Tools not rules

l1-engage-jun-16One of the continuing debates we often hear in coaching circles is whether the various coaching and learning theories that underpin our coach education scheme really work. At its most basic the discussion is often about the value of visual, audio and kinaesthetic learning theory (VAK), and then the debate intensifies once we move on to considering of Mosston & Ashworth’s teaching spectrum and Honey & Mumford’s learning styles.

When presenting these on coach education courses I find it helpful to emphasise that these are theories rather than scientifically-proven formulas. They are concepts, not constants. They don’t fall into the same category as Newton’s laws which help us understand gravity and predict the effects of forces. But they are useful, aides to our understanding of how our students might best learn and how we might best teach them.

Trying to understand how human beings learn from and teach each other has engaged the minds of scientists and educational theorists for decades. The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (of Pavlov’s dog fame) developed his theories of classical conditioning in the 1920s and this is part of a wider body of learning theory that we recognise today as behaviourism. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow published his famous hierarchy of needs in 1943 and was a leading proponent of the humanistic approach to peoples’ development and the search for self-actualisation.

The story of how these great thinkers’ work emerged and interacted with that of others such as Vygotsky and Montessori through the last century and into this one is, to my mind, fascinating. But it is also complex, often confusing and occasionally contradictory. Fortunately, it is also one that we do not require our paddlesport coaches to be experts on!

We do however introduce some of this theory to our Level 1 coaches and look at its application in more detail on our Level 2 courses. Experience shows that this is helpful. Giving a new coach, faced with a group of unknown paddlers, some basic frameworks to guide their planning (think TTPP) and structure their delivery (IDEAS) generally ensures effective sessions. The more planning tools and structures we can call to help us with the challenge of coaching, the better. But it’s useful to remind ourselves that these are tools, not rules, and if one tool isn’t doing the job we need or expect it to then it’s time to reach for another one.

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