Tombstone Shaped Slabs

Those Tombstone Shaped Slabs of Buoyant Synthetic Plastic Polymer … and ME[1]


Happy Days…!!

When, every week we young swimming teachers[2] trooped into the equipment store before lessons, and after foraging around for a while, trooped out again, all smiles and ready to teach.

How did everyone know we were ready?
Because smiles aside, we were carrying a pile of floats!

By the way, I am not talking about ‘Kick Boards’ here. 
They belong essentially, in the world of the club swimmer. It’s a long way on from Learn to Swim.
Amazingly I have seen kick boards being handed out to quite young beginners for leg kick practices in swimming lessons, though… Those littl’uns seemed to spend a lot of time and effort grappling gamely with something almost a third of their body length!!!
A few would have thought it was a game.

I very much doubt too if “To be able to hold and control a kick board while kicking…” was one of the planned session outcomes.

Back then, we were all big fans of floats, for learning to float, kicking practices, for single arm practices, backstroke practices…..

I don’t think we ever imagined teaching without them. No one did.

Then, one day, a classroom colleague, also a swimming teacher I admired, challenged me with an idea.
“Do we agree that developing more Independent Learners is generally a ‘good thing’?”
“Yes”, I agreed.
“Well what can we do in our swimming lessons then, to teach our swimmers to be more independent learners?”
“Could it be a better way of teaching?” “Would we get better results?”

In a nutshell…could we encourage our swimmers to be less dependent on their teacher to tell them how to behave, always waiting to be told what they should be doing next, and even how to do it the ‘right’ way and not the ‘wrong’ way?
Would we be more effective if we put a greater emphasis on encouragement to play, explore, experiment and discover stuff for themselves?? Without the use of additional equipment…
‘Play’ was widely acknowledged as the way we discover stuff about all sorts of things fundamental to being human?

“Ah.. Guided Discovery”, I thought.

Done that in training! It’s the same as self discovery, right?
Except I didn’t do a lot of it and neither did the other teachers in my centre.

Like I said, we were big on ‘Command and Practice’.

We still are today, to a greater or lesser extent I think.[3]
It works for swimming – and traditionally in PE lessons too. To a greater or lesser extent?

But I began to think more about those other approaches.

I found myself asking where those floats fitted into all that stuff about play, exploring and discovering what they could and couldn’t do in the water? Someone has called them ‘the bodily possibilities’ in water. I like that!

“Hold tight onto those floats- they stop you sinking” (“PS It’s the only way I know to get you to practice kicking your legs…)”

Arms straight; hold the float like this- no not like that; show me! Now keep a tight grip –  keep arms straight  – push glide and kick across the width. Fast kick- floppy feet… kick, kick, kick, long legs – no bendy knees……kick from your hips…NO! keep your arms straight, keep the float flat, keep it straight….oh! you’re kicking to a standstill, NO..don’t bend your arms, don’t let go of the float…..dont let it tip….push the float forward….kick harder…ah…you’re going backwards now…OK, feet down, push off and try again…”

(“…mmm, many of them were struggling with their float…it  seemed to be effecting their kick …?”

“I think we need a few lessons on How To Hold And Use A Float Properly. Actually, wait, hold up… tell me again, why do they need the float ???? What is it actually achieving? I know they can star-float and pencil-float without holding onto a float – AND they can push glide and kick without one[4]

One of the most amazing, almost magical, and often quickly forgotten aquatic experiences, is when we discover for ourselves that we have ‘our own’ buoyancy and ability to float independently.

As a swimming teacher I knew that floating independently and confidently –Going Horizontal – was like a gateway or portal to a new world. One where you could travel solo and not dependent on anything but your own confidence and abilities!!!

I began to look at my beginners, especially, and wonder if they might learn more and learn it all earlier – gain more self confidence too- if I wasn’t so eager to hand out the floats every lesson.

They could all stand, I figured, but while they were grimly holding onto one or two floats I wasn’t giving them many opportunities to explore their own buoyancy.
Worse still, their hands and arms- so much more important in the water than on land – were fixed somehow to the floats…
We all know that actually, in the aquatic environment, there is nothing we actually can HOLD ON TO!!


Also, like the leg kick practices, their hands were ‘tied’, albeit loosely and unreliably to the floats.

I wondered if it denied them multiple opportunities to discover that they could use their hands and arms to scull, press and sweep and to maintain their balance and body position.

Could they become too dependent on them for confidence?

It was worth a try ….

Week by week those Tombstone Shaped Slabs of Buoyant Synthetic Plastic Polymer stayed in the cupboard.

And I became convinced that my beginners progressed and built their self confidence and foundation skills more quickly without them. I still am.

It became blindingly obvious to me that they didn’t actually need them. Then or later.

Swimming lessons did not equal using floats.

Who Knew?

I hardly if ever use them now.[5]

Who else I wonder, like me, has found the same as I have?
Is this a better way?

More In Part Two


[1] Firstly it was the late great Terry Laughlin (Total Immersion) who I think called them tombstone shaped slabs of foam; he was talking about kickboards I think.  I just tweaked his idea a little…and this is about my own learning journey as a swimming teacher.

[2] I was once!!

[3] I guess the question is how predominant in our teaching style is the command and practice approach?

And how closely tied are we to the School Of Faults And Corrections?

We know that Guided Discovery, Problem Solving, Peer teaching/observation and assessment and ‘Play’ principles are also powerful ‘tools’ in the context of Teaching and Learning. They can just as effectively be used to encourage the learner to try, try, try again then practice, practice, practice.

[4] Of course one reason why we used floats for kick practices was that you can kick for longer if you can keep lifting your head to the front to take breaths- in the way that you don’t in front crawl. Some teachers tried to get round this by teaching their swimmers to hold the float with one straight arm and the other holding the short diagonally opposite and closer corner of the float….; others had swimmers hold the float with finger tips so that they could put their face down between their outstretched arms and twist their head independently to the side to breathe…. Transferable Skills?

I think there is some interesting work to be done on whether all these almost esoteric, weird and wonderful trial and error holds and grips and positional preferences with floats might just add some transferable aquatic skills I haven’t appreciated. I just haven’t got there yet??

[5] see Part Two