In a present and a future where the need for critical reflection, adaptability and students' modern and innovative thinking and actions are and will be priorities over static content reception, retention & regurgitation, we need to look beyond the traditional and less effective to ensure our students get the best possible education and learning growth available. We think to think of classrooms as ever-evolving, anytime, anywhere, anyone. The learning and pre-eminent teaching can no longer be static nor can our perception of what is a learning space and where can we obtain alternative and/or complementary learning modes, methods and mediums.
Case in point, the picture of the Papatoetoe Centennial Pools above illustrates my point made above. It is this literally fluid "learning space" where I think and arguably learn the most free, particularly, the "big picture blue-sky" ideas. Now I'm no Michael Phelps by anyone stretch of the imagination. He swam for gold, endorsements and eternal fame. I swim to try and stay young, keep myself fit and increasingly to think and think big...globally big. Increasingly the more I swim, the more I realise the educational and cognitive benefits arguably outweigh the physical benefits and just how effective swimming provides lesson that could highly likely be beneficial in the classroom.
So without further ado, here are my 10 swimming lessons for the classroom:
1. Stay afloat or you'll drown
This is really important and hence No. 1. When you’re swimming, this is a risk that harm may come to you but it is unrealistic if just as if you are in a rip where you work with the water rather than fight against it., Water can be friend and foe, just as can be a classroom to students. In both the pool and classroom, once students are comfortable and feel safe, anything is possible. Furthermore pools have floaties for the very young and lifeguards are ever present. Do you have these in your classroom?
2. If you're not in the water, you're not actually swimming
Just as reading about Paris in spring, or the great pyramids of Egypt cannot compare to actually being there, the same applies to the pool and the classroom. Students to learning in a pool actually need to get wet and get in the water. The same theory applies to the classroom. They need to be active participants in the classroom to be active learners and growers. Now, this doesn't mean that they all have to immediately be capable of jumping straight into the deep end. It also doesn't matter if they want to keep their “head above water”. What does matter is they have got into the pool.
3. Warm up
A number of athletes get injured as a result of not warming up effectively and charging into their core physical activity. The only times I have ever hurt myself while swimming was I didn't start slow and build my flexibility and pace and technique. Likewise, warming up in the classroom ensures that precious little learning time is lost to injury and the student athletes are ready to perform, learn when it really counts.
4. Swim at your own pace
Anyone that has run, cycled, swam will know the bizarre experience of the “mad hatter” who arrives at your exercise location, goes flat Olympic-style for a very brief period of time and then vanishes immediately...often to be never seen again! Swimming in a 25m indoor pool consisting of eight side by side lanes lends itself to such displays of amusement as do classrooms. I swim 3km (1.8 miles) three times a week and do so rather slowly. Usually 1-2 times per week, I get a “mad hatter” swimmer in a lane next to me who is Mr Phelps for 1-2 lengths. They look almost disgusted when I arrive at the end of the pool and then merely turn and push off again without acknowledging their world-leading performance. It is hard to not compare ourselves to others but to have effective long-term learning, it is essential that sooner or later,we are our own pace-setters and if we need to compete against someone, we compete against ourselves.
5. Swim in the fast lane
Anyone that has watched the Olympics knows that the best swimming lanes are 4 and 5. This is because as they are in the centre of the pool and as a result, there is less wash from the other lanes. This means your swimming is less affected by those swimming around you and if even if you’re a little slower than them, often you’ll get to the end of the pool quicker thanks to the magic of aquatic physics! The same applies to the classroom. If you’re “leading the pack” in terms of pedagogy and learning, a poor stroke will only bring you back to the field and not behind. In water-based sports, there is a phrase “clear-water ahead” i.e.. ... non-disturbed and fast!
