My nine year old son has struggled for years to learn to swim. He had ear trouble from birth and had long term grommets inserted when he was 22 months old. We tried many different systems of ear plugs to protect his ears so that he could enjoy the water and learn to swim, but sadly, he became fearful of the water going into his ears and the inevitable pain that would result if he got an infection. So despite loving being in the water, formal lessons, encouragement from us, his brother and our extended family, Jamie remained unable to swim.
Last week on holiday, and equipped with a new (and expensive!) set of ear moulds, we ignored the swimming issue, and just thoroughly enjoyed playing in the water together, but as Jamie played he was aware of other children learning to swim with their parents encouragement. I noticed he was paying quite close attention – watching and listening. And then quite unexpectedly he put it all together himself and swam over to me going well out of his depth. The next hours were spent swimming widths above and below the water, jumping in and watching my beautiful son magically embrace the joy of feeling free in the water. By the end of the week Jamie had been snorkelling, swimming in the sea with friends and family and had ended each day exhausted but delighted by his exertions.
When I reflected on this, I realised that when Jamie was exposed to other children who could not swim, by watching them, he was informally recapping what he needed to do and made sense of it on his own. Yes, he knew the basics from the formal lessons he had had, but applying what he knew was something that only he could do for himself. It takes a risk to take that step into the unknown and change your behaviour and so often this does not happen in a formal lesson, but in an environment where the learner wants to apply the learning they have previously acquired.
We should not expect learners to make connections that change their behaviour in the sterility of the classroom; real changes of behaviour are personal, not time-bound and rely on the needs and drive of the individual to change as well as the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Supporting learners informally after formal learning has been delivered works. It allows learners to pace their behaviour change according to their own situation – and my happy, splashy little swimmer is a testament to that human fact.