Teaching Swimming or Coaching Swimmers?

Credit: iStock.com/bulentumut
Credit: iStock.com/bulentumut
A question has been floating around in my head since I started teaching college students: are we supposed to act like swimming instructors or Olympic coaches? The analogy is not as odd as it might seem at first. Don’t we talk about whether students “sink or swim” in our courses, or how well they learn to “navigate the waters” of our subject areas?

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This article originally appeared in the November 2002 print issue of The Teaching Professor. Scroll below the article for a brief note on it by Maryellen Weimer.

A question has been floating around in my head since I started teaching college students: are we supposed to act like swimming instructors or Olympic coaches? The analogy is not as odd as it might seem at first. Don’t we talk about whether students “sink or swim” in our courses, or how well they learn to “navigate the waters” of our subject areas?

Swimming instructors try to teach basic skills to everyone, regardless of prior knowledge or ability. Competitive swimming coaches, on the other hand, don’t waste time with anyone who does not already exhibit a great deal of skill, knowledge, and ability. Instructors make swimmers out of people who are not. They make it possible for students to keep their heads above water so that they do not drown. Competitive coaches hone the best athletes into outstanding ones. They make it possible for the very best to become even better so that they can win. Those who are too slow or too awkward are cut from the team.

Both of these analogies apply to college teaching. I have spoken to a number of colleagues over the years who clearly see their role as fitting into one or the other of these two molds. They seek to teach at least something to everyone, or they focus on the very best and disdain all the rest.

Other colleagues seem more like me. We go back and forth between the roles, or try for a middle position. At my institution, the administration seems equally ambivalent. On the one hand, they encourage us to turn out the very best graduates possible. They want our students to be winners who can compete with graduates from other institutions. On the other hand, they tell us that every student is valuable, that everyone can learn, and it is our job to teach them all.

I try to combine these approaches. I tend to treat introductory courses like basic swimming lessons. I don’t assume that people possess prior knowledge in my area, and I would never dream of creating a “sink or swim” scenario for these courses. On the other hand, by the time a major reaches my senior-level classes, I believe they should already have the skills and knowledge that make success possible. My job in these courses is to create situations where the best can thrive and the rest can muddle through. But even in these courses I never reach the cutthroat level of an Olympic coach. I don’t berate individuals to coax more out of them. I don’t cut less impressive members from the team. And I don’t stress performance above all else. That just doesn’t suit my style, and it strikes me as wrong.

There are other basic and important questions regarding these roles that I struggle to answer. For example, when evaluating student performance, should I assess overall performance, even if the student walked into my classroom with a firm grasp of the required skills? Or do I evaluate improvement, so that a student who genuinely learns gets a good grade, even if he or she has not reached Olympic-level performance? What if the top performer hasn’t really learned much at all? What if the student who learned the most started from so far behind that even by the end performance is only mediocre? Do we reward performance or learning? I suspect most, like myself, aim for some middle ground but we ultimately reward those top performers. Maybe we end up being coaches without Olympic teams.

In a perfect world, all students would come to us with the same basic skills, and we would tailor our teaching approach to match those skills. In the real world, some students come to my class with an excellent foundation of knowledge and skills while others have virtually none. Until that changes, I will expect these questions to keep floating around in my head, and I’ll be wondering if my answer is the right or best one. Does it make sense to try for policies and practices that teach some students to swim at the same time that they help others to improve what they already know how to do well?

David A. Locher, PhD, is a professor of sociology at Missouri Southern State University.

I love Locher’s metaphor. It’s simple and straightforward and offers a great place on which to hang a set of questions that are anything but simple and straightforward. In the years since this article was published, I suspect the differences in students’ background knowledge and skills have grown even larger. Opting to balance the needs of students so that all are challenged to learn beyond what they know is still a good answer. It makes sense theoretically but is terribly challenging to implement practically.

I’d like to propose several places to look for practical answers. Students are responsible for learning; whether they learn a little or a lot is up to them, not the teacher. What the teacher provides is leadership in creating and maintaining a climate that’s conducive to learning. The conditions that foster intellectual growth are pretty much the same, regardless of background knowledge or skill level. Students thrive in learning environments where they feel safe, where fears are productively channeled, mistakes are to be learned from, curiosity is cultivated, and accomplishments are celebrated. I think that’s the kind of environment Locher is working to create.

Beyond recognizing student responsibility for learning and teacher work on learning-focused climates, answers to the how questions emerge when students become communities of learners. In those communities, there’s shared responsibility—a sense of being part of something that belongs to everyone. In courses students are united in their efforts to learn. They should be working collaboratively to accomplish individual learning goals. It’s not just how the teacher responds to learning needs; it’s also about student engagement with the learning of others.

Maryellen Weimer