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Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach

Of all the varied and interesting points touched on during the discussion in which I participated last night, there was one that kept rolling around in my head all evening through this morning.

Formal training in teaching theory.

The core of the conversation was “How much training do you feel instructors should have above their students?” This focused, primarily, on “diver-level” training and experience beyond what a person is teaching. It is hard to disagree that this is an important component to competence as an effective instructor.

Less discussed last night (because this is a given) is training as a dive professional.

Obviously one can’t DM or instruct without that level of training and those credentials. The quality and philosophies of that training can vary wildly.

Agency to agency have constructs of either prescriptive teaching to create identical instruction techniques or much more liberal ideas to allow uniquely personalized instruction techniques. Then from one Instructor Trainer to another there are different ideals, or focus, or emphases.

So in this simmering cauldron of ingredients for an effective dive instructor, so far there is: personal dive experience and specialized instructor training.

General education theory is a missing component.

Among those agencies that follow prescriptive teaching techniques education theory has been built into their models and lesson plans for instructor candidates. Think of some sort of workplace training. Let’s say: how to operate a forklift.

The person teaching you how to operate that thing has had to go through a bunch of training on how to say A, then B, then C and so on to their students, exactly the same way every single time (which is probably why workplace training is always so goddamn boring). The lessons are designed, ostensibly, by people who know how to design lessons and then delivered by people who are told exactly how to deliver them.

Obviously in diving, for classes at various levels, the pursuit of which might take days or weeks or years, the way instructors are trained is significantly more rigorous than for a 3 hour forklift class. But the model is effectively the same.

But among those agencies that allow for more flexibility the education theory falls much more on the instructor trainer and then, eventually, on the instructor themselves. Hopefully an instructor will build up a catalog of having learned techniques from lots of different viewpoints rather ITs stamping out clones from a single playbook; but by definition this will take time (ongoing professional development) to build.

What’s more… it would be foolish to not acknowledge that, no matter which model an agency might follow, there is a variety of quality among not just instructors, but IT, too. How many instructors (or ITs) have you known over the years that you might respect the hell out of as divers, but have seen their students with the glassy-eyed stare of “I know I’m supposed to be understanding this, but I don’t want to sound stupid by saying I don’t?”

Which loops back to lack of formal education theory training.

My kid sister (she’s only 4 years younger than me and we’re both middle-aged, now, so it annoys the shit out of her that I still think of her as my kid sister) has a Masters in Education Psychology. She likens my job to her daughter’s high-performance gymnastics coaches. The analogy is not unfounded: we train people for a recreation. Whether that recreation is performed at an amateur level or an olympic level… it’s still a skills-dependent recreation.

She explains, of their potential to be more proficient, “You could have more information than anyone else in your field, if you don't know how your students need to receive that information, you will be completely ineffective.”

See? In a single sentence she manages to button up what it’s taken me 500 words to almost get around to saying. That’s competence!

I don’t proclaim any mastery in the field of education or psychology. I’ve done some leisure reading on education theory over the years. I was a study-partner for the entirety of a psychology doctoral program ages ago (though I was not in the program myself). Perhaps in another universe I went into academia - literature or religion or philosophy or something equally as useless - but probably not education. So in that field I am a modestly-informed amateur.

Whatever I am as an instructor is the amalgam of all my specialised training, observation, stealing ideas and techniques from other instructors which I perceived as effective, and personal experience both as a diver and as an instructor. I can’t explain how I teach… I just teach how I know how.

I’ll tell you what, though… during last night’s conversation, after the spotlight caught that potential deficiency scurrying around the back of my mind like the slow inmate during a jailbreak, I’m going to start more aggressively revisiting the topic.

This is, perhaps, a critical level of training that every instructor should have above their students.

None of this is to say that a high-school principal with a PhD in Education Psychology is always going to make a better Rescue Diver instructor than some 25 year-old who has been living in the Philippines for 3 years, getting plastered every night after the boat is clean. That kid might run the best Rescue Diver class in the Eastern Hemisphere. There are a lot of factors that go into being a good dive instructor.

What I’m saying is, if you really want to be good at what you do… why not pursue all of them?

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