Vol. 15 : No. 6
The Writings of Guy Bensusan
No Two Swimmers Float Alike
Driving home from college one day in 1949, I saw a new outdoor Swim School preparing to open. At seventeen and, I thought, a terrific swimmer, fantasies danced in my head about having a job as a swimming instructor, lounging around a pool in-between lessons, getting a tan and a salary at the same time. I went in to inquire about a job, only to feel my knees quake at the sight of the manager behind the counter; she was a young, bronzed blonde in a white bathing suit, her long braids down to her waist. She looked me in the eye and asked if I would swim for an audition. Dreams of being the tanned coach, drying my wavy hair with a snow-white towel vanished -- suddenly I was again the student, obliged to do as the teacher told me.
She saw potential in me, and for the next eight weeks coached me daily on strokes, style and body position. She helped me understand self-control over breathing in the water, guiding in many ways as she helped me learn to teach. Gentle and patient, she always encouraged me with positive words to do more and go farther. In the subsequent five years I worked with her, I never saw her be unkind or negatively critical of anyone. When I entered graduate college at UCLA, she provided a fine recommendation for another job at a pool nearer my classes.
There I taught students ranging from age one to eighty-five. Most of the day I spent in private and semi-private lessons, where I was in the water one-on-one for fifteen minutes per client, or thirty minutes with two or three persons. It was highly individualized, talking with each one, making suggestions about head and body position, and getting each to keep experimenting with reorienting themselves in the water -- a situation where they were horizontal rather than vertical, and where their sense of direction was altered. In those lessons my job was primarily to help adults discover swimming effectiveness for themselves, building first on their individual strengths, comfort zones and confidence.
It was different in the late afternoon, when the pool filled up with classes of cub scouts and campfire girls in groups of ten. Teaching those kids was not the same, I was told, because they were absolute beginners. I had to get them over three big hurdles: (l) getting their faces in the water and opening their eyes, (2) lying down in a face-down horizontal float and standing up again, and (3) learning to coordinate rhythmic breathing with their arm strokes. (Interestingly enough, adults who were beginners had to overcome the same three hurdles -- but we did not treat them the way we treated the kids!)
A long-standing convention in teaching these three beginning skills existed; teachers stood on the deck and gave verbal instructions, never getting into the water with the students; each group of ten in the water was lined up along the wall, and were told to put their faces in, blow bubbles, hang onto the side and kick, kick, kick; then they were told to float face-down, add kicking, then the arm strokes, fit in the breathing, and finally swim across the pool: all standard stuff.
The formula was in the Red Cross Teaching Manual; it was traditional, tried, true, official and unchanged for years. Teacher was a drill sergeant -- barking orders by the numbers and sending the kids out in successive platoons. Absolute equality prevailed; each kid was treated just like the next, with no room for individuality. If someone was timid and missed a turn, too bad. Maybe next time. I remember thinking that if this was all that was involved in earning a living by teaching, my life would be a breeze -- all I needed was a whistle.
I also remember noticing that this type of teaching corresponded more to the way in which my university classes were conducted rather than to the individual and semi-private swimming sessions I taught. I didn't like the usual militaristic manner of teaching at the swimming pool -- yet was the teaching done by my University professors any different? The instructors, standing up at the podium, lectured with wit and brilliance; they analyzed, classified, defined, compared and compartmentalized -- and I dutifully wrote it all down, paddling along with the rest in unison-response as best I could, hesitant to ask too many questions when things were not clear -- since I believed that the teacher knew all and the student was a dummy.
As a university student, I was expected to perform in like manner with all the other class members, just as the group-swimmers were all expected to progress in identical, proper styles of keeping up in the water, getting to the mark, so to speak, in a manner easily measurable by the teacher. I thought the Red Cross method was so impersonal, producing considerable pressure and anxiety amongst the children. It caged learners into sequenced regimentation without giving attention to the obvious fact that each had his or her own "learning metabolism."
It forced all into the same mold rather than allowing each to develop first in the most comfortable manner, after which other strokes could easily be added. It underplayed or ignored the factor of individual "fear." Many kids were confused by mixed messages: "stay away from the water or you'll drown." Many were afraid of the water. Mothers urged them to swim, but it was common for them to be petrified, rigid with panic. I could not really help them until they relaxed and loosened up.
Vocabulary was also a problem; it was imprecise and confusing, something I probably noticed because of the cognitive university training in specific definitions I was getting. For instance, the word "UP," staying UP in the water, and turning the head UP to get a breath was confusing and counterproductive. One doesn't try to stay UP -- one lies right IN it, as in a feather bed: the water supports the floater. To get air one only needs to ROLL OVER in the floating position. In other words, one does not "come up for air," but rather rotates in the horizontal plane so that the back of the head is in the water and the mouth is out. Using the proper words made a difference in the instruction!
The same was true at the university; the vocabulary professors used differed from one discipline to another -- repatriation in political science did not mean the same as it did in anthropology. Strict, uncompromising instructions concerning examinations affected the ease of my breathing: so did the obvious assumption that we students would all cheat if we could figure out how to get away with it! I recall the intimidation when the professor announced we must know all 400 slides by date, artist, style and current location! And my term papers had to contain a specific number of pages with a given number of footnotes and bibliography items if I didn't want points deducted!
As semesters went by I began to compare teaching in a pool with teaching in academe. A disturbing contradiction existed; in teaching private lessons to adults, I worked with the students, cooperating with them, finding new ways to enable them to learn how each one could achieve comfort, success and confidence, becoming at ease with their own devices. This eliminated student competition, because no two swimmers learned about water precisely in the same way, in the same sequence or at the same pace; each had a mental or physical method of accomplishing the important end result: i.e. how to swim. And, in my pool experience, all people could float if they would relax and keep air in their lungs. They did not need to be taught how to do it, they only needed to be given some assistance in being able to "feel" the minor adjustments they had to make in this novel situation in order to do it best for their particular body type.
It was the opposite at the university; the teacher held the information as well as the academic hypotheses and the pedagogy of how to implant them in us. We, the unknowing students, had to compete with each other, if not for professor-favor, then for the gold-ring of the "A". We competed in writing, tests, and in responding to the professor's factual questions on those limited occasions when we were asked. We also competed to avoid giving the "wrong answer" or bringing up germane points that were outside of the professor's intellectual preference or outlook. As in the group swim-sessions, the timid and non-competitive people simply lost out, becoming overwhelmed by the situation, by the peer pressure, and because they failed to get help or attention from the professor when they did not respond quickly to his verbal pushing. It was sink-or-swim in the classroom!
Paradoxically, in the pool I floated naturally (not intellectually) -- I was immersed physically and mentally in a supportive, creative, rewarding and holistic world, both for me and for the pupil who was learning, or rather teaching him/herself a new skill and valuable achievement; as a graduate student, I was engulfed in information, memorization, and regurgitation. The contradiction became a dilemma. I yearned to achieve in university life the same warm feelings of reward, fulfillment, or exhilarating discovery I had experienced in swimming. Instead, I found conflict, tension and anxiety.
Unsophisticated, I questioned my professors about the differences I was experiencing. Many were condescending about it, though some were sympathetic. I remember long talks with some of those superb scholars I still admire. They kindly and patiently informed me that all academic fields are separate unto themselves, that each is a distinctive discipline with its own rules and language. I was encouraged to think of my morning water-world as yet one-more-kingdom, just like geography, history, geology or political science. It was suggested that I not try to integrate one with the other, since they were not inter-changeable.
At the same time, I was not getting support in this matter from my employers at the swimming school; they were highly competent in the water, but were not able to communicate their ideas in words. I might follow their instructions, but I could not get them verbally to articulate the conceptual chasm. Back then, I felt they had let me down, though I now understand I was expecting too much from them, as well as from my university professors, neither of whom were as fortunate as I to be experiencing both worlds simultaneously.
In 1955, therefore, I chose to accept the logic of what the university professors told me, and I deliberately disconnected and separated my world of humanistic interaction in the tactile world of teaching swimming from the factual catechism of those academicians who would award me with my History degree! I did not know it then, but the inconsistencies in those un-parallel experiences would make my professional life uneasy for the next thirty years.
My role as swimming instructor paid for graduate school, and in time I was also employed as a History graduate assistant teaching undergraduate students. The dichotomy thus continued and, as the "expert" who knew historical facts and ideas, I verbally imparted information and concepts while the students functioned as scribes and sponges. Back at the pool, however, I continued providing a safe milieu for experimentation and challenge, with constant feedback to the learner, who was essentially a "discoverer" or self-teacher in the altered environment.
At least this was partly true. There was also a self-contradiction in the swimming pool -- private lessons were much different than group classes. The Red Cross system moved large numbers rapidly and mechanically through a series of categorized skills. It was an assembly-line approach and, while costs were lower, the results were not always of the highest quality. All teachers were expected to use the same sequences, but I was bothered by what I saw as a double standard -- some were pushed through the regular mill of instructions, while others, who paid more, got "preferred treatment." We catered to two classes of citizens, the patricians who paid well for individualized attention, and the plebeians who flocked to the "low-low price" offered in group lessons. In my idealism I wanted everyone to be a first-class citizen.
Yet at the university, either as teacher or student, our seats were numbered, we were in a pool without waves, told what to do and think, were given alphabetical identities and evaluated by the letters A to F. In both swimming and in academe, procedures seemed to have been established more for the benefit and ease of the teachers rather than in the best interests of student learning abilities. I wanted to turn that around, changing some of the progressions and assignments. I saw no reason why we could not deal with larger groups of students on a more personal and individual basis.
The ideas began to formulate at the swimming pool first. Conventionally, swim students were separated into several classes, roughly similar in skill and distributed around the pool. We were allowed ten half-hour lessons to get them to swim back and forth with free-style strokes and occasional breathing exercises. We were also supposed to teach some sort of back stroke and provide them with a deep-water challenge to illustrate they were "drown-proof." It seemed terribly inefficient. We would spend an entire lesson just getting everyone's face in the water. Half of the students would only pucker-up and dip their chins in, barely wetting their noses! Like a ship convoy, we could only move at the speed of the slowest student. What was so sacred about standardization? Why did everyone have to learn at the same pace? And in the same order of skills?
Not totally naive, I did recognize that Swim School was a business enterprise requiring profit from satisfied customers. Yet I was obstinate in trying to find a way in which a teaching sequence could build successful experiences, could help dissolve fear, remove individual blocks and lead step-by-step to new levels of awareness and ability. Another purpose may also have been lurking in my psyche -- to undermine the unfair habit of catering to "faster" students, to gratify ever-watchful mothers and to earn public relations points with the boss. This was an easy pit to fall into, since many of our younger students were children of well-known film stars, practicing their attention-getting antics on the teachers.
There came a day when I began with a new group of children and decided to ask the boss if I could experiment with some of the methods. Literally taking the plunge, I got into the water with the students, as I had previously done in private lessons. Instantly, I was less an authority-figure and more of a partner. I was visible, and my own floating gave direct and accessible proof of support, equality and respect for their position.
The first thing I said was, "DON"T GET YOUR FACES WET!" Surprise and disbelief. I showed them how to lean back in the water until they lost their balance, take a deep breath and gently push with their toes. It was the beginning of the back float. Giggling and squealing as they tried to keep their faces out of the water, they mischievously ducked under entirely, just to yell about how wet they were, learning at the same time to hold their breath or breathe when they needed to. Best of all, they kept on doing it by themselves, calling each other to try another way to succeed better, allowing me to go about giving individual help.
We tried push-offs from the pool side. I stood behind them as they let go and slowly stretched out backwards into the unknown. (I wished my professors at college had done the same with me -- let me rush off to the challenge of unfamiliar knowledge, knowing that they were behind me, but letting me use what I already knew as a base and allowing my own strength and determination to accomplish the remainder.) As I stood farther away in the water, the children glided several feet in no time at all, a rather advanced skill for basic beginners.
The real significance was that they relaxed, floating and gliding on their backs, breathing freely and able to stand up with no help from me. The learning had been accomplished through playing games without any apparent rules or formal instruction. No one had been afraid, no one had cried, and most important, no one had failed. This certainly was not what was happening at the university.
With basic guidance rules, my swimming children dared to try new concepts; one rolled over from his backward float, put his face down in the water and dog-paddled naturally back to the edge. It was his "invention"! He had taken what we practiced, what he felt comfortable with, and extended it to the next reasonable stage. The other kids tried it too, and I realized it was not competition, but a sharing of the discovery, a giving-up of one's own creativity to let others experience it too, thereby gaining the rewards of praise, exhilaration, and accomplishment for oneself. I was fascinated; my experiment was allowing the kids to teach each other!
They were teaching me too. They were noisily excited about their rapid success, so much so that some mothers and teachers spoke to the boss about the "hilarious goings-on," wanting to know when the serious teaching would begin. My colleagues did not appreciate what they saw as a lack of seriousness, order and discipline in my classes, and said my kids made too much noise. I was reminded that we were all supposed to be doing the same thing, that "playtime" was the final five minutes, and only if the lesson had been effectively completed.
It was patiently explained to me that I was the junior teacher and that intermediate and advanced lessons involved specific higher-level skills which I should not intrude on, since the senior teachers would be handling those classes. I was praised for my high-quality work, but I was also told that I needed to remember my function in the larger system!
While I burned, I also accepted the merits of some of the complaints. One did need to be aware of learning innovation, and also of appearances and public consequences in the paying-customers situation. I understood the mothers' concern and competitive point-of-view, and it was obvious to me I would have to improve my "marketing" tactics. Smiling inwardly, I told the kids to have their fun more quietly, and we learned to laugh and giggle in whispers, which was even more satisfying, because I was thus able to continue my own thing and avoid conforming to the rigid, ineffective, tried-but-not-so-true Red Cross rules.
I was to use these non-traditional lessons for the next two decades of swimming instruction, later modifying the ideas in my university teaching to adult students in the humanities. Questioning my colleagues about trying new and different methods of teaching, both in swimming and university classrooms only frustrated my idealistic attempts to "improve" the system -- only a few were really interested in talking about it. I had previously assumed teaching was an Ivory-pure, Virtuous World -- after all, which was more important, helping students develop maximum potentials, or confining their pace and progress? Theory versus actuality: how could one handle, teach and grade large groups of students without categories and frameworks? At the same time, how could one prevent falling into the trap of bureaucratic limitations and turf-disputes that existed for the sake of the bureaucrats?
How could one keep learners enthusiastic if their success-buttons were not being continually pushed as new challenges were offered? Who decided there should be a limit to growth and numbers of competencies? If learning could be accelerated, why not do it? If students would respond positively to higher expectations, why not increase the numbers of skills and diversity of approaches? Were priorities and regulations dictated by the system and the convenience of the systematizers? Or were they really for the improvement of learning and learners?
My own answers were crystal clear; deep water held no fear as long as the students were prepared mentally and emotionally in advance about being confident, while respecting the water and using caution in new situations -- rather than being made to feel unprepared and incompetent. I believed that if all persons were doing their best and at the most satisfactory pace they could muster, then they would learn far more and much faster than in the traditional atmosphere of listen-and-imitate. As they became comfortable with one skill they could naturally move on to the next and be encouraged to anticipate what lay ahead. Finding the best way to do that was my goal.
I could not see life or teaching as a competition or contest between students. Each person is distinctive, unique -- each can only be one's best possible self. We are not interchangeable cogs in a wheel, even if many societal forces push us in that direction. We can only function effectively as individuals in a group-society if we pay attention to other people's personalities, positions, agendas and expectations, even if some fundamental foundations must be laid.
Unexpectedly, I had to put my beliefs and practices to the test one day in the swimming pool. It was not careful pre-planning, but the result of my having spent a lot of time with my "beginners" in the shallowest end of the pool. As we played all of our confidence-building games, I had not paid attention to what the other teachers had been doing, and when I wanted to move out into slightly deeper water for cross-pool exercises, I found that every space in the pool was taken up by other classes, except one: the deepest part under the diving board.
An enormous window opened up and my misgivings and anxieties flew away. Instinct told me I had to get the kids into the deepest water for their own sake, for mine, and also to pacify the mothers. I had not figured out precisely what we would do once we got there, but I knew we would all be okay because we knew how to swim in the shallow water. As we all walked along the deck to the deep end, I was conscious the pool had become very quiet and everyone was watching us, including the boss! Acting as natural as possible, but with my heart beating in anticipation, I climbed down the poolside ladder into eight feet of water. The kids followed me, giggling and lively without a sign of fear or protest, and inched over, one by one to hang onto the side edge.
Treading water, I had them do their same back-glides to me, catching them and shoving them back to the edge again, one at a time. Each time they repeated their thrust out into deep water, they traveled a little farther. (I recall how in doing a big research paper for ancient history, I had simultaneously delved into subjects that compared or contrasted with my thesis, finding they actually were related in ways I had never suspected, making the paper more interesting and earning positive comments from the professor!) As our little group continued to throw themselves backward farther and farther from the wall, some went clear across the pool on their backs, kicking their legs and sculling with their hands, laughing and squeaking with delight in eight feet of water! I was ecstatic, and so were the mothers.
We invented a new game called ELEVATOR: you take a big breath, climb down the ladder to the bottom of the pool, let go, wait patiently, and allow the built-in "buoyancy elevator" to bring you back up to the top. At the second try, they were joyously showing each other how explosively they could bounce out of the water from the depths of the bottom rung.
Lesson-time was over, and we had five minutes of free-swim. With no warning, several of the children clambered out, jumped feet first off the diving board, surfaced, rolled onto their backs and sculled over to the wall, got out and went to do it again. I tried not to let my astonishment show, keeping a poker face when it was time to mingle with mothers and onlookers. What a success it was! The kids enjoyed their triumph, the mothers lavished proud praise, and the boss told me that she knew that her faith in her teacher had been appropriately placed.
I had taken the responsibility of doing what I believed to be useful, to stay out of the way of other teachers, and avoid encroaching on other turfs. I had helped each student through every water-confidence maneuver I could invent, equipping them for whatever instruction might be required from any subsequent teacher. The students had gained confidence from their own accomplishments.
For the final lesson in the series I wanted to complete my experiment in blazing new trails by presenting a solid demonstration of the children's skills and stamina. I talked with them about staying in the deep end of the pool for twenty-five minutes without coming out or touching the sides. We all agreed there would be only two rules; we had to stay in the water under our own power and we could not touch anyone else. We could float, tread water, talk quietly, bob up and down, swim in a circle, or whatever we wanted.
In we went, the children enthusiastically treading like little machines. They became bored after awhile, so I took off my floppy straw sombrero and tossed it over to one of them to play "pass the hat" for several minutes. Then we made believe we were riding bicycles, then floated with our arms folded, next copied the movements for "Simon Says," and finally performed "silent swimming" in a circle. Then it was over. Every one of them had made it through the entire period without touching the walls or hanging on to each other: a fabulous "drown-proofing" exercise. They all graduated by getting their certificates from the boss.
Many years have gone by since the evolution of those swimming lessons and all they taught me, but their underlying truths remain. One cannot measure people against each other without creating winners and losers -- and while success may encourage, failure clearly discourages. Nor can you fib to a student by over exaggerating the excellence of their feat -- encouragement is one thing while "blarney" is another, and they know the difference! You have to push some kids harder than others, and need to find special phrases for different situations, but positive, realistic encouragement promotes effort and growth.
Insults or negative criticism diminish personal confidence and the desire or even willingness to try new things, while at the same time diminishing one's status in the eyes of other students, producing embarrassment and even hostility. Safety and personal confidence is more useful and significant than being the first or the fastest. I helped people learn how to learn by doing, by thinking about it, and by helping each other with the learning. The key was to know each person, paying attention to what skills, understandings and needs were being revealed by individual feedback, and then to help each one move forward to the next step. No absolute formula existed, only a personal sensitivity and a sense of direction.
I can now find pleasure in reviewing my swimming experiments, since they have come to be used continuously in individualizing learning, assignments and evaluation in my university classroom (taught now via interactive instructional television to fifteen communities around the state of Arizona simultaneously). Learning several sets of principles and applying them in various ways, students design their own evaluation projects on which they will be graded. They only need to demonstrate through application that they have understood our course principles.
Their use of ladders into and out of the deep water leads them to new rungs of confidence in accomplishment and personal scholarship, each one an individual, each one capable of floating with assurance in personal buoyancy, each functioning effectively within their respective areas of choice. Their teacher, or rather learner-helper, has established a comfortable arena, has provided a series of learning experiences that move step by step to a higher level of competence, has allowed and encouraged the students to find their way, and has remained nearby in case assistance is needed. The learner does the work and gets the reward. I wonder if the reward and satisfaction is not even greater for the learner-helper.