Surfing and Apprenticeship

A few months ago when I took my first surfing lesson, I couldn’t help but notice some of the parallels to the teaching as apprenticeship approach we advocate at Inquiry By Design.

The first thing that struck me about my instructor, Juan, was how immersed he was in the surfing world. This wasn’t just a job. Juan lived and breathed surfing. In fact, he had already caught some breaks in the early morning before my lesson. He shared with me that he had been surfing for more than 16 years—more than half of his life—and had even placed in the finals during some national competitions.

Despite being such an expert, he was friendly and approachable. When we arrived at the beach with the beginner breaks, he provided about 15 minutes of direct instruction, showing me how to lie properly on the board, paddle, and stand up. He had me practice these moves about 10 times with my board on the sand. Each time I practiced, he watched closely and then described to me precisely what I was doing and what I needed to adjust. He was clearly adept at describing the total sum of my actions, not just what I was doing wrong. I practiced “standing up” a few more times on shore before heading out into the ocean.

Before I knew it, I was standing on the board and riding the foam. It was exhilarating! Juan cheered me on, provided feedback after every ride, and was always encouraging. In a short period of time, I found myself gaining confidence and skill.   Even when I failed to stand up, which was often the case, there was something to be learned.

Of course there are many differences between surfing and learning how to be an expert reader and writer. Despite the incongruities, however, I believe there are some valuable takeaways worth noting.

The first takeaway was that Juan was an expert practitioner. Because he was so immersed in the world of surfing, it was easy for him to describe what I was doing in the moment and where I needed to go. Juan was careful to recommend only one, maybe two things to work on every time I caught a wave. The feedback was timely, and I was able to make minute adjustments with every turn. Sure there were many moments when I failed to stand up and I grew frustrated, but there were always plenty of opportunities to get back on the board and try again, albeit with a slightly different perspective. The repeated iterations of doing the real thing (surfing), accompanied by expert feedback, accelerated my learning.

I noticed that while I was given a few isolated skills to practice on the beach, the majority of my learning took place while engaging in an ill-structured task—surfing in the ocean. It was the real thing (surfing, or at least my attempt at it) and the outcome was unpredictable (neither of us knew whether I would be successful standing). I was given an opportunity to actually surf, not just participate in isolated exercises related to it. I reflected how sometimes in the classroom, it can be easy to mistake the exercises for the real work. It may be akin to spending too much time focusing on identifying the literary elements in the novel, but too little time exploring in small- and whole-group discussion how those elements function and forward the ideas of the author. Sure, identifying literary elements is part of the work, but over-focusing on them risks depriving students of valuable opportunities to critically grapple with the text-based ideas of the novel, which we argue is one of the core, ill-structured tasks of English language arts.

I walked away from the surfing experience wondering what changes would occur if I considered my role in the classroom to be more like that of a surfing instructor? How would that change my stance as a teacher? What would be different about the tasks that I craft for my students? How does this change the learning environment that I create and, consequently, the way I provide feedback?

While the surfing analogy doesn't always stack up completely, the possible responses to these questions have implications worth exploring.