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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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Think-Ed: A system shaken

Stuart Middleton
28 February 2011

This morning, seventy-six thousand learners will not go to kindy or school. No, it is not another statistic about disengagement but one that is a result of the Christchurch earthquake of last Tuesday which inflicted major damage to about 34 schools. Add to that the thousands of university students and students in other education providers and the figures are huge. This probably also affects more than 5,000 workers in education – teachers, support staff, administrators across a wide range of activities.

Another one thousand words on this grim subject is unlikely to ease the hurt and the suffering and the loss but there has been little said about the schools, the teachers and support staff, and the students who all rather remarkably appear to have avoided serious injury and death despite the physical battering that was visited on their buildings.

The fate of the students in the language school in the CTV building seems sealed and it is likely that staff associated with them are also victims. But the absence of deaths or serious injuries among the schools that have been damaged points to some pretty smart work on emergency procedures, on safe behaviours during such an event by a group of teachers and other staff that have got it all right. The whole of education salutes this.

The Ministry of Education has it seems been responding well and their response to the emergency is a huge exercise in logistics. Re-housing the students from schools that might not open soon is a huge undertaking. I know that at least one school had not re-opened after the first earthquake last September.

Could we take a lesson from the evacuation of children from London during the war. Could senior students be “adopted” by schools in the north or well outside the danger zone for a couple of weeks? They might be matched up with a student at the host school and be billeted with them. I think this might work but only with the older senior students. The little ones need to be near their carers.

The schools will get back to a different normal one day. I have seen schools damaged to the point of complete disappearance in cyclones through the Pacific and have always been amazed at the speed of recovery. I recall one in Samoa that opened for business on a Monday despite having been literally taken, both buildings and land, from the face of the earth by the cyclone on the previous Friday. The classes were distributed around the houses and fale in the village and while without resources that teachers worked to bring a pattern of school into the lives of their little ones.

It seems that the many schools affected in the Queensland floods are now back in business but that was again a disaster of a different order. Buildings were damaged but not generally destroyed. When the water went away life returned quite quickly to a normal pattern in the schools I am told.

But the earthquake is quite a bit more comprehensive in its impact and the damage is widespread. The roads to get to school are difficult and in places impassable. Many homes of teachers, staff and students have been damaged and undoubtedly many destroyed. There have been many deaths and teachers and students will be unable to avoid an impact on their lives through the loss of a family member or a friend or someone they knew. Normal will be very sad.

The response of the university students in Christchurch has been remarkable. Getting into the physical work or clearing streets and properties and generally being busy, normal people around those who are having to cope is probably the best response possible. That it was organised by the students themselves and that word of it was spread virally is something of a good news story in amongst the unrelieved grim and upsetting accounts that have prevailed. Many of these students will have been affected by damage to homes, injurious and even death among wider families and acquaintances but their response has been practical, good humoured and, if the television pictures give a true account, they have set about the task with a smile. It must have helped hugely.

How could we help our colleagues in education in Christchurch?

Money is probably the best help because it can be converted into whatever seems best help by those close to the damage and those who have the best idea of the needs at this particular time. Perhaps all education institutions outside of Christchurch could donate 0.5% of their operating budget into a trust fund that can be used to supplement the assistance the Ministry of Education will provide. It might even be achieved by a voluntarily imposed levy – is this not a response that the Boards Association, principals’ and teachers’ organisations could get together and promote?

But then you might have to pause and think about the fire at the Glendowie Primary School that recently inflicted huge loss on that school. Disaster comes in both small and large sizes but from a student’s perspective the scale doesn’t apply. The Christchurch Earthquake does seem to call for a response from the education community that goes well beyond our normal expectation that officials will put it right.

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