Quality Swimming Programs
As a beginner swimming teacher, the concept of what contributes to a great program is not something most teachers think about. Beginners are usually interested in solving immediate problems such as fixing a child’s kicking action or getting a scared swimmer to enter the water. Becoming a supervisor or swim school manager changes your perspective rapidly because you are now responsible for the overall success of the program, not just individual students. If the program is poorly designed the supervisors and managers will have unhappy students, parents and teachers because the children will not be progressing.
As the CEO of Aquatic Achievers – training and overseeing other teachers and then gradually becoming responsible for the entire program, which taught 9000 children per week – delivering close to half a million lessons per year was my role. While stressful at times, the experience was incredible as I had the ability to think deeply about what made our program better and trial different strategies. Sometimes I got it wrong (like when I introduced standing sculling) and sometimes we made a breakthrough (like when I made breath control the focus of the paddlers’ level).
Uswim has enhanced my understanding of program design because over the past 10 years showing someone via video with no teaching experience or training requires a more linear approach. I was also able to visit and learn from other successful programs from all over the world including Japan, New Zealand and America.
Poorly designed programs discourage learning. In the case of swimming, when children are not progressing their skills they will lose interest and look for other activities to do. If parents insist on going to swimming lessons which are not working, the child not only doesn’t learn to swim but they can develop a diminished motivation in their ability to learn anything new.
From my experience there are three foundational principles that make up a quality program. Clearly defined goals that are measurable, ability-based stages, levels or steps, relevant content in the correct order. It is when a program has these design elements at its core the students will achieve the goal of the program as fast as possible.
1. Clear and measurable goals
Great swim programs are very clear about what they are trying to achieve. Once a clear goal is decided upon, it is much easier to make decisions about the design of the program. At Uswim, the goal of our program is for children to swim 20 meters freestyle with correct technique. Everything in our program is designed to enable this clear and measurable goal to happen as quickly as possible.
A good way to highlight this point is to simply ask a few people a subjective question such as how they define learning to swim. Some might say the ability to paddle to safety, some may think treading water is swimming and others might suggest comprehensive testing involving safety strokes. There is no definition of swimming! That is why all well thought-out programs need to provide their own definition of swimming and what they are aiming for.
2. Ability based steps/levels
Great programs are structured so that learners are fully engaged in what they are learning. This is only possible when they are practicing in their ‘sweet spot’, a term used by Daniel Coyle in his classic book – ‘The Talent Code’. The ‘sweet spot’ is when the learner is neither bored nor overwhelmed; rather they are in the perfect zone – not too hard that they give up, not too easy that they get bored.
This means that the level a child is dependent on their swimming ability, not an arbitrary indicator such as their age or size. This also means when the goal of each level is achieved, the student needs to progress to the next. For example people are finally waking up to the fact our schooling system is outdated and often counterproductive to the goal – developing a love of learning in children. One of the reasons is our schools are still basically categorized by age instead of ability, having the adverse effect of causing talented kids to be bored and those struggling in certain subjects to lose interest and self esteem.
3. Relevant content, in correct order
Program content must be in the right order and structured properly to match the goal. When steps do not build upon each other or there are gaps in the skills needed to progress from one skill to the next, the learner can become discouraged and lose motivation. Another problem is when there is content in the program which does not directly relate to the goal trying to be achieved.
An example of this for us at Aquatic Achievers was swimming butterfly. While this stroke is an event at the Olympics, it requires a certain amount of size and strength to perform (usually kids need to be 11 or 12 to do it properly). So our younger swimmers would often struggle to perform butterfly, wasting time that could be spent learning to swim 1 km freestyle (the goal of Aquatic Achievers). Therefore we simply took it out of the levels leading up to the goal of the program.
Great programs cater to all children, not just those who are talented at the activity being taught. One of the best ways to evaluate a program is to look at how well it teaches the bottom 30% of students or the ones with the least natural ability. If a program is well designed, it will allow gifted students to progress quickly, while also educating those who need a bit more time.