“We never stop telling the students how to do things.” Richard Feynman

FeynmanOne problem I have in my children’s swimming classes is that I always feel the parents want me to tell the children how to swim. They want me to tell them exactly what to do with their arms and legs. The children usually want to please so if you tell them to do something they will try to do it. But this means that they stop feeling the water, stop being aware of their own bodies moving through the water and the result is often that their swimming becomes laboured and uncomfortable. If you allow them to play and find their own movements, then just gently show them what to do the swimming is much more graceful. This is even more true of non-swimming adults. I have to get them to feel the water, to work out a little bit for themselves how to move their bodies through the water and then help them to refine the movements. Good swimming is all about feeling relaxed and confident in the water. This only comes with experiment, play and practice.

Here is Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman talking about the difference in the way art and science are taught. He was learning to draw.

“I noticed that the teacher didn’t tell people much (the only thing he told me was my picture was too small on the page). Instead, he tried to inspire us to experiment with new approaches. I thought of how we teach physics: We have so many techniques—so many mathematical methods—that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, “Your lines are too heavy.” because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines. The teacher doesn’t want to push you in some particular direction. So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit, of how to go about solving physical problems.”

Especially when teaching adults who have spent a whole life not learning to swim and may be very fearful, it is important to teach the spirit rather than just the technique of swimming.

2 thoughts on ““We never stop telling the students how to do things.” Richard Feynman

  1. I love this Jane : ) Feynman is a hero of mine and as usual you have nailed the need for self-direction in learners. Recently I wrote about learning to swim mindfully becoming increasingly rooted in natural scientific foundations as our understanding of how we all function advances. Learners and their facilitators practice a beautiful learning dance together (art) which when studied closely contains lots of universal features (science). Roll on the day when Science recognises the implications of this for learners in water and starts to transmit effective advice with all of the scientific awe that this natural process of learning to swim so richly deserves.

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