Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lessons from the Swimming Pool: Guided vs. Independent Practice

What Teaching my 3 Year Old to Swim Taught Me about Instruction

We took the long trek from Indiana to Florida only a couple days ago. Armed with our puddle jumpers, my 2 kids under 4 were ready to take on the pool and the ocean. By the way, whoever invented the puddle jumper deserves the millions they now have stashed away; those are unbelievable!

My 3 year old, Gabe, is a puddle jumping fool. This is his 2nd summer with the jumper, so he is able to swim the length of the pool, jump off the side, climb on rafts and essentially enjoy every aspect of the pool. He's brave and fearless... because he knows there will always be something there to support him. If he messes up and forgets to kick one time, it doesn't matter; he'll pop right back up. He also knows Mom isn't going to pull him from the water and refuse to let him cannonball off the side simply because he messed up one time. He's learning. 

On day 2 at the pool my 3 year old decided it was time to attempt the solo journey-- just a few feet from the wall to me but still scary. As he peeled off his puddle jumper and tossed it to the deck, you could see a little bit of his confidence slip away, but he was still ready to go. 

With a deep breath he released his grip from the wall and pushed off, kicking his legs with all his might trying desperately to get closer to me. The five feet seemed like a mile, and the 3 seconds seemed like 60 as he kicked his way to me arms outstretched. He grabbed my neck; "I did it!" He did. It was 5 feet with almost all the distance coming from the push off the wall, but he did it. 

He kicked his way back to the wall with big arms and big legs with just a single hand underneath supporting his belly. One little push off does not mean, I know, that he can go unsupported. He's still going to need me there to catch him, to support him, and to swim around with him on my back like a pirate ship. It also doesn't mean he doesn't need his puddle jumper ever again; in fact, he put it on a little bit later so he could swim longer and jump more freely. 

So what does this long vacation analogy truly mean?  There must be a balance between guided practice and independent practice, and frankly, we cannot expect our students to perform at the same level, with the same level of support, and for the same duration in independent practice as guided practice.  Independent practice doesn't mean students go unsupported.  Gabe was able to be brave, daring, and adventuresome in his learning while he was flying solo because he knew there was always going to be something there to support him, be it Mom or that crazy puddle jumper.

However, when we are in guided practice with Mom, we take off the puddle jumper.  I work one on one with him and push him past what he is capable of by himself. I know I have to be more hands on during this stage of the learning process.  I have to be in the water with him, not watching from the sidelines and barking directions from my lounge chair.  Our mini swim lesson is more difficult than any adventure he can delve into with the jumper on; I am pressing his skill set outside his comfort zone, but again with the support and trust that all will be fine.  Our mini lesson doesn't last for long; it's tiring when you are trying something new and challenging; your brain and body can't go for as long of a period of time.

As he gets stronger at the skill, I will slowly take away some of the extra support. As he starts to fly solo, he knows I will still be there when he needs me. I don't expect him to be able to complete the same level of difficulty in activities when flying solo the first time. He's not going to be bellyflopping for a frisbee and swimming the length of the pool the first time. I provide shorter, easier tasks so he can feel success without that extra support. I praise him for his little accomplishments and celebrate every step along the way.

Just like Gabe, my students need me to praise small steps and accomplishments. I need to remember that the first time they fly solo it might be at a slightly lower level of difficulty, and I must remember that my students will go back and forth with levels of support and assistance. One time solo does not mean that skill is independent practice forever. 

When I guide my students, I can push them harder and farther into a skill. When they are flying solo, I need to understand 3 things. 
1. They still need some support. 
2. They won't be able to last as long without the extra support. 
3. We still need to celebrate at steps along the way!

Is there all this pedagogical ideology with guided and independent practice? Of course, but maybe Gabe said it best. What did you like about swimming without your floaties? "It was cool... oh, and I got to swim to Mom."  Thanks, Gabe.

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