6. Set targets to swim to, then temporarily forget them
Each morning, if I was get up and think “3k, 3k”, I wouldn't get near swimming this distance, not even close. Instead I focus on the following 2 lengths (warm-up), 8 lengths (10%), 16 lengths (20%) and so on. As soon as I push off for my next length, I memorise the lap I'm on and for the remainder of the length, I think about anything and everything other than swimming. It is amazing to not force your thoughts and then see where they take you. Amusingly, I think quite often I'm in such “blue-sky thinking” that I almost forget I'm swimming and quite regularly lose track of how many lengths I've completed. In the classroom setting, we need to make sure our academic “swimmers” are given the space and time and target context to be able to do likewise. Students can’t think deep and wide and big under duress of time and limited resource and physical thinking space yet this is where learning that is truly important occurs now and for the future.
7. Wear togs and goggles (and any other swimming aids required)
The first swimming lesson, my five year old ever had, he did not wear goggles. Suffice to say, that every lesson after this, he has! In my own swimming, I quickly moved from wearing traditional swimming shorts “boardies” to “swim tights” to cut down on drag in the water and to be “the best that I can be!” In my son’s case, he went from being scared of putting his head under the water to (with the aid of goggles, properly fitted mind you!) be a veritable human submarine. Where students (or swimmers) are not independently confident in the physical and/or learning space, don’t let them escape! Instead, give them whatever buoyancy or learning aids they need to continue. There is a wonderful phrase I've learnt off #twitter that suggests there should be “no passengers in a classroom”. Applying this phrase to swimming, there should be only swimmers, paddlers or water-walkers but no spectators. If you are at the pool, you’re in the pool!
8. Learn from other swimmers
In a relatively brief period of time, I've gone from a being a weak swimmer to one fairly proficiently. How did I accelerate my swimming progress as fast as possible? I copied and stole from those around me, including off the net. I learnt that a subtle change in head position makes a massive difference in reducing drag and that when you turn your head to breathe, your previous stroke creates a small air cavity for you to utilise. In a world where formally the teacher had all the “knowledge”, we had to consume at this person’s production pace. Thankfully today, learning is everywhere, in the classroom, in the pool, in the wider world. Our challenge today and tomorrow is to choose the best learnings and apply them to our own contexts.
9. Work out where you like swimming (learning) best
In Auckland, I have swam at four different complexes and despite the pool being consistently 25m in length, everything else is different from the water temperature, pool depth, lane widths, beauty (or otherwise) of location and significantly, fellow swimmers. One pool on the North Shore of Auckland was located in a cold, dark concrete “basement” accompanied by the most scenic view of a car park. Another in Manukau (Auckland) has a very deep pool and without any lines in the centre of the lanes. Needless to say, it is very difficult staying on track and staying centred. In contrast to these two locations, my favourite locations Massey Park Pools (Papakura) and Centennial Pools (Papatoetoe) are fantastic all-round environments. The staff are friendly, the facilities are spotless, the swimmers are friendly, the lanes are clearly marked and the water is warm. There is no effort needed on my behalf to belong here, to feel comfortable. It is natural for me to swim and think here. Would/do your students feel the same way about the learning space that you provide for them to swim in?
10. Remember to breathe & relax
To be blunt, if you’re underwater and you don’t breathe, the future’s not looking good. Likewise if one panics while in water, unnecessary harm can come to not only themselves but those around them. The best swimming tip I have ever been given is “get the breathing tight”. In swimming, once you breathe in a relaxed fashion, the body and mind relaxes, the stroke becomes assured and you start working with the water rather than against it. To breathe “naturally” in and around water is a skill and as such needs to be learnt and practised consistently. In the classroom learning environment, it is also essential that students feel comfortable that they have “breath” and are “relaxed”. A tense, authoritarian environment does little to develop cognitive thinking and innovative teaching and learning. In my world, a silent classroom illustrates suppression, one-way teaching & stagnation over collaboration, creativity and growth. Students always need fresh air to breathe, to live and to learn.
In closing, swimming offers a vast range of physical and educational benefits, many of which can be applied instantly to the classroom setting. Maybe the next time you look at your students and classroom, stop, breath and think “Do I want to develop sinkers or swimmers?”
See you at the deep end!