The Way the World Learns to Dive

She was visibly shaken, something on her mind obviously weighing her down, but too anxious to bring it up.

“Whatcha thinking about?” I asked. A frequently unrecognised (quite by design, as the real skill is to keep it invisible) part of being a dive instructor is to be something of a psychologist. It’s critically important to recognise stress or other potential dangerous behaviours in students and respond well ahead of time to keep situations under control. We gently rocked on the little six-pack in calm, Hawaiian waters during our surface interval between her OW certification dives 3 and 4. She sighed to work up the emotional energy to give her worries voice. As if, by finally speaking them aloud, they were going to manifest… turn real… and then she’d actually have to deal with them. “Is this…” she spoke haltingly, “… is this the dive where I have to take off my BC underwater?” “No. Why?” “Oh thank god!” Relief washed over her, “I had so much trouble with that in the pool. I’ve been really nervous about it for this whole trip.” Despite myself, I laughed. And immediately regretted it, with the look of startled hurt on her face. “I can’t have you do that,” I explained, “This is a PADI course and that is not part of the Open Water skills. So we’re not going to do that at all.” She nodded, still bewildered by the laugh. “You’re lucky I’m a PADI instructor today.” “Why is that?” “Because now that you just told me that it was something you’re uncomfortable with… if I was being a NAUI instructor today: that is the ONLY thing we’d do on the next dive. Over and over and over until it didn’t scare you anymore.” “I’m glad you’re a PADI instructor today, then,” she smiled, satisfied and now looking forward to a less stressful final dive. I was not glad. There are two general schools of thought when it comes to training. And I’m curious which you, personally subscribe to? And whether it has influenced your selection of instructor or agency? Most importantly, I’m curious how the two philosophies might influence your diving after instruction, both immediately, intermediately, and in the long run? Of course there are a LOT of different philosophies and just as many ways to qualify them. For the purposes of this exercise, I want to explore just one of these dichotomies. Training by degrees vs. Training to limits The former is, for a variety of reasons, the far more common. Several agencies have the practice codified. Without inviting agency bashing, PADI is the most obvious example.

"These are the standards - train to exactly these standards, no more, no less." As long as everyone can demonstrate “mastery” (defined as “the ability to do a skill once without panicking and bolting to the surface and/or dying”) that is all that absolutely needs to be met. If anyone wants to know or do anything further, that is to be covered in the next class. Which, of course, you are to upsell students to during this class. The above is, perhaps, a bit of a cynical oversimplification… but not by furlongs. Not all agencies are quite as strict about the bare essentials, with many encouraging instructors to go beyond the standards, using them only as a base platform that needs to be met, but allow outperformance.

But, to indulge in a little more cynicism, what dive shops are really going to want to allow 6 week Open Water to train divers to a Rescue Diver skill level without selling the pursuant classes? It’s pretty easy to see the obvious shortcoming to the philosophy of training by degrees. The tantalisation of “becoming a good diver” if only you take more classes. Of course it benefits the shop… but does it actually benefit students? I’d say yes. Completely unironically. The learning philosophy is sound. Learn this thing, get really good at it, and once you’re well practiced with the thing to the point of muscle memory and absolute familiarity, then move on to learning the next thing. In terms of diving, where we’re talking about practical skills and defined limitations. There is great value to diving a whole bunch within your limitations until you really start bashing headlong into them, until those limitations become more a burden than a challenge. With the fleet of educations specialists that PADI has employed, there’s a reason they adopted that philosophy. It is also part of the reason, I think, they have been so successful as to actually define the industry. (Mercenary marketing helps, too.) There really is a reason that PADI IS the way the world learns to dive. They have set the tone, in a great many ways, on what so many of us all expect of certification at almost every level and on how we should expect it. Yet, as with every coin (and when it comes to diving, there is always coin involved), there is another side. The way the world learns to dive is, “Take classes and more classes and more classes.” It is a conviction that has perfused throughout every level of the sport. Stepped up to technical diving we have relatively newer divers rushing their way through Deco, then Trimix, then Advanced Trimix, then rebreathers, the DPV use, and Cave, and on and on with as much haste as they can squeeze out of their wallet.

