Surfing and Education: Three Lessons

The sky is a pale blue and my daughter and I are bobbing peacefully on the lull of the Atlantic. A dozen metres away, a large silver fish thrashes out of the water, arching its back into the sea. We spot a set of beautifully stacked waves in the distance. The set approaches us calmly yet resolutely. We let the first and second wave pass under us, bobbed up by the enormous power of the ocean. Then, as the third approaches, we angle our boards towards the shore, paddle a few hard strokes to catch up with the swell and in that split second when we are synchronised with the wind’s fetch, when the time feels right, we both pop up to land squarely on our boards, our feet straddled across the smooth perspex, gripped by the wax. Our boards drop into the wave and race along the ocean’s back, the roar of the surging water all around us: past, present and future coalesced into a moment of flow, the dazzle of the sun, the solitary cloud and the line of golden beach whirled into a twirling psychic kaleidoscope.

Anthropologists say that surfing goes back to at least the 12th Century in Polynesia: it was considered training for warriors to determine who would lead the group. Others describe forms of surfing in Peru hundreds of years earlier. When exactly it started, who “invented” it and what its original purpose was are teleologically quaint scholarly questions, but ultimately, what does it matter? One thing I believe any surfer would agree with, no matter how experienced, is that it is not simply a sport or a hobby, it has a deeper meaning, an expression of some archetypal yearning that we have as humans to be connected with the cosmos.

To me, surfing teaches us three life lessons that are at the core of what an education means:

  1. Courage

Surfing does not come without danger. From having a board fin cut open your head, being dumped onto rocks or pulled across sharp coral, sucked into a powerful wave and held under water, colliding with another surfer, being pulled into a rip tide, drowning, not to mention attacks by sharks, stingrays or jellyfish, the perils are many! For some, the idea of braving the ocean’s waves is too overwhelming to entertain. Even the strongest surfer is never exempt from some form of danger, and the stronger the surfer, the larger the waves and, therefore, the higher the danger. It takes courage to surf. 

Schools should be safe spaces where students flourish, are happy and know that there are trusted adults to supervise them and protect them from harm. However, schools are also places where students are being formed to deal with the trials and tribulations of life: as adults, they will need to be brave in unforeseen circumstances and know how to take risky decisions in order to advance. Nothing great can be achieved without some courage, especially in the face of bullies who pry on fear. We need to build up our students’ and children’s backbones, give them the confidence they need to catch the wave when the time is right rather than resent the lost opportunity and the fear that drove them to inaction. Teaching for courage is not easy, it requires role-modelling, ongoing moral fortification and messaging.

  1. Patience

Much of the time that a surfer spends on the waters is not surfing but waiting for waves, and this only when the conditions are good enough for surfing in the first place. Like ancient human activities linked to the elements (farming and astrology for instance), surfing involves great patience. As one lies on the board with the salt water lapping softly on either side, a great peace descends upon the mind and life seems slow and simple, time stands still and in the blink of an eye, hours can evaporate. It takes patience to wait for the right wave, it is an art. And during the wait, it isn’t possible to be on your iPhone, you simply wait in silence, under the immensity of the heavens. The contrast of the timelessness in the ocean with the hustle and bustle of life on land is enormous.

There is another dimension to the question of patience. It takes time to improve as a surfer. Increments come in important thresholds: learning how to pop up, learning how to drop into a wave, learning how to cut back and so on. It takes hours and hours of practice and mental preparation before one is ready: “imagine catching the wave before you go to sleep at night” a coach once told me. But the victory of achieving a new threshold is all the sweeter when it comes because the work towards it was so serious and drawn out. This is how it is with all significant leaps in learning: they do not come overnight, they take time and resilience, practice, hard work and patience. This is how we become stronger. 

So much of modern schooling is plagued by hyperactivity, stress, cognitive overload, a sandwiched timetable that sends everybody rushing from one unit of time to the next. Parents are tempted to overmanage their children, or to ask schools for an ongoing commentary on their children’s performance (the reporting structure is not enough, we want to know on a daily basis what is happening!), multiplying pressure on their children and their children’s teachers. In many schools, teachers are squeezed like lemons by managers to produce more and more, often leading to resignation or burnout.

The consumer culture we have built around young people has become a ruthless and incessant stream of quick entertainment. The 70 odd gigabytes of information hitting us daily and the dopamine they release leave us reeling by day and tossing and turning by night. Until we have learned to slow the clock down and enjoy the emptiness of a minute of time, we will be forever lost in chasing something we will never catch. 

Patience is a virtue and schools can help with this by creating mindfulness programmes, moments of silence in group gatherings, in-class reading and classes away from technology. Above all, schools can send the message out to students and parents that what they are looking for will come, maybe not immediately, maybe not even today, but