Slow Down, Paddle Backwards! An Educators Reflection on Instructional Style

EBLS faculty during a learning retreat to the San Juan River. The rapids called “The Ledge” were located just upstream of this photo. Courtesy & © Joseph Kozlowski, Photographer
EBLS faculty during a learning retreat to the San Juan River. The rapids called “The Ledge” were located just upstream of this photo.
Courtesy & © Joseph Kozlowski, Photographer
On an Edith Bowen Laboratory School teacher professional development retreat last summer rafting the San Juan River, a specific experience made me question my instructional style. I was sitting in the front of what they call a Ducky – a tandem inflatable raft with the passenger in the front and the experienced rower in the rear – with a vibrant and tough 6th grader named Kylie captaining from the rear. Although Kylie was in the captain’s seat, she was not an experienced rower. In fact, she was just learning, and I, from the front, was trying to teach her a thing or two from my very limited knowledge of rowing.

As I sat in the Ducky giving instructions, I reflected on my own instructional style and wondered how I would teach something that I had never taught before? I found myself giving her little challenges like “Try to get the nose of the boat to run straight over that gurgling water boil!” I also found myself showering her with positive, and specific reinforcement such as “I loved the way you corrected the steering by giving a tiny left forward paddle!” However, it wasn’t until we prepared to head down a set of rock smashing rapids called The Ledge that I found the golden nugget of self-knowledge I had been looking for.

Dr. Eric Newell, our guide and true rowing expert on the trip, was leading a separate 16ft. inflatable raft ahead of us. He called us over and was preparing Kylie and I for the upcoming rapid. “Stay pretty close behind me and let me run the rapid first so you can see the line.” All was agreed upon and Dr. Newell expertly launched toward the rapid with Kylie close on his heels. When the rapid was nearly upon us, Dr. Newell shouted backwards from his boat, “Give us a little more space!” In response, I shouted two important phrases back to my own young captain “Slow down,” then without allowing her time to think or react, I yelled “Paddle backwards!”

And this is where I stop the story, for those two phrases ended up being the key to my learning. The first phrase “slow down” was an objective, a goal. It was a problem to be solved and a self-driven adventure to be had by Kylie. You see, Kylie could have made any number of right or wrong decisions in response to the phrase “Slow down!” She could have spun the boat and went upstream, she could have dragged her paddles, or she could have even jumped out of the boat and anchored. There is no knowing, and no absolute safety or certainty in what Kylie could have done in response to the phrase “Slow down!” The only certainty is that she would have had to think, trust herself, and make a decision. In contrast, the second phrase “Paddle backwards!” was a directive, an order. It was a command to be followed and a prescription to be obeyed. There was nothing for Kylie to critically think about in response to this order. She had but one option which was to take the paddle, thrust it into the water, and heave in a reverse direction.

Ultimately, it was the distinction between these two phrases “Slow down!” and “Paddle backwards!” that forced me to reflect on my own instructional style. Am I the type of teacher to challenge my students to think critically by offering open-ended environments that yes, can be risky, but ultimately unmeasurably powerful? Or, do I merely pose teacher-centered directives that precipitate little more critical thinking and decision making than a person on a raft, being told to ‘paddle backwards.’

This is Dr. Joseph Kozlowski, and I am Wild About Utah!

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Joseph Kozlowski, Photographer, Used by Permission
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller,
Text:     Joseph Kozlowski, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading Links: Joseph Kozlowski & Lyle Bingham

Additional Reading:

Joseph (Joey) Kozlowski’s pieces on Wild About Utah:

San Juan River, Utah Office of Tourism,