Waving not drowning: how the teaching of swimming can illustrate the importance of pedagogical breadth and balance in primary schools

This short piece has been prompted by, and is indebted to, a humorous tweet by @tombennett, blog posts by @suecowley @ChrisChivers2 and a conversation with @ezzymoon. 

The teaching of swimming can illustrate a belief in the importance of a broad and balanced pedagogical approach in all subjects. 

Most of my experience is with key stage 2 pupils who have never been swimming before (due to the closure of municipal pools since 1990)  Whereas teaching other subjects badly reduces life opportunities, getting the teaching of swimming wrong would mean either a child drowning in the lesson or being unable to survive falling in water at some point in the future. The stakes are quite high. 

For some children, the best approach is to lower themselves into the deep end in the first lesson and set off towards the shallow end near but not touching the side. Whilst I have found this approach to be effective, it is rarely used in primary schools because children do end up spending most of the precious half hour lesson stood on the side. Some people would argue that my continued belief in this method despite the limited time in the pool makes me a traditional teacher focused on direct instruction of technique. I’m used to being labelled by others so that’s ok.

The problem with the label is that during lessons I also give children time in the shallow end to learn through playing around. This is important for some children, but not all, in order to develop confidence. Arm bands and floats also support (literally) some learners. Judging when to remove the aids requires expert assessment of development. Children develop confidence at different rates for a wide range of complex and inter-related reasons. I seek to engage children from their own starting point. I scaffold the learning- with a long pole in the deep end which I hold in a physical zone of proximal development (about two inches beyond the child’s reach) This leads some people to label me progressive which is also ok if it suits them.  I have fished a child out of a pool on more than one occasion. If they were to drown, I would blame my teaching not the child’s failure to listen to instruction. 

When I teach swimming, I cannot afford to teach to an ideology. Every child needs both confidence and technique. The question is not whether my teaching should be influenced by the similarities between children or the differences but how I acknowledge and adapt to both the similarities and the differences. I am not developing Olympic swimmers (but if it happened i’d take the credit) but people who can choose to enjoy the benefits of swimming all their lives. Therefore, this is not about 10000 hours of deliberate practice but the contribution of swimming to the overall development of the child. If the children spend all their time with their feet on the floor, they will never learn to swim. If children’s experience is restricted to swimming lengths, some will never choose to get in the water. There is a pedagogical balance that works. The balance varies depending on the child. As a primary teacher, my expertise lies in finding that balance. 

For 10 years,  I have spent one evening a week as a diving instructor with teenagers and young adults. The importance of a broad pedagogical approach is just as important for this level of expertise as it is with year 3 non-swimmers. Alongside the teaching of technical diving expertise, our trainees play lots of games to develop both confidence and stamina. 

Every subject is unique and determined by specific knowledge, skills and understanding. For every subject there is a broad and balanced pedagogical approach that reflects the uniqueness of the subject and adapts to both the similarities and the differences between those learning.  Unlike in swimming, in other subjects, lives may not depend on finding the breadth and the balance, but the principle is always the same. 

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