowsport instructors do when they learn from their snowsports practice.

Professional learning is an area of growing public and academic interest, so the insights from this study can inform what takes place within snowsports and has the potential to be of value to other professional contexts. For example, this research may prove valuable to the sports coaching community or the teaching community or professions that rely on ‘practice’ to develop knowledge. This research will help to make what we do explicit, and therefore it becomes possible to share with others, including BASI members, other snowsport alliances and the academic community. Otherwise, the incredible way that snowsports instructors turn their practice into learning experiences will get lost and therefore cannot be used to help develop future snowsport instructors.

I am hoping to share some of the insights from my research with BASI members in a series of blog posts. The aim is to start a conversation about our teaching and learning as professional snowsports instructors. The first of these blogs will discuss ways to use your teaching practice to develop as a snowsports instructor.