Lifeguard or Swim Coach? The Role of Struggle | Steve Barkley

Lifeguard or Swim Coach? The Role of Struggle

Recently I saw this post on Twitter:

“A lifeguard’s job is to prevent struggle but a swim instructor’s job is to encourage struggle. Should educators be more like lifeguards or swim instructors?” (@MikeFlynn55 the Director of Mathematics Leadership Programs at Mount Holyoke College and author of Beyond Answers).

At the time that I saw the post my granddaughter was swimming at a weekend long meet and I posted this:

“My granddaughter is a competitive swimmer. Great examples of teaching for learning when I observe her practices. She just swam her first 1000 meters as a 12-year-old with 13-16-year-old competitors. Her last place finish was a struggle. Her coach gave her an awesome learning experience.”

Over the last several years I have identified interesting analogies and dilemmas as I have followed my grandchildren’s experiences in school and in their sports participation. I remember getting a text from my daughter when my granddaughter was a first grader showing a math paper scored 100% and a comment that it was her 5th 100 in a row. I shared back with my daughter that it caused questions for me. A 100% every so often is great and confidence building. Five in a row has me wonder about where she is having the opportunity for struggle that is needed to advance her learning. As a 7-year-old swimmer she was frequently challenged to swim with older swimmers to stretch her performance.

Often in my workshops with teachers, I ask for groups to generate a list of student production behaviors that increase student learning outcomes. Several years back a group used the word “grapple” and it stuck me a great term for describing the right level of struggle. Carol Dweck writes, “meaningful work can also teach students to love challenges, to enjoy effort, to be resilient, and to value their own improvement.” Sounds like grappling to me!

Here are some of the responses people wrote to the Twitter post on lifeguard or swim coach? By in large, there is agreement that teachers play both roles at different times for different students, thus the complexity of teaching. The swim coach “knew” my granddaughter and predicted her response to the struggle. It was also one of eight races she swam over the weekend.

Like this and, at different times and for different people, we should be both. But our main orientation should be to be swim instructors, encouraging good struggling whenever possible.
— Martin Skelton

It is hard because by nature teachers are often people who want to help and make life better, but the learning happens in the struggle. When we struggle and succeed, we gain confidence and perseverance for the next time.
— Jennifer Burns

I’d say trust your students enough to be a swim instructor but first establish the competence and character of a lifeguard so THEY know they can trust you if they get in too deep.
— Rebakah Hommel

A lifeguard would save someone out of their depth — a coach would make sure you had the tools to swim at that depth.  Both of them do it from the sideline though.  We agree, teachers are both.  We also need the fish or mermaids to show us what it looks like.
— Brenda and Craig Christopherson

From a SPED perspective, it’s important for teachers to wear both hats. Being ready to throw in the life preserver when signs of struggling appear and ready to cheer on when concepts are within reach.
— Alison Burns

I love this analogy. As educators and parents, our job isn’t to only be a lifeguard or a swim instructor, but to balance the two to support and challenge in equal measure. Which do you need to be more of today?
— Jason McBride

I think we should see productive struggle much more often in schools…the difference is when and if she sees a level of drowning/frustration, she may give a little support, like a teacher may give a small nugget of information to keep the learning moving forward, then send the student back to complete a task. The lifeguard has no time for a mini lesson or a nugget of information. He/she just has to save and put back in the shallow end…where there is no productive struggle, or opportunity to learn how to swim.
— Tracy Bollinger

Like everything, broad “strokes” (I love my own puns!) are just that.  Some students can navigate the struggle while others do not react as well to it. Teachers must create meaningful struggle that is in the ZPD for that learner or group of learners. As a system, we tend to create a series of lifeguard schools with a sink or swim high school at the end.
— John Burns

What a wonderful prompt — both, I reckon, as well as pool cleaners, water testers, and pool managers. Don’t get me started on the dangers of open ocean swimming!
— James Dalziel

Thank you to Mike Flynn for the great questioning prompt and to the responders. I enjoyed pondering the question. For me it illustrates the complexity of teaching. Now I’m wondering if instructional coaches might at times be in a similar complex role. When to be a saving lifeguard and when to be a swim coach promoting a struggle?

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