During this last month, I have had the great fortune to be in Guatemala City awaiting the birth of our seventh grandchild. Several times each week, we watch our 2 year old granddaughter (and her Papa) at swimming lessons at the outdoor aquatic center. This center, Waterproof Swim Academy, Academia de Natación, serves thousands of children and adults each week. It has a huge heated pool, and is staffed by many talented instructors.
While observing children, adolescents, and adults learning to swim, I was struck by how successfully the Academy’s instructors differentiate. It is both natural and expected. As a retired K-12 and college instructor, I have helped many teachers learn to differentiate with skill, and I found myself watching the Academy’s swim lessons through that lens.
First of all, when students begin a series of lessons, they are immediately pre-tested to determine their level of placement in classes. This is not dependent on age, size, grade level, or any other factor, except for readiness. Swimmers are flexibly grouped. As they master fundamental skills in each level, they are quickly moved to the next level of challenge in a different part of the pool. Some children are moved quickly; their learning time is compacted. Others may have difficulty mastering a skill, and then steps are taken to remediate. For example, with the littlest of swimmers, I saw some students quickly move through activities and into more complex ones – from sitting at the edge of the pool, to blowing bubbles, to jumping off of a floating mat into the arms of an adult, to diving for pool rings. It amazed me. No one had to wait for others to master a skill in order to move on to a new skill.
I also watched older children learn to jump off of a swimmer’s podium for the first time. Some students were ready and willing – they did not need assistance or huge amounts of encouragement. Others needed an adult waiting in the water for them as they sat on the edge of the podium, shaking. Still others jumped in with the instructor, hand in hand for security, and a tiny group of swimmers simply watched until their courage, curiosity, and skill became synchronized. As students finished their jumps, everyone cheered, and students moved on to other activities. It was clear that each session had a defined set of goals, and many interest and learning opportunities, almost like centers in a classroom.
I watched young children learning to dive. Some children made spectacular belly flops, and were given specific steps, tools, and encouragement to help them improve. Others were “on their way” and needed help to get more “lift and arch” into their dives; they jumped over outstretched paddle boards and through hula hoops. For advanced divers, the instructors tiered the assignment even more fully; they gave specific tips and feedback – “keep your elbows closer to your ears,” or “keep your heels touching,” for example. It was fantastic to analyze the work of the instructors, and the progress of the students.
Finally I turned my attention to the adolescent swimmers and the adult swimmers. Though most of them were competent swimmers, they too needed coaching and differentiation. At the end of laps, these swimmers often conferred with their coaches. I saw questioning at work; though I was too far away to overhear conversations, it was clear that the questions (and answers) were directed at improving skills. With this excellent, just-in-time feedback, swimmers were motivated to improve their prowess.
Differentiation can and should happen wherever learning takes place. Sometimes seeing excellent differentiation in a different context can provide us with tools to try in our own context.
I hope this “deep dive” into differentiation went “swimmingly'' for you; I hope I “floated” some ideas that you will think about and try.
As always, I welcome your ideas. Together we grow.
Jackie Drummer, Past President and Current Board Advisor
P.S. Our grandson, Nico, was born on November 4th!
(WATG would like to extend a huge thank you to Dr. Martha Aracely Lopez of Milwaukee Public Schools for translating this article into Spanish for our Spanish-speaking families and educators. The translation can also be found in our website blogs.)
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think.