The past 15 years have seen a very significant growth in the popularity of kayaking in North America. Kayakers are now seeking more and better training opportunities. Instructors are meeting these demands with more sophisticated programs and teaching resources, providing both new and experienced paddlers opportunities to develop skills in safe and challenging learning environments.
Instructors are adding a wider range of skills to their teaching toolboxes, modifying, and even, in some cases, rejecting established pedagogy as we experiment with new ways to help our fellow kayakers advance their skills, knowledge and experience.
It is often said that good instruction is like a tasty pot of soup, with bits and pieces to satisfy everybody. One more recent addition to our soup is what I refer to as guided discovery.
In guided discovery, the emphasis is on function, getting the students to demonstrate a working familiarity with functional skills. For example, if the functional goal is paddling in a straight line, the instructor creates a learning environment that actively directs the student toward this goal by presenting a series of exercises and questions that allow the student to discover the combination of strokes, hand and body position, and boat handling that works.
In skills-based instruction, which is a more traditional style of teaching, there is a strong emphasis on form. The instructor works with the student to achieve an idealized standard of skill, for example, practicing the forward stroke as opposed to paddling in a straight line. The instructor breaks down the forward stroke into component parts such as set up, plant, power, and exit, and helps the students assemble these pieces into a whole.
Both styles of teaching direct the student to a similar goal, but the path they follow is quite different. In skills-based instruction, the emphasis is on the parts; in guided discovery, the emphasis is on the whole. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and instructors should blend them to meet the changing needs of their classes and students.
One advantage in adding guided discovery techniques to our toolbox is that it promotes flexibility in decision making and problem-solving skills, and rewards experimentation. Decision-making, problem-solving, and experimentation are the ‘glue’ that binds our technical skills, knowledge, and experience together, helping to ensure a safe and rewarding experience on the water. Collectively, they can be labeled ‘metaskills’ and are essential to safe and rewarding kayaking. Guided discovery deliberately integrates metaskills into the learning process.
Guided discovery highlights the underlying principles of kayaking and shifts attention away from predetermined form. For example, some kayakers promote the use of rudders; others promote skegs. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Using a skeg or a rudder is not in and of itself a measure of what it means to be a kayaker. The underlying principle is effective boat control. A good paddler uses a variety of tools and techniques in paddling, including skegs and rudders when appropriate.
For me, the emphasis on principles is particularly important in teaching capsize recovery. The underlying goals in capsize recovery are getting back in the kayak, getting the water out, and getting stable, regardless of a particular technique. The advantage of using the guided discovery approach in teaching capsize recoveries is that it emphasizes metaskills as well as technique—both are required to effect a successful capsize recovery.
I regularly watch students struggle with the idealized form of a capsize recovery, trying to work through the steps of a particular technique, backtracking when a step is missed or getting stuck on a particular step and repeating the same motions over and over again until they are exhausted. By definition, a capsize is a situation out of control—it does not conform to clear boundaries and rules. Instead, kayakers must experiment and explore a variety of options, adopting flexible decision-making and creative problem-solving to work out a solution.
Guided discovery exposes students to metaskills in a controlled environment, allowing them to explore their strengths and weaknesses in effecting a capsize recovery, and gives them a chance to identify problems and solutions before moving onto the water on their own. This experimentation is at the heart of safe kayaking. It captures the spirit of kayaking and the reality of our experiences in the risky immediacy of the open water.
I often begin introductory capsize recovery classes by asking the students to stand up in their kayaks and try to get back into their boats, if and when they capsize. There’s always a certain amount of laughter and chaos. I then direct them to swim to shore where I pose a series of questions so they reflect on the experience.
- Who found it hard to stand up?
- Why was it hard?
- What kind of strategies did you use to try to prevent a capsize?
- Who managed to get back in and how?
- What strategies did you try?
- What strategies were successful?
- What made it hard?
- What kinds of techniques or tools might make it easier?
The class can share tips such as keeping weight low, getting help from a classmate, and using the pump, while I demonstrate useful tools such as the paddle float and techniques such as sculling for support. After this, I send the students back onto the water to experiment with these new resources. At that point, I identify additional problems and potential solutions one-on- one with each student or through additional group discussions.
In this way, the students are actively drawn into the learning process through problem-solving and decision-making and are encouraged to experiment and apply new information. In practice, students will discover common techniques. I usually wrap up the session by highlighting the common names of these techniques and summarizing their basic parts. This provides a context and connection for the activity within the broader scope of kayaking instruction. For example, many classes will discover the value of having the help of a second paddler and the efficiency of dumping the water out of the kayak before getting back in (the Bow Tip Out).
There are pitfalls in this approach. The lack of emphasis on clear and discrete technical skills and knowledge may be confusing to some students and lead to inefficient practice. It can also be more time-consuming and demanding on both the instructor and students since it explicitly requires a unique set of interactions between the instructor and each student, with time for personal exploration and experimentation. Kayakers who prefer more structured learning do better with skills-based forms of kayak instruction.
However, younger paddlers, those with short attention spans and those who prefer learning through practice, clearly benefit from the guided discovery approach. It’s also useful when teaching leadership, where the emphasis is on the integration of technical skills, knowledge, and experience.
I have found that guided discovery has helped me clarify fundamental issues in kayaking instruction, in particular questions a round how to cultivate metaskills in paddlers. These skills are particularly important in dealing with incidents such as capsizes and injuries, as well as in handling complex environmental factors such as surf, currents and wind.
Good instruction directs our attention to basic realities and at the same time helps us develop flexible skills and knowledge to meet the changing reality of open water. The reality of tides may be evident and predictable, but our daily experiences on the water reinforce the need to problem-solve and make flexible decisions, not be restricted by simple rules as we deal with the effects of, say, the current in a narrow channel.
All instructors strive to develop some combination of experience, technical skills, and knowledge because these directly impact the safety and enjoyment of their students as they continue to paddle on their own. Integrating technical skills, knowledge and experience through metaskills is an essential component in helping our students develop judgement.
It is worth noting that guided discovery is common in many other sports including white water kayaking, canoeing and Nordic skiing. The growth in the popularity of kayaking has pushed instructors to look at practices in these other sports. This is a positive trend that has already had significant impact on the quality and variety of kayaking instruction.
The lesson for instructors is to adopt and modify a variety of teaching styles to suit the needs of their students.