Last weekend my 12 year old son completed his scuba diving courses and earned his certification to be able to dive up to 60 feet. For so many reasons as a parent, I am truly proud of him for this accomplishment, but I have mostly found myself thinking about his journey wearing my educator hat and reflecting on what made this such a successful learning experience for him.
Choice: For over a year, Hayden has had a strong desire to learn to scuba dive. Choosing what he wanted to learn about and get good at also led to motivation. Because he was highly motivated, he put an incredible amount of effort into his learning and work.
Belief in the students: On day one of the scuba course, Hayden’s instructor, Jay, did a quick pre-assessment of the skills each of the new students brought to the course, and they were extremely varied. Several students had significant diving experience and others had none. Despite the varied skill levels, Jay announced that they ALL would make it through the course and earn their certification, not 80% of them – all of them. He made an unwavering commitment to his students and instilled confidence in them before they ever got into the water.
High standards and expectations: The skills you need to master, the exams you need to take, the reading you have to do to get certified does not change no matter the skill set you bring to the table. Hayden was the only 12 year old in the class – most were adults. The 250 page textbook they had to read over the course of the class was incredibly challenging, the vocabulary new and unfamiliar, the science concepts complex. The material was not watered-down for Hayden because he was 12 – he was expected to meet the same high standards as everyone else.
Crystal clear learning targets: What Hayden was expected to learn and do was made clear to him on the first day and each objective was made explicit as they were working on it together. There was no guesswork on Hayden’s part about what was essential for him to know and what skills he needed to master in order to receive his certification.
Multiple ways to access the information: In addition to reading the textbook, Hayden was also provided with a video so he could watch the skills he was reading about in his text. The instructors also explicitly modeled complex skills prior to having students practice them in the water.
Collaborative practice and support: In scuba diving, everything is done with a buddy. The instructor stressed the importance of working collaboratively and helped foster a community of learners. As Hayden learned new skills, he always had a partner to work with who provided encouragement, support, and feedback.
Practice and application in increasingly complex environments: As he read about, watched, and learned new skills, Hayden had to apply them, first in a less challenging environment – the swimming pool, and then in a more challenging environment – the ocean, and then at increasing depths. As he demonstrated confidence with his skills in the less challenging environments, he would move to practice in more complex ones.
Ongoing, individual assessment with specific feedback: Hayden had written quizzes and exams he needed to take during each class period. After each exam, each concept he didn’t know was retaught and reassessed until mastery was achieved; this was often done in small groups. In addition, every water skill listed on the set of objectives was individually assessed over the course of the class to ensure the instructor had accurate information regarding Hayden’s skills. After each skill assessment, Hayden received explicit feedback on what he was doing correctly and what he was doing incorrectly. If he needed additional modeling or practice, the instructor gave it to him, and then would assess his skills again until mastery was achieved.
Encouragement and Fun: Hayden’s teacher encouraged him, praised him, highlighted what he was doing right, and continued to build his confidence in his own abilities. He also gave the students regular ‘play time’ in the water where they could practice their new skills in a fun and safe environment.
As I think about this authentic learning experience, and the impact it had on my son, I am reminded that all students are hungry to learn! When we provide them with the right learning environments, the right set of experiences, the right levels of support, and we make sure they know without a doubt that we believe in them, they will reward us with uncommon effort and commitment and continue to surprise us with their amazing accomplishments.