Surf school is about so much more than just learning to surf

The City Surf School was part of a chain of surf schools that operated up and down the coast. Recently, head office had taken note of the low completion and proficiency rates at the City Surf School and had received a few complaints from customers. They decided to send Jane to discuss the situation with the school’s instructors. A meeting was convened.

“So,” asked Jane, “what are your thoughts on the low proficiency rates?”

There was a pause. The room was tense. The assorted instructors looked stoney-faced. Eventually, Julius spoke, “That’s actually quite a narrow measure…”

Taking heart, the other instructors started to nod. “Just because something can be measured,” continued Julius, “it doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing.”

“OK,” said Jane, “but – setting that aside for a minute – why do you think the proficiency rates are low?”

Marie took up the thread. “Well, being close to the city, we get a lot of people who don’t really engage much in sport. They’re not particularly well-coordinated. They have no real sporting – let alone water-sports – background. I think that makes us a little bit different.”

“So how do you teach them to surf?” asked Jane.

Marie warmed to the theme, “The most important thing,” she explained, “is to engage our beginning surfers in what real surfers do. We take them out into the waves and we explain the strategies used by world champions. We ensure that they have the right mindset with which to approach the challenge.”

“Hmmm,” said Jane, “do you practice on the sand first?”

Julius looked incredulous, “Sand-surfing!” he spat. “That’s not real surfing. We want to give our beginning surfers an authentic surfing experience not a contrived and artificial one. We don’t want to reduce surfing to a mechanistic set of procedures to be rote memorised. We want our beginning surfers to truly understand surfing in the way that real surfers do.”

“But isn’t practising on the sand an effective strategy?” Queried Jane.

“You’ve never taught surfing, have you?” Suggested Brian who, up until this point, had been staring out of the window.

“No,” said Jane, “But I understand that’s what our more successful schools do.”

“Really?” Said Marie.

“Yes,” Reiterated Jane. “I understand it’s an effective teaching method.”

There was a pause.

Marie looked sceptical, “You see,” explained Marie, “I’m just not sure that there really is such a thing as a teaching method – well not in the way you suggest – not one that can be simply transplanted from one context to another. Teaching surfing is a complex process and it involves human beings. Yes, you may think you know what a method is and what it looks like, but if you transplant it to a new context with new relationships between people then how can it possibly be the same? We teach from a different beach than any other school. We have different beginning surfers. Skilled instructors mediate countless unplanned interactions between themselves and their students. You cannot possibly capture all of this in some sort of reductive, universal concept of a ‘teaching method’. It lacks an understanding of how social interactions mediate cause-and-effect relationships. Frankly, it’s a positivist approach.” She spoke this last sentence with a sense of triumph.

“But isn’t ‘sand-surfing’ worth a try; particularly if your students are struggling?” Asked Jane, “More people might learn to surf?”

“As Julius explained,” said Marie, “This is a narrow view of what we do here.”

“Quite.” Agreed Brian.

“Surfing is about much more than rote memorising handed-down procedures,” explained Julius. “We need to build beginning surfers’ self-concept as surfers. We need to enable their creativity. How can we develop their critical thinking skills if we are just barking orders at them on the beach; orders that they are expected to mindlessly follow? We need to involve them in real, authentic expressions of surfing that are relevant to their lived experiences in order to foster their engagement.”

Jane frowned, “But won’t they become disengaged if they don’t actually learn to surf?”

“Do you know how many types of water-sports there are?” Asked Marie. “There are literally billions. There is no way we could ever hope to teach our beginning surfers how to compete at a professional level in all of the water-sports that they may come across in the future. It’s a fool’s errand. It is far better to equip them with the skills and dispositions to be able to learn any water-sport, should the need arise. We need to foster the skill of learning how to learn. We need to encourage resilience so that our students will persist in the face of difficulty.”

“I have a motivational poster.” Added Brian.

Jane turned to Marie, “But you’re not doing that, are you?”

“Doing what? What do you mean?” asked Marie.

“You’re not teaching them how to learn any water-sport, should the need arise. And you’re not teaching them how to surf.”

This post was partly inspired by a conversation with @Smithre5

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5 Comments on “Surf school is about so much more than just learning to surf”

  1. Nice! I have a similar script in my head where all students are expected to swim laps in a pool irrespective of whether they know how to swim or not. I plan to create a blog post out of it someday.

    It felt like this story ended prematurely. Did I miss anything?

  2. […] via Surf school is about so much more than just learning to surf. […]

  3. […] [The original surf school post may be found here] […]

  4. […] questions to ask an education guru, Taking a critical look at praise, Carts and horses, Surf school is about so much more than just learning to surf and this very generous spirited review of Teacher Toolkit’s new book.Daisy […]


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