What I Learned About Education on a Sailboat

Adam Thompson
May 23 · 5 min read

“No! Turn sixty degrees to windward!”

“I am turning to sixty degrees.”

“No! No! Sixty degrees TO windward!”

It was my second time at the helm of a 43’ sailing vessel off the coast of La Paz, Baha California Sur, Mexico. My wife and I were taking a week-long, on-board sailing certification course. Neither of us had any sailing experience beyond reading the 3 textbooks the company had sent us, but we were ideal students: excited and passionate about the subject. This should be an easy win for the instructor, right?

Except, I felt sabotaged. The instructor didn’t provide me with any warning about the drill beyond mentioning it at breakfast. He started the drill without warning a few minutes after I had taken the helm; I hadn’t even familiarized myself with the points of sail. Here, he had me attempting a figure-eight maneuver that required the helmsman to put the boat directly beside a floating object under sail. I could barely keep the boat straight.

This was the story of the week. He asked us to raise the mainsail and told us we were wrong when we started yanking lines. He criticized our incorrect usage of the winches without ever having shown us a winch. He told us to stay on course, and we had to figure out how. He asked us random questions directly from the final written exam and told us the answer when we were wrong.

I recognized his teaching style: grumpy dad. Ask a question. Get an incorrect answer. Glibly give the answer. You’re able to learn under these conditions, but the experience is stressful. As the week progressed, I became afraid to touch anything. I wasn’t experimenting and trying things out for fear of the instructor’s reprimand. I realized that I was in the same situation of most American high school students.

The instructor took 2 willing, passionate, and educated students who wanted to learn the material and made us frustrated and confused. After 2 days of this, I shut down and went into non-compliant mode. “I don’t know. Why don’t you show me the docking procedure?”

How could this instructor have failed so terribly? What does this experience tell us about the way people learn? More importantly, how do we ensure that we teach ourselves regardless of our instructors?

How could he have failed so terribly?

After our week at sea, we sat on a patio sipping margaritas with 2 other captains who had just arrived for next week’s trip. One captain, an old Englishman who had retired to Mexico and taught sailing courses part-time, asked us how our trip went. I obliged with a polite response. What he did next surprised me, and answers the question of how our instructor had failed: he got to know me. He asked about my sailing goals, my experience, and my familiarity with the equipement. This simply didn’t happen with my instructor.

My instructor greeted us, told us where he was from, then fielded the several “get-to-know-you” questions that I have holstered. Our instructor never asked us about our sailing goals, our experiences with boats, our ability to tie a bowline knot.

To teach someone you have to know their background. The background building isn’t simply for rapport; the background building guides the instruction. Knowing where a learner begins will provide the vocabulary for the instructor to effectively communicate.

In the book The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull, he identifies an often overlooked aspect of instruction: seeing things from the student’s perspective. He writes, “We must see through the student’s eyes. This means that we must look back and see our subject as it was at first, when it was just sensory input!” How often do educators overlook this simple fact? The content looks different to the expert than it does to the novice.

As the instructor was shouting “sixty degrees to windward,” “broad reach,” “don’t put her in irons,” and “lying to,” I thought about how these phrases meant nothing to me. I didn’t yet possess the vocabulary for these phrases to mean anything. The instructor was talking, but he wasn’t talking to me.

What does this experience tell us about the way people learn?

I am an educator. I have taught English at the high school level for 13 years. Throughout that time, I’ve encountered many different pedagogical emphases — objective based learning, data driven instruction, empowerment curriculum, project based learning, to name several. Talk to any educator who has been around longer than 10 years, and they’ll tell you about how the current pedagogical emphasis had been tried years before. They’ll also tell you how their current way of teaching cuts through all of this research and is the best way to teach. The general attitude of experienced educators is to continue one’s approach and ride out the current educational fad until the new one becomes popular. I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve also been guilty of ignoring new pedagogical approaches because I know that I teach better. This is wrong.

As educators, we need to acknowledge that many instructors ignore the brain-based pedagogical structures at the root of all human learning. If we can understand how the brain learns, we can better structure our lessons, and our own self-learning. The good news is that we already know enough about this to make a difference.

We need to go beyond narrow-viewed pedagogical fads, and we need to use biology to guide our teaching and our learning.

How do we ensure that we teach ourselves regardless of our instructors?

David Kolb, the researcher who is mostly known for the learning styles inventory, published work about the learning cycle. This cycle is as follows:

  • Concrete experience
  • Reflective observation
  • Abstract conceptualization
  • Active experimentation

This theory is called experiential learning, where experiential stands for experience.

The jump that we need to make in education and in the way that we teach ourselves is to remember that all content is an experience. When we read, we see. When we sit in a class, we listen. All of these events are concrete experiences for our brain. The worst class will teach something to students even if it’s just that the material is boring. The brain never shuts off; it is always processing information.

When we understand that our brain is in a constant state of receiving concrete experience, we can use the learning cycle to “trick” the brain into learning. Kolb’s learning cycle is a simplified version of the neurological process by which information is stored in memory. So, any instructor can use these 4 steps to impart knowledge.

Takeaways

I had to be put on a boat and in a position of vulnerability to remember what it was like to be totally clueless. If we can remember to (1) understand our student’s backgrounds to know where they are, (2) provide tasks that are just outside the zone of what they can do, and (3) impart knowledge using the learning cycle, we can teach anything.

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The Teachers on Fire Magazine features articles written by agents of growth and transformative change in K-12 education today. If you like to write about education, reach out to @TeachersOnFire to become a writer for this publication. Writers keep full ownership of content.

Adam Thompson

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Educator. Reader. Writer.

Teachers on Fire Magazine 🔥

The Teachers on Fire Magazine features articles written by agents of growth and transformative change in K-12 education today. If you like to write about education, reach out to @TeachersOnFire to become a writer for this publication. Writers keep full ownership of content.