St. Clet, Quebec — In both the United States and Canada children spend most of their time at school. Teachers work and rework their lesson plans. Libraries swell with books on the latest teaching methods. New machinery is invented to make children learn faster, better, more willingly. And yet, on graduation, the skills they have spent so many years acquiring are still hazy.
Not so with figure-skating clubs, which in Canada are serious, professional, and successful. While watching my daughter learn to figure skate, I began to wonder what these clubs know about teaching that eludes so many schoolteachers.
First, the instructors start with the expectation that any child can learn the basics. In contrast to schools, which make assumptions about children's learning abilities based on the availability of crayons and paper at home, the educational level of the parents, and so on, there are no prior judgments made about beginning skaters.
Even characteristics that might seem significant are disregarded. Fat children, for example, are not put in special classes for the disadvantaged nor are children whose parents enrolled them in baby exercise classes singled out for success. Although it is known that girls are commonly more coordinated than boys when they are small, it is not presumed that this biological head start will make women better skaters than men.
Children are expected to learn at their own speed. Older children do not feel degraded in the presence of younger ones, for it is assumed that with practice everyone will reach the same level eventually. Each lesson consists of 15 minutes of instruction in specific skills by professional skaters, followed by guided practice for the remainder of the hour.
Practice is supervised by 18-year-old trainers who have mastered the basic course themselves and parent volunteers who provide encouragement to the children and make sure they concentrate on skills they were taught that day. Thus ''homework'' cannot be put off or forgotten or even done incorrectly. A child cannot fail over and over again because her mistakes are corrected on the spot.
Tests are not avoided because they detract from the fun of learning. While it is true that skating is fun, no one has to convince children that it is more fun if you can do it with style. Style comes with the mastery of basic skills, and mastery is determined by means of tests.
Each month, examiners come from other parts of the province to administer the tests, ensuring that the standards in this tiny country village are the same as those in any large city. These examiners, like the teachers and teen-age trainers, are experts themselves. ''Expert,'' according to my daughter, means that they know how to skate marvelously well. Seeing real expertise, the novices are filled with admiration and the hope that someday they, too, will be able to move with grace.
When teachers of even the youngest children must be experts - not in children or the psychology of learning, but in the actual performance of skating - children see clearly where their hard work can lead. The role models are right there in front of them. Unlike school, where success is often seen as a ticket to the nebulous but magnificent world of status and possessions, success at skating first of all means excellence at a visible skill.
It is understood that only a small number will ever become champion skaters. After two or three years spent perfecting basic techniques, those who want to go on to the professional course must change their lives drastically.
Practice time increases from two hours a week to many hours a day, oftenbeginning at 5 a.m. Skates become more expensive; costumes, traveling, and private lessons consume much of the parents' salary. If proficiency in skating were necessary to become prime minister, the system would advantage the affluent , and government subsidies would have to be arranged. But the idea that professional training is suitable only for the serious produces the top quality coaches needed to inspire the young.
The arena is likely to be the town's pride. There is no trash, no sign of neglect or indifference. Maintenance people take their work as seriously as the skaters do. An ice-resurfacing machine heats and smooths the finish after each hour of wear. Young men with hammers and chisels patrol the rink, filling in small holes as they occur.
Dress codes, long ago discarded by schools for being restrictive of the child's self-expression, are strictly enforced on the ice. No jeans are allowed, gloves are a must, and hair must be fastened neatly in place.
These rules are ostensibly for the children's safety, but they also clearly announce that learning to skate is something significant.
Perhaps, as my daughter points out, skating cannot really be compared to school because nobody has to learn to skate.
But even though there are no truant officers, children appear at the rink voluntarily. They want to learn; they beg their parents for lessons. Somehow the rules, the tests, the friendly but no-nonsense discipline do not make the ice rink a dismal prison but a place where something important is happening.
And while the skills involved in learning the three Rs may be more numerous than those necessary for skating, they are not really more difficult. Any child who can draw an imaginary line on the ice and then make half-circles along it, first with one foot and then with the other, can learn to put a period at the end of a sentence.