Thursday, February 12, 2015

Teaching Progressions and Instructor Certification

Since my last post on paddler assessments, I’ve had a couple discussions with folks about the instructor certification side of things. There was some misunderstanding of exactly what instructor certification is and what it is NOT. And this was coming from some folks who are ACA certified instructors, so if they aren’t entirely clear on what it means to be certified, then it’s likely that a lot of other people out there have some misperceptions as well.

I think it’s very important that people understand that ACA certification (and I think the same is true about other certifying agencies, though I can’t speak from experience there) is not about teaching a set curriculum. It’s not about teaching specific things in specific ways; it’s not about making everyone do everything the same. What is it about?

Certification is about setting a standard of teaching ability and knowledge related to the subject. It’s about making sure instructors know some fundamental principles of teaching: using different teaching styles to engage different learning styles, teaching in a progression that builds and develops skills, knowing the theory behind the practice. It’s also about safety: knowing how to manage a group on the water, knowing multiple rescue techniques, knowing how to recognize hazards and avoid them in the first place.

It is about technique, but not necessarily about uniformity. There are some skills that everyone needs to have in their specific environment: a forward stroke to propel the boat, how to edge a kayak on moving water, how to perform a deep water rescue on flat water. But there are different ways to accomplish these things, and as long as you adhere to certain principles of safety and good body mechanics, variety is fine. Not everyone has to have the same forward stroke, but everyone should be using their torso for power and should not be bending their wrists; you can perform a T rescue with the empty boat upright or upside down, but you have to have a solid grip if you don’t want to lose the boat or flip over in the rescue.

With that being said, there is no set ACA curriculum. There isn’t a single teaching progression that the ACA says you have to follow and it’s fine if you use the word tilt instead of lean. One thing that confuses people is that the ACA lists sample curriculum on its website. But those are samples, possible ways of teaching a subject that have been proven to work. But the ACA knows that what works for an instructor in California might be different that one in Wisconsin. A sequence that works for Jane Doe teaching in South Carolina might be different than what John Smith uses in North Carolina. Those variations are a good thing – a rigid curriculum would never work for all and no one is trying to make it so. (On the other hand, within a specific program or school it is good to have consistency, so as people move from one class to the next, the courses build instead of starting over.)


As an Instructor Trainer, I admit that I am part of the problem. When I certify instructors, I use a set curriculum – I use mine. That’s not because I think the way I do things is best, or that everyone else should copy me, but because you need to have something to work off of. I can’t teach the concept of progression without using a progression, but I don’t have time to go through multiple progressions. I can’t demonstrate teaching everything in every different way – it just isn't practical, and it would be confusing if I did. I try to encourage folks to experiment and find what works for them, but encouraging isn’t the same as modeling so the message can get lost. 

When I certify people I definitely do not demand that they teach as I would teach. I make sure they have the principles, that they get the information across and can model safe and efficient technique. I try not to turn out cookie cutter instructors, but it’s a natural thing to imitate those with more experience. (I know I started by copying my betters. Over time I copied enough different people to have developed my own style and belief in what works for me.)

On multiple occasions I’ve heard people say that they don’t agree with the ACA way of teaching. I never understand exactly what they mean by that, but most of the time I think it’s really saying that they don’t completely agree with what they saw one particular ACA instructor do, or what they think they know about how one particular instructor teaches. The ACA certifies that people can teach, that they have multiple tools and methods of getting information across to students, that they can safely manage a group and be good stewards of the sport. I really don’t know how anyone can have a problem with that. I’ve yet to see any great instructor (and I’ve seen a lot), teach in a way that’s inconsistent with ACA certification – even those who are not ACA certified and those who have no certification whatsoever.

Let me reiterate here that certification is not a prerequisite for good teaching. Not everyone needs to get certified and certification alone is not proof of excellence.  But getting certified does expose you to new ideas on teaching. It does prove that you’ve demonstrated a significant level of ability and competence in teaching, while in no way does it limit or control effective teaching. It has a role to play in the instructional world, and it’s worth knowing what it means and what it doesn’t. I hope that clears things up.