Okay, this is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but given that the sun is now out and my three older kids have exchanged their soccer cleats and basketballs for another season of summer swimming, I have been thinking a fair bit about swimming, myself. I was also reminded of a favourite article of mine, by Herb Childress, Seventeen Reasons Why Football is Better Than School. While I don’t agree with it all, it does open up some interesting discussions.
So, with some inspiration from Childress’ list, just how could school be more like swimming?
When kids are grouped, age and ability matter
In swimming, levels and groups take age and maturity into account, and blend it with ability. Five-year-olds and 12 year-olds are not together, but there may be kids within a difference of three years of their age training together; as students improve, the groups are fluid enough to allow stronger swimmers to advance to new groups. Of course, in school, the December 31st / January 1st boundary is almost impenetrable.
Reporting clearly separates skills and work habits
I have given my life to education, and I will admit that I better understand my kids’ swim report cards than I do their school report cards. Their swimming report cards clearly indicate skills mastered and those in-progress. There are often comments about behaviour, work habits and attitude, but these are not confused with the other part of the report. In school, we often blend achievement and attitudes making it challenging to separate these two equally important, but very different, areas. Even with my own kids’ report cards, I will sometimes read it and ask “what does this really mean?”
Parents are expected to lend their expertise but not to be the coaches
Every parent in the swim club is expected to volunteer. We are not expected to coach (coaches coach), but all parents have some skills or expertise that can be transferred to benefit the group. Parents are more than just fundraisers and they are not quasi-coaches. In schools, parents expertise is not always expected, encouraged, or fully utilized.
Older kids are expected to work with younger kids
Kids can’t wait until they are old enough to spend time working with younger swimmers. Higher-level swimmers return and typically volunteer in the very youngest classes in order to keep coach/athlete ratios low and, over time, some will gain credentialing and transition into coaching roles. We do some of this in school, but it is often inconsistent, and we have no great laddering or apprenticeship from keen and interested student to future classroom teacher.
Kids work as individuals and as part of a team
Swimming is an individual sport. Individuals are responsible for their own performances. That said, there is a collective component to swimming where results are aggregated together for the team. Teammates cheer for each other’s success in ways we don’t see in classrooms. It is a rare classroom that celebrates the overall achievement of the students.
There are at least six or seven practices to every competition
There are hours and hours of practices with very few competitions. Better yet, kids often select which competitions to attend, knowing, in the end, it is about their own best times, so attending all competitions may not be right for them. In schools, we often quiz and test on an almost-daily basis in some areas — partly, to continually monitor progress, and for a range of other reasons including a belief that it helps ensure on-task behaviour.
Coaches share a plan with athletes before practice, and then post it publicly
Each practice has a particular focus that is explained to the athletes at the beginning, and then the practice plan is outlined on the board for the swimmers to track their practice. This is similar to what we see with some teachers and their use of overviews and visual calendars in the classroom, but in swimming, it has a uniformity which kids follow from day-to-day and year-to-year.
Coaches give constant feedback
On almost every length, coaches give feedback to swimmers. They will stop athletes and re-set them with constructive feedback when necessary. Coaches are also not afraid to get in the water and model the drills and strokes for the athletes. Very often, coaches still see themselves as athletes as well and are doing their own training (learning).
While there is competition, most kids are obsessed with their own best times
My kids couldn’t tell you about what they won or how they placed, but they can always tell me if their times have improved. While there is always a competitive piece to swimming, as in school, much of the competition is focused on individual improvement and not their success relative to others. I would love my children to have the same passion for their best art work at school, or strongest English composition, as they have for their new PB (personal best) in a given swimming discipline.
Nobody talks about averages
In the end, it is about celebrating the best performance in each discipline. There is never a discussion at swimming that a swimmer swam this much at the beginning of the year and that much at the end; their real level is an average of the two times. Athletes have multiple opportunities over time to display best results.
Yes, it is a little simplistic. I also realize I am far from a swimming expert and while I have spent thousands of hours in gymnasiums coaching basketball over the last two decades, my swimming experience is really as a parent in Red Cross Swim Lessons and two summers of Summer Swimming. And, I could probably write a similar post arguing the opposite about how swimming could and should be more like school.
That said, in education and working with young people, sometimes we need to look around for other models that have some pretty appealing characteristics.