A Personal Story about Learning Swimming

I had a new swimming teacher last night. For several months now I’ve been attending weekly swimming lessons for improvers and I’m making slow progress. Still, I go every week because after the half-hour lesson I always feel like I’ve had a good workout.

Although it’s a group lesson, last term only one other person was in my class and this term I’m on my own. So I really get individual tuition. Most weeks the format is the same.

The teacher asks me to begin with the back crawl. This is of little interest to me because I want to improve my front crawl and I can already do the inverted breast stroke. Anyway I go along with working on the back crawl in the hope that it will eventually improve my front crawl. Each week the teacher tells me that I need to “point my toes” more. I point them as much as I can. She tells me to do it more. I try and point them even more. And the cycle continues.

You would think that having given me such feedback on the back crawl for about 12 weeks and having seen little improvement in my performance, she might try another approach. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Then tonight I had a new teacher. It was a completely different experience.

First the substitute teacher asked me why I was doing swimming lessons. She asked me to do one length front crawl, one length back crawl and one length breast stroke.

She then analysed my front crawl and asked me to work on the follow-through with my arm. I was wasting effort by not following through with my arm and if I started doing that more, I would move further with every stroke.

She then looked at my breathing and noticed that I usually held my breath for long spells, exhaling just before turning my head to inhale. “Imagine going for a run and holding your breath until just before you inhale,” she said. “You just wouldn’t do it!” The comparison helped.

She got me to practise swimming lengths breathing in and out all the time. It was hard – especially when I was trying to do the stronger arm movements as well.

Why document what happened in my swimming lesson this week? It showed me the difference skilful teaching can make.

My regular swimming teacher keeps working at something she thinks is important, even though I’m just not getting it. The substitute teacher analysed what I needed to do and matched her analysis with practical suggestions to help me improve. She assessed my swimming and diagnosed exactly where my main problems lay. She then helped me work to eliminate them.

Being able to assess learners is a key skill for teachers. We need to help diverse learners identify what they need to learn and then help them find ways to learn it.

Comparing teaching in a one-to-one lesson to teaching a whole class has limits. Teaching differs in each setting. Yet, one teacher treated my one-to-one situation as if she was teaching a large group. The other tailored her teaching to what this student needed to learn.

My usual swimming teacher will be back next week. When, as usual, she asks me to point my feet when doing the back stroke, I’ll try to do it. But really, I’ll be applying the points I was given this week by the swimming teacher who so accurately assessed the learning I need to prioritise.

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