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.


  1. Hi Bryant,
    Jeff and I have been discussing different teaching styles as they apply to kayak instruction. I may be a bit biased, but I think it is important to look at the field of education and coaching for guidance. There is a ton of research on effective instruction - how students learn, retain, and are able to apply information. Perhaps we should run shuttle together next week and share thoughts. We can come up with some really good stuff for the Mendo ACA IDW/ICE in May. Best, Cate

    1. I agree that there's a lot to be learned from different fields. But there's also significant differences between a classroom environment and the outdoors. Also a lot of difference between coaching athletes who are competing and introducing beginners to a leisure activity. It's a lot to balance that doesn't necessarily have a single right answer, but it's fun trying to figure it out. I think our ICW this spring is going to be a lot of fun and have some new stuff in it.

  2. A more accurate statement would have "That is what I think is wrong with the ACA, the instructors I have encountered are all about demonstration." Experiential education in its truest sense is unguided discovery, which most people do not really want to have. I was taking a class and a student complained about the classroom sessions and said he wanted more experiential education. When the gear was unloaded at the put-in the instructor said "if you want experiential education I will see you at the take out in 4 hours, learn lots".

    I read an interesting article about the lack of empirical evidence to support learning styles. There was research that suggested people with high aptitude do better in a low structure environment, and people with low aptitude do better in a high structure environment. There is a time and place for demonstration and a time and place for guided, and unguided, discovery. Those times and places are dictated by the individuals in the class.

    1. I totally agree that most everything is ultimately dictated by the students. And we, as instructors, do need to provide guidance. I don't think there's any disagreement there. It's figuring out where that line is between too much information and not enough information. Getting the sweet spot of giving students just what they need and no more. That's the challenge.

  3. A kayak coaching offering the unprompted opinion to a student of "that's what's wrong with the ACA". How productive and professional.

    Firstly, teaching methodology that involves demonstration is central to both systems. The ACA has used 3D's and the BCU, IDEAS - both have demonstration central to the method. When delivered effectively, they are relatively similar. Both methods are more directive but if a demonstration, explanation of the technical and practice w/applied practice are what is needed, then the instruction is student centered.

    Secondly, I'm curious as to what is the "ACA style"? Shouldn't we be developing instructors with multiple tools to utilize depending on the student(s) and environment?

    Lastly, while a conceptual approach may be slightly confusing (or even frustrating) at a certain moment in time, teaching conceptually can provide building blocks for future application. That said, I think you identified something important regarding use of discovery. If not guided, it can lead to unsafe or ineffective practices. My personal preference when using discovery is to offer tasks or challenges with differing but positive outcomes, emphasizing safe/effective practices for both. For example, a half sweep to the stern and a half sweep from the bow both turn the boat. I may choose one over the other dependent on application/situation. I prefer a sweep emphasizing the stern to correct my ferry angle while a prefer a sweep at the bow to initiate a bow rudder turn in high winds.

    1. I definitely agree that there isn't an 'ACA style'. There are core concepts that work really well (we're mostly using IDEAS for technique), but each instructor should be teaching with his/her own style. I've always believed that you have to find what works for you and understand that different things work for different instructors. On that note, I want to make it clear that I believe all the instructors I've worked with have been very effective and inspiring educators. I'm just figuring out what parts of their approach might work for me and what parts just don't fit my style and personality. It's good to always to learning new stuff, even on the other side of the chalkboard, so to speak.

  4. Great conversation, Bryant! ACA, BCU, DGI, whatever. It's either good coaching or it's not.Coaches are either growing, reflecting, experimenting, or they're not. It's a shame there remains animosity, or "our way is better than yours" among organizations that seem to thrive on cross-pollination. It's the differences among organizations that often drive evolution and we all end up benefiting. MANY years ago in an ACA instructor course, I was told not to worry if my demos worked or not, just so long as they looked good. And as a Level 4 candidate, I was given the same information about coaching that a Level 2 or 3 (maybe even a level 1?) candidate was given. At the time, I found the BCU more in keeping with my own philosophies, but in recent years, it's gotten hard to tell the difference in many ways. I do wish we could do away with the silly technique the ACA teaches to go backwards, but that's another discussion!
    Having been out of the ACA for a while, I'd be curious to know how the COACHING information has evolved. It seems like a lot of coaching courses are offered as Level 1-3 which makes me think that a Level 3 coach is expected to have the same level of coaching sophistication as a Level 1 coach, just a bigger, more perfect set of personal skills. Coaching skills develop with experience just like paddling skills and I believe any scheme should reflect this in their coaching progression. I wouldn't expect a Level 1 coach to be very proficient at guided discovery (which takes a lot of sophisticated understanding to do well) and can be dangerous as well as frustrating for complete beginners. On the other hand, I'd expect their primary tool is probably going to be demos because they are generally introducing newbies to brand new things. I would expect progressively higher levels of coaches to replace demos in their tool box with an increasing number of coaching techniques while retaining the use of demos when appropriate. I am working towards my Level 4 IT status with the ACA, so maybe we'll be able to talk more at a ICW or ICE!

    1. I do think that both the ACA and BCU, and any similar organization for that matter, tend to be represented by individuals who have their own styles/skills/opinions/philosophies. So it takes a lot of exposure to many people to get a true sense of what the organization has to offer.

      My interpretation of ACA standards is that teaching should be at the same high standard regardless of the level of certification. The difference in levels is the difference in the conditions and requisite skills where the teaching takes place. There is a good argument that teaching at advanced levels will involve different techniques, and that more experienced (more highly trained) instructors will bring more to the plate. I'm just not sure how realistic it is to expect instructors to go through lengthy (and expensive) trainings to reach those higher levels, especially when the financial payback is virtually non-existent. And I think it's important that those who teach beginners be just as skilled at teaching as those who teach advanced paddlers - the key thing is that skill is evaluated with regard to success at that level, so it means something different for each level.

      While I do appreciate the concept of a progressive series of certifications, I have stayed out of the BCU system because it was cost prohibitive. While I'm sure I could learn a lot through the process and my teaching would benefit, I can't justify spending the time and money it takes to get certified through that system. The truth is most students don't know or care about instructor certification. And among those who are aware of it, only a fraction will have any thought to what level of certification their instructor has. You end up with a tiny number of potential customers who have some understanding of what the details of certification really entail. And at the end of it, it's personality as much as anything that decides if the student will like the instructor, regardless of the quality of education.

      I have seen a trend in ACA certification courses to cover a wider range of levels (1-3, 2-4), and I personally don't like it. I teach courses at a specific level, with the understanding that if personal skills aren't up to the that level it is possible to get certified at a lower level (though I only go one level down). As you said, there are differences in how you teach at different levels and I don't feel I can evaluate an instructor for level 2 abilities when they're being asked to perform in level 4 conditions. Once again, the driver behind this trend is financial. It's easier to fill a course with potential candidates if you open it up to a wider range of abilities. As in most aspects of life, considerations come into play that make the simple goal of being the best instructor a complicated question.

  5. A few more thoughts based on reading from the field of motor skill acquisition....
    Definition of learning: a) Retention - they remember it 24 hours later and b) Transfer - they can apply it in novel situations
    1) The term "learning styles" is often used poorly. VAK are not "learning" styles to me, they are "input" styles. Learning happens when you process the 'input' and file it into long term memory in such a way that it can be recalled when appropriate. I don't care if a student can perform a sweep stroke when I say "sweep stroke", I care if they can recall that particular GMP (General Motor Pattern) when they decide to turn. We tend to focus on the GMP and pay less attention to the filing process. Maybe because you can see the first, but not the second.
    2) from above, there are 2 things we are coaching (actually many more) - the GMP (a technique), and when to use it. The first thing we have to coach are the GMPs and demos are HUGELY important for nearly all students here. The importance of demos quickly fades though and becomes one of many tools for improving performance of the GMP. Soon after the student has a rudimentary and safe GMP, we need to start introducing context (when to use it) and this is where things get much more complex and interesting as far as coaching tools go. If someone already knows how to do a draw stroke, I rarely demonstrate the whole thing. We all know that you rarely do any technique the same way every time. I want my student to develop a whole range of safe variations for that technique rather than simply duplicating my perfect demo. Creating exercises that provide extrinsic feedback about the effectiveness of the effort is super important at this stage - probably even more so than feedback from the coach.
    3) Learning is HARD. In order to retain and be able to recall at the appropriate times, we have to struggle: concentrate, focus, think. There is evidence that the more parts of your brain that are engaged in this process, the more robust the retention will be. This suggests that incorporating all of VAK all the time is the best approach. AND that if we only cater to a students "preferred learning style" (preferred INPUT style), then we're making their lives too easy. Those frustrated looks on your students faces might be a good thing! To keep the pain to a minimum, we can help by guiding the students focus and concentration to the important things (the way the blade feels in the water, edging the boat so they aren't distracted by instability, timing power application to get the most bang for their buck, etc), and by making sure they aren't distracted by hunger, thirst, cold, etc.
    4) most recreational paddlers aren't looking for "hard" and frustrating. They want fun and easy. Life is hard, paddling shouldn't be. Which means most students might be on the slow learning track and that's fine.
    5) all of which doesn't even touch on cognitive skills like risk assessment, navigation, weather, etc let alone all the other factors that come into play (some of which we can control and some of which we can't): fitness, body shape, age, attitude, equipment, goal setting, feedback, practice schedules, anxiety's pretty complicated. We should get paid more.

    1. Wow! Lots of great thoughts and information in there. It reminds me of a common question I hear from people regarding the ACA and BCU. They ask what the difference is between coaching (BCU) and instructing (ACA). Realistically it's just terminology since both groups are doing the same thing. But I remember a text that defined the difference in terms of the learner. A coach has a self-motivated learner (athlete) committed to improvement over an extended period of time to reach a goal. An instructor has a learner (student) that needs motivation and is looking for immediate success and enjoyment, often with no defined goal. We all like to coach, but often end up instructing.

      Either way, you did a great job of pointing out what a difficult task it is. Hopefully those reading it who are still learning (which should be everyone) will have a greater appreciation of good instruction and a willingness to do things that are difficult. Thanks!