In a perfect world, a diver really ought to be doing a lot of bottom time within the scope of, say, Decompression Procedures course, until every piece of gear and every procedure feels as natural and comfortable as an old pair of jeans. Once they start finding that they’ve already done so very much of their local dives at that level and, like a cookie jar that’s just out of reach, they need a boost to get to the level they’re now prepared for… THEN it’s time to move on to the next class. Some course standards have some time limits or number of dives built into them to account for this philosophy. 50 hours on a rebreather before one can take Mod II or CCR Cave for example. But these are minimum standards, the equivalent of clearing your mask once in the shallow end of the pool for an OW class and calling it “mastery.” Be honest, how many people do you know who have just knelt on a platform in a quarry, doing nothing, to “build hours” on their rebreather so they could take the next class? Is that really experience or is that just exploiting loopholes? How many people do you know who have taken every single class offered in the course of only a few fast years? And which of them does it make you uncomfortable to think about because they probably shouldn't have? Enthusiasm is one thing - temerity is quite another. So a benefit to training by degrees: Appropriately used and respected by both instructors and students, a person can be really well set up to excel at their next course, having slowly built up to the very limits of their training. Drawback: People are people. And people do dumb shit so they can think they’re cool and impress their friends. So what’s the alternative? There are really only a very small set of agencies I can think of that have strict training all the way to limits codified. Many instructors will personally adhere to this style and make damn sure their students know it before the class begins. For the students' part, there are plenty of people to whom this style is much more appealing. Instead of encouraging students to do well through class and then practice the skills they’ve learned, the philosophy of training to limits is, and must be, much more strict. “Mastery” as defined so far is no longer acceptable; only actual mastery is. Instead of learning just enough to keep you comfortable to a range where you can then play around and work on perfecting yourself and gaining comfort within those limitations, a person trained all the way to their limits must demonstrate absolute comfort and ability all the way to the very brink of them to even pass the class. Benefits: Gotta be a damn good diver (as defined by the agency or instructor standards) to even get the card. So chances are you there aren't going to be a lot of surprises hiding from you within those limits. Not a lot that needs to be further developed, only practiced and reinforced. Another strong benefit is that this ideology breaks the more common thinking of, “Gotta take more classes!” It breaks the chain, so to speak. Of course there ARE more classes, but they are to be worked up to and respected… attempted when you feel ready (and meet the dive or time count) as opposed to trying to get fast-tracked ASAP. Drawbacks: Honestly, not a ton. The classes tend to be harder and much more demanding, but what’s wrong with that? In the end, though, people are still people. And people do dumb shit so they can think they’re cool and impress their friends. In the wrong sort of hands a hard-earned certification to, say, 150 feet might encourage someone to ONLY dive to 150 feet, ignoring the fact that even though they are very well-trained, there is still plenty of experience to be gained and practiced with less potential for issues much shallower. This naturally exists in the training by degrees model as well. And, luckily, the instructors and agencies I know and respect of either ethos who will explicitly make the case for staying conservative right out of the gate. And one hopes our students will be level-headed enough to heed that recommendation. Or maybe not, I dunno. I’m not the boss of everyone. And there’s just as likely a cross-section of reckless nincompoops across all demographics. I just hope I can exercise the good judgment as an instructor to only unleash anyone into an environment they will respect and stay safe within. Personally, I will cater my approach to the student. I’m lucky that the agency(s) I train through allow me that flexibility. That I can decide that someone is capable of safely executing dives at a certain level and, therefore, deserves a pass; from there I can talk to them about staying extremely conservative for a while and working up to the limits of the certification. Or I can be merciless on a student who is capable of pushing harder; that I can bring them right to the very edges and then scare the hell out of them there so they might respect that there be dragons. For all the potential benefits of either approach, if really pushed to make a decision I would probably argue in favour of training by degrees. I am not an education theorist myself, but what I’ve ever read on the topic favours it. That said: anyone who sells you a Boat Diver certification or a Drift Diver certification or an Advanced Fish ID at Altitude certification is a goddamn jerk.

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