The Design of Effective Swim Lessons (And What Teachers Need to Know).
Goldfish Swim School has created an effective learning model to teach learners how to swim. Let's take a deep dive into their instructional design and find some inspiration for our classrooms.
My five year old twins, Griffin and Norah, love spending warm summer days splashing in the water at Grandma and Grandpa’s cabin. The afternoons float away while they build towering sand castles, play tackle football on the shoreline, devour hot dog lunches, and neglect sunburnt shoulders.
In preparation for their aquatic adventures, last winter Norah and Griffin started swim lessons at Goldfish Swim School. Their experience in swim lessons has made a profound impact on them. Learning how to swim has not only given them the skill set to doggie paddle out to the swim raft, but also empowered them with the courage to dive into new learning experiences and build their capacity to make waves in life.
As an educator, I appreciated the intentionality of the instructional design at Goldfish Swim School. The swim coaches created a thoughtful learning experience that prepared Griffin and Norah for a vibrant life full of splashing and belly flops. I noticed and appreciated the specific learner objectives, intentional scaffolding, and inclusive atmosphere that boosted educational success.
Our classrooms are filled with students just like Griffin and Norah. Students full of potential with their whole lives ahead of them. Since educational success is a key goal for teachers outside the splash zone, too, let’s take a deep dive to see four strategies that makes Goldfish so effective.
1. Social/Emotional Support
Griffin and Norah have a lot of similarities. (For example, they both love their father, dearly.) When we started swim lessons, they were placed in the same small group, but as learners, we quickly discovered they had much different needs as they were learning how to swim.
Griffin took to swim lessons like a fish takes to water. His coach had to keep him from cannonballing into the deep end before he knew how to hold his breath. Conversely, Norah had a lot of anxiety stemming from not being in control and needed some additional social-emotional support. Their needs weren’t the same — and neither was the support they received from during their learning experience. The teaching model at Goldfish was adaptable to meet both child’s needs.
For example, Norah’s emotional response showed that the existing learning environment was ineffective. A floating coach had the agency to immediately prioritize 1:1 support within the existing small group lesson.
The floating coach used some sensory techniques to calm Norah down, quickly built rapport with her natural charisma and then modeled an enthusiasm for learning by joining Norah in the water without hesitation. Immediately after the lesson, the floating swim coach empowered us with ways we could support Norah’s learning at home between lessons.
Norah’s coach was ready for her when she showed up the following week and they ended up spending a couple of lessons together— creating a safe learning environment (a strategy key to the Goldfish ‘guided play’ philosophy). Slowly, but intentionally, she started to reduce how much support Norah received until she slipped out and Norah was able to rejoin the rest of her like-ability peers while they flutter kicked and blew bubbles into the water.
In order for this support to be responsive to Norah’s needs in real time, a prescribed response to predictable hurdles had to be predetermined. Goldfish was so on point that even the manager tracked me down in the parent crowd with a resource affirming that Norah’s emotionally elevated response was fairly typical.
How might we structure our student support system to be adaptable and responsive to student needs?
From the outside, Goldfish swim school looks like a typical department store, but when Griffin and Norah walk through the front door, it’s like they’re transported to a tropical water playground oasis.
Employees wearing leis enthusiastically greet them at the door. Fake palm trees drape over massive glass aquariums filled with tropical fish. Even the brightly colored changing rooms are somehow more exciting than normal ones. Everything about the environment sparks joy.
When learners actually enter the pool, they are pleasantly surprised with a shiver-free, 90-degree pool. This intentional preparation has removed a potential hurdle to learning.
From the perspective of a five-year-old, going to Goldfish is equivalent to attending a pool party. Their proprietary Science of SwimPlay® Curriculum focuses on teaching swim and safety skills while building character through guided play.
Specific learning objectives are reimagined through the eyes of young learners and phrased using kid-friendly terms. For example, doing a “crab walk” means inching their way around the perimeter pool gutter by using their hands as “pinchers”.
Throughout the lessons and immediately after, the positive reinforcement is bountiful. Ribbons, high fives, and door prizes are the norm. (Griffin and Norah were so engrossed in the fun that they were almost oblivious to the rapid progress they made at swimming!)
How might we make our classrooms feel as engaging as a tropical water playground oasis?
3. Learning Progression
According to famed psychologist Lev Vygotsky, students learn best when they are placed in their zone of proximal development (ZPD). Effectively keeping students in their ZPD requires an adjustable scaffold to learning based on a clear understanding of the learning objectives and the learner’s present level of performance.
Swimmers can start at Goldfish anytime due to the perpetual lesson model. Unlike traditional swim lessons that are only offered on predetermined dates during specific seasons, perpetual lessons are available throughout the year. Learners and their families can jump in and out of swim lessons as their learning dictates and schedules allow.
To determine an initial starting point, swimmers can complete a swimming self-assessment. (Frankly, initial placement is fairly low-stakes. Formative assessment is happening constantly, and adjustment is a non-threatening and ongoing process.)
All swimmers are grouped by ability and organized by lane lines in a single pool. Swimmers advance through lanes and age-appropriate skill levels at the rate of mastery, not by the designation of age. It’s an exciting change from the social progression that leads to students going unchallenged or to swimming in a pool that is too deep for their abilities.
The highest level at Goldfish is Swim Force. This swim team opportunity for fun and friendly competition gives accomplished learners the motivation they need to keep improving their skills. The most invested and talented swimmers improve their proficiency in racing skills like turns and finishes and the four major strokes: Freestyle, Breaststroke, Backstroke, and Butterfly. Swim Force participants have an authentic opportunity to showcase their skills during the quarterly swim meet.
How might we restructure the progression of learning to allow students to progress at the rate of mastery?
It’s not only the glass dividing the pool area from the spectator area that’s transparent. Goldfish is intentional about ensuring that coaches, parents and students are aware and empowered to be active in the learning process.
At the culmination of every swim session, parents, coaches, and swimmers meet for a few minutes for a 1:1 data-informed meeting. This meeting ensures that no communication gap exists between all invested parties. At this session, the coach celebrates areas of growth and achievement with students, clarifies the learning objectives with parents and students, determines each swimmer's current level of performance, and then identifies ways to support the learning at home between sessions.
Although this meeting was quick and could be overlooked, it is essential in priming swimmers to be invested in their own learning. In our home, bath time quickly turned into guided practice and self-assessment. Back at the lake, Grandma and Grandpa enjoyed seeing and celebrating each swimmer’s milestones.
How might we empower teachers, students, and parents with accurate present level of performance data in real-time?
Whether you’re dipping in your toes or jumping in the deep end with arm floaties, I encourage you to take a moment this summer to be inspired about how social/emotional support, environment, learning progression, and transparency could have a ripple effect in your classroom.
And after all, life is one big pool and the purpose of school (and swim school) is to give kids the skills and courage to dive in head first.