3 lessons from swim school for science teachers

Swimming pool

This image was originally posted to Flickr by ruurmo at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rufino_uribe/178577542/. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In the last few weeks of school for the year, I got the opportunity to teach swimming to a small group of students. At our school, Year 7-10 students participate in a ten-day swimming program where they learn swimming and survival skills. This year I taught six Year 8 students and the experience has enabled me to reflect on how I can improve as a science teacher. These were the lessons I learnt by being a teacher a swim school:

Lesson #1 – Know the end at the beginning

In swim school, the students I taught had to demonstrate skills such as diving, swimming continuously for 200 metres using a range of recongised strokes and survival and rescue skills in order to pass their swimming level. The students knew what they had to do to pass their level at the very start of swim school. They were shown what each skill looks like (eg. a good dive looks like) at the start either by another student demonstrating or by video. How often do we do this in regular science classes? At the beginning of a unit, do we as teacher sshow explicitly to students what they should be able to demonstrate at the end? When students learn about atoms, are they clear on what they need to be able to do at the end of the topic? This is why I’m a big fan of using learning intentions and success criteria in science lessons. This is also why I’m a big fan of using projects to drive learning. Learning intentions, success criteria and projects enable students to know where they’re heading towards.

Lesson #2 – Opportunity for mastery

Practice makes perfect. At swim school, the students practised each skill every day so they can make small improvements each day. For example students practised a quite challenging survival sequence each day where they had to tread water for 4 minutes, do a surface dive and swim underwater then swim for 6 minutes continuously using various survival swimming strokes. At the start, nearly all students found the sequence physically exhausting and could not do it. However we practised twice a day and by the 5th day of swim school, they were all able to do it. It was still challenging but they could all do it. How often in regular school science lessons do we allow students to practise the same skills until they master it? In school science lessons, we seem to allow one lesson for students to master a skill or understanding and we then move on. If the survival swim sequence was taught like a typical science lesson, all my students would be allowed one lesson to master it, then the topic would move on and the students would not be asked to demonstrate the survival swim sequence again until the end of the topic. All learners want mastery. As Dan Pink says, mastery is what motivates us to keep going. It is why people spend hours practising musical instruments. How often do science teachers allow the time and opportunity for their students to master science?

Lesson #3 – Rapport

I’m not talking about teacher rapport with students. All teachers know that rapport with students is vital for effective teaching and learning. I’m talking about rapport with students. For my swim school group, it just so happened they were a group of students who knew each other well and got along. They were supportive of each other and encouraged each other, particularly in learning challenging skills. Because of this, they were not afraid to take risks in their learning in front of each other.

I always knew that high-performing groups of students were ones that have a positive and supportive relationship with each other. Even till now I don’t think I spend enough time and effort to enable the students in my regular science classes to get to know each other as learners and develop positive relationships each other. In high school science lessons (and probably in most other subjects), teachers plow straight into content and assume that the class of young people in front of them know and get along with each other. Do we as teachers put sufficient time and resources to develop a supportive learning community amongst our students?

Knowing the end goal, enough time to develop mastery and rapport are nothing new; they are well-known essential elements for successful learning. They are also more evident in subjects that students tend to enjoy the most like sport and art. At a time where science educators are trying to figure out how to reverse the trend of declining enrolments in science in the post-compulsory years of schooling, it is a time for us to reflect how well do set up learning for our students.