Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Teaching Philosophy

I just got back from teaching at the Golden Gate Sea Kayaking Symposium. It was a blast as always. Catching up with old friends, seeing past students, making new friends, even meeting Facebook friends in person for the first time. The spirit at these events is awesome and the diversity of folks makes for great discussions. It's also interesting to get to work with coaches from all over the country and the world and see how different people do things differently.

I have noticed a bit of a trend in some of the instruction and it's something that I've been thinking about for a while. A little moment during one of my classes helped crystallize my thoughts, so I thought I would share them.

For me, teaching is about the students. It's about helping them achieve their goals in the best way possible. I don't think that's very controversial; all the great teachers I've worked with strive to find the way that works best for the students. The problem is that each student is different and their goals are different. Heck, most students don't even realize what they need to learn to reach their goals. So how do you teach to a variety of students who learn in a variety of ways and end up reaching different end results?

The trend I've noticed is one of experiential education. The idea that students learn best when they discover the concept on their own. Instead of telling them what to do, you tell them what to try and let them figure out the lesson. The instructor guides this discovery by focusing the tasks or asking questions to make the student aware of what to focus on. It's a great way to learn many things, and I definitely believe that students will retain what they learn this way more than any other teaching style. But I don't believe it's the only way to learn - or teach.

During a lunch break in one of my classes, a student remarked that they thought it was great that they had learned so much even though the instructor never demonstrated anything. The instructor responded, "That's what's wrong with the American Canoe Association. They're all about demonstration." Now, I'm an ACA Instructor Trainer. I train others on how to teach in the ACA style. I politely disagreed with the comment but didn't get into a discussion that would have been pointless and distracting to the students. But I feel the statement is wrong on many levels.

First, the ACA is not all about demonstration. It's one of the tools we use to teach. I believe it's a particularly useful and powerful tool, but it's one among many. The ACA (and myself and all the ACA instructors I know) also use guided discovery. Sometimes you use lecture, sometimes you use reciprocal learning. To dismiss the ACA because it believes instructors should have the ability to properly demonstrate the techniques and concepts that they teach seems downright silly to me.

After lunch I watched that very same instructor struggle when trying to explain a specific technique point to a student who was having trouble. The words weren't getting through. So the instructor did a quick demonstration of what he was describing and the student immediately understood. And that's the thing about discovery - it can take a while. It can also be frustrating and even lead to the wrong result. Sometimes it's better to save the student the pain and suffering and give them the answer.

It's such a situational thing. We were working with experienced paddlers on the finer aspects of technique. They already have a wealth of experience to draw from. Give them a little idea and they're capable of playing with it and expanding it. But for beginners? The ones with no context? They need much more guidance, and demonstration is a crucial part of that. So is explanation. So are goal-oriented tasks. The principle thought behind ACA style is to try to hit students with multiple approaches so that each one can grasp the idea in the way that works best for them. Then you can also focus in on an individual and their learning style and give them specific feedback in the manner that works best.

One of the problems I have with this open-ended discovery approach is that it's heavy on the conceptual and light on the practical. I've heard several instructors argue that the important thing is not what they learn that day in class, but what they end up knowing as they continue to develop their skills in the future. That's all well and good if students keep trying to learn. My experience and observation of hundreds of students over the past decade is that most kayakers go kayaking to have fun. Relatively few work to learn new things outside of a formal classroom environment. I see students at symposiums all the time who've been paddling for years, attending several symposiums, are taking advanced classes, but have very basic technique deficiencies that hold them back.

I do try to take a long term approach. I want ultimate success for my students, not just a short term fix that makes them feel good that day. It's why I teach a sweep roll that takes time to get right. It's why I focus on the basics even when they think they're ready for the advanced stuff. It's why I focus on proper technique for safety and self-sufficiency. But I also want to make sure students leave the class with something tangible and solid that they can point to and say: I'm doing this better now. Because I know there's a very good chance they're not going to do drills or put in the time to work on exercises on their own. It's a reality that I have to deal with.

I'm not trying to say that I'm right and everyone else is wrong. The people I'm talking about are highly successful coaches who have earned a lot of respect through making a lot of students happy. Seeing different styles has made me think more about what I do. I've questioned what I've been taught and I feel I've changed and developed my own style and techniques based on what I've seen work and what doesn't. Over the years I've shifted to saying (and doing) less and letting students learn more on their own - with my guidance. But I do feel that at some point there needs to be the concrete. It's not all questions and trying things out. At some point, on some topics, you need to give the details and show them what their goal should be. That's how I teach. I'll continue to learn from others and try new things, but right now I feel pretty good about how things work for me - judged by my students' success.

I'd love to hear from others out there on their teaching philosophies. Or what's worked best for you as a student. Fill up the comments and let the discussion commence.