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Talk-ED: Learning – the deep end or stick to the shallow stuff?

Stuart Middleton
13 February 2012


From time to time every educator should get into learning at the deep end!

I had decided that I would like to swim for exercise for a change and that would mean I would have to swim better than I could. So I have enrolled in lessons.

Of course, like most learners I had considered that I could swim all those years since being taught in primary school. I am not at all sure that the teachers who bravely stood at the edge of the pool and sent us back and forth across the shallow end with wooden flutter boards met the requirements for swimming instruction but they did their best.

Even though it was a primary school, the pool was very deep indeed at the deep end and we were strictly not allowed to head in that direction. So there was much fund raising and a better learner’s pool was opened just after we left. When we got to intermediate school there was no pool and with much fundraising a pool was built and opened just after we left. At high school there was similarly no pool and after huge fundraising a pool opened just a few weeks before we left.

We spent a lot of time at the pools in Hamilton, the one at Hamilton Technical College was large and new and the “Municipal Pool” large and old. But all that time spent over many summers never improved our basic skill in swimming.

There was a degree of paranoia in my family generated by my Grandmother who thought that danger started when the water reached your knees which limited the opportunities to actually swim. We were expected to enjoy the ocean to the same extent and in much the same way as a pod of stranded whales might enjoy the ocean.

One Sunday at the Hamilton Lake I fell fully clothed off the little jetty thing that was jutted out into water well above my depth. I was grateful that bystanders fetched me back up onto the jetty. Was Grandma thrilled that I was safe? If she was it didn’t show as I was soundly admonished for swimming when I had been clearly told not to. You can understand why water sports didn’t feature much among our activities.

So it has been off to lessons. I have long believed that when you are learning something there is a very small number of things that must be understood, principles that are central and critical to your understanding and consequent performance. The first lesson was a revelation as the teacher described some basic principles of swimming that I had never had pointed out to me over many years.

These really are quite simple – when you swim your body should be very straight from the tips of your fingers to your toes, you kick from the hips not the knees, keep your chin down and when you turn your head to breathe turn your shoulders with it.

Now understanding these has been very helpful and my previous fish-out-of-water thrashing is slowly being replaced by the swift gliding motion of graceful boat through the water. (That last bit is an exaggeration really but I can honestly report that there has been pleasing progress.)

I will not reveal which pool where all this is happening as I do not want crowds to gather to see this such as happened with Opo in the Hokianga back in the summer of 1955-1956 but it is an urban pool, free to the community and very well used. My lessons have been at 12.10pm on a Sunday. The pools have generally been crowded at that time except for the lanes kept clear for instruction.

This added to my anxiety. I felt some nervousness about this. Would I be the object of amusement being several years older than the clientele generally? What if I came across someone I knew? Would my egg-beater style attract attention of the wrong sort? Would I be humiliated?

You see, being a learner is a pretty exposed state to be in.

What I quickly realised was that nobody other than the teacher took the slightest bit of notice of my having a lesson – anxiety is such an egocentric thing!  They all went about their business at the pools and left me to what I was doing. The worries were in my head and not actually real. That is typical of learners too. No Mummy!  They will laugh at me. I won’t be able to do it! I don’t know anyone in the class!

But as with so many five year olds, I left the first lesson exhilarated and happy – this is going to be good, I will achieve what I was wanting which was to swim with ease. More importantly, something that had until now been tedious will become more enjoyable. It’s neat how good learning experiences enable you to leave the shallow end and get into it in more depth!


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