What I learnt about learning while learning to swim

Do you remember learning to swim?

You probably do, but I remember it very well because it was only a couple of years ago that I finally took the plunge. After over three decades of existence I decided that I wanted to be able to swim. It was a skill that all of my friends mastered during those weekly trips to the local swimming pool when I was in primary school, while I was stuck in the shallow end.

Maybe you do remember learning to swim, or maybe you just think you remember because you know how to swim. I, however, remember not learning to swim. I remember being so frustrated back then when I was younger, that no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get it right. The time eventually passed for me to learn as part of my schooling, and the desire never came up again. Until a couple of years ago.

The process of learning something brings up so many emotions. Think about the last time you were taught a new skill or language. Not just teaching yourself something as many of us do frequently, but actually being taught something from an instructor. As teachers, we can sometimes forget what it’s like for the students in our class. Sure we think about the best way to teach them things, but unless we are also putting ourselves in a position of learning something new every so often, it is easy for us to forget what it’s like to be taught. I believe it’s important for us to put ourselves in the mindset of our students now and again, but also to share that we are learning something new with our students, more than anything to show them that learning is not something that stops once you finish school.

As a teacher being taught how to swim, I was able to see techniques I liked in my swimming instructor. I picked up some new techniques that I thought I could apply to my own teaching. But I also rediscovered the joys and frustrations of the learning process itself.

The process of learning something is enjoyable in itself

This made me rethink my approach to teaching. In a culture of grades, it’s so wonderful to learn something just for the sake of learning it, for the enjoyment that comes from learning something and for the feeling of success once you have learnt it. I didn’t need to learn to swim, apart from the slight possibility that one day swimming will be an essential skill for mankind’s survival, but I just wanted to learn to swim. Now that I can swim, I can say I can swim. Is that not in itself a good enough reason to learn something?

How can I apply this to my teaching?

It is easy to become caught up in teaching for the exams our students will sit, but how much of what you teach is there simply for the students to learn something new about the world? The one that I hear often is that schools are removing things from key stage 3 because they’re not on the GCSE specification, but surely that’s the exact reason why you should be teaching those things at key stage 3?

As a physics teacher the idea that bothers me the most is that schools are removing Space from their curriculum because it’s not examined in the Science GCSE (it is on the separate science specification though, which most students don’t learn).

Unless they are taught Space in primary, how sad is it that many young people are not being exposed to the wonders of the solar system, the galaxy and the universe because it’s not on a specification that an exam board designed? There are probably countless examples of this across the other subjects in schools. Keep these things in! To quote Marie Kondo, if I may, “does it spark joy?” If it does, keep it in! And Space definitely sparks joy.

Challenge is good, but only when ready

I felt absolute great one lesson and felt like I was making lots of progress, everything was going great. I can swim! I foolishly thought to myself.

And then the next lesson I felt like I was going to drown.

I would often become frustrated and think “I could do this last week and now I can’t do it anymore”. It’s not even just across different lessons, but I felt great in a moment of one lesson and felt frustrated within a few minutes of the same lesson, usually after switching to a different skill. That feeling of failing at something just makes you feel really rubbish about yourself.

There is so much in teaching and learning meetings about stretching students beyond their comfort zone, about constantly challenging them. Of course my favourite moments while learning to swim were when I was shown a new skill and was able to pick it up quickly, but my other favourite moments were the ones where I was reminded that I could still swim, without having to worry about the finer details like perfecting my form, or to worry about breathing in the correct rhythm.

I would get so caught up in making sure I was getting those details right that sometimes I forgot how far I’d come, and that I could actually get from one side of the pool to the other. After struggling with a new skill, or even struggling with a skill that I incorrectly assumed I had mastered in the previous lesson, I would become frustrated and the rest of the lesson would be affected because of this.

How can I apply this to my teaching?

Of course I am not saying that students shouldn’t be challenged, but sometimes make sure they feel comfortable in a task and that they have gained enough confidence in their abilities before moving into the stretch zone. Durrington Research School (2019) wrote:

The principle of ‘high challenge for all’ remains a laudable aim, but it remains crucial that the challenge is pitched at an achievable level for all pupils.

https://researchschool.org.uk/durrington/blog/the-fundamentals-of-challenge-expectations-and-cognitive-load

This is something important that is easily forgotten in a classroom where we just want to constantly make sure our students are being stretched and challenged. But it is also important for the student to just have that moment in a lesson where they think, “yes I still know how to do this”. It’s safe and it makes them feel good again. The appropriate moment to introduce the right level of challenge must be carefully considered.

Is comparison really the thief of joy?

Comparisons will happen. Whether you are comparing yourself to your own abilities from a week ago, or comparing yourself to others, comparisons are inevitable.

I remember when other swimming students would join the class after I’d been learning for a few weeks already, and they would just get in and pick up the front crawl with no problem at all. Meanwhile I would still be struggling and panting for breath and feeling certain that today was the lesson I would drown. I think it’s natural to feel jealous of other students who “appear” to be progressing quicker than you.

How can I apply this to my teaching?

There were two things I came to realise while I was comparing myself to others:

  1. Everyone was picking up different skills at different rates. Yes it took me a long time to learn the front crawl, but I picked up the backstroke very quickly.
  2. Some of the new students had already had some lessons beforehand, and they only seemed new to me because I had never seen them before in my lessons.

How often have you heard of a student say “I don’t get it”, and being annoyed that everyone else around them can do something and they can’t. As teachers we should be mindful that there are always going to be students comparing themselves to others.

Routine is key for a settled start

Before getting into the pool, I knew every lesson would start in the same way. The class would get in and swim two lengths, in whichever way we felt comfortable doing it. Sometimes I would “challenge” myself and try and do the front crawl for two lengths, other times I would do one length front crawl and one length backstroke (because I was much more confident and comfortable with the backstroke). The important thing was that the instructor had a set routine for how her lessons would begin. This was of great benefit to us as students as there was no waiting around at the start of the lesson waiting for our instructions.

This time allowed the instructor to refocus after having just finished teaching a previous group, it gave her time to take a register and to go over her notes for that lesson, all while keeping an eye on how we were doing in the swimming pool.

How can I apply this to my teaching?

I always remember a colleague telling me about a conversation she had with a student during a detention. They were chatting about school and the student said they loved English lessons. When they were asked what they loved so much about the lessons, the student said he loved them because he knew exactly what he was going to do every lesson. The student loved having a routine and knowing exactly what was going to happen in the lesson.

My lessons always start the same way, with some knowledge recall questions ready on the board for students to get on with to get their minds focused on the lesson. They know what they should be doing once they’ve arrived and there is no waiting around. This routine keeps things calm and ensures a more efficient start to the lesson, and it also gives me the time to refocus and take the register.

A final thought: have you ever really learnt something?

I didn’t learn to swim in one lesson, and by the end of my course I hadn’t even learnt all the strokes. I never did get my head around the butterfly stroke (what is going on there??), and the breast stroke was always a challenge for me. But I can say that I now know how to front crawl and backstroke. Does this mean I have learnt to swim?

We only really focused on one or two new skills every lesson, and over time these skills were built upon each other. New skills were incorporated into the older skills through lots of drilling and practice.

For example one lesson I would be asked to swim the front crawl and focus on my breathing rhythm. And then next lesson we would do it again but with a float to help me focus on my arm or my leg movements. It felt strange being able to do the front crawl and then having to go back to using a float, but it was because I was working on a specific skill in that lesson. All of these little refinements contributed to me being able to swim better.

But at what point can you say that you have learnt something? How do we ever really know that our students have learnt something? Is it when they get 100% on a test? Is it when they can successfully apply something to a new situation?

How can I apply this to my teaching?

Skills and knowledge can be revisited every so often and built upon. Sometimes you go over the same things many times across many weeks. For example in my lesson on teaching the kinetic energy equation, I would primarily focus on students being able to practice using this equation. I would then reintroduce a previously taught concept like prefixes or standard form, a concept I know they have had practice in before which they can now try and incorporate in their new knowledge of the kinetic energy equation. I wouldn’t teach the equation and prefixes in one lesson, but equally I didn’t expect my students to have a mastery of prefixes before I brought them into my lesson on the kinetic energy equation.


Next time you learn something new, share it with your students. After the initial ribbing that I got when I told them I was learning to swim, they would ask me every lesson how it was going and they appreciated that I was learning something new, just like them.

Learning something new is exciting, frustrating and ultimately very rewarding. But it’s important to understand that our students are also feeling all of these things when we teach them.


Photo by Enis Yavuz on Unsplash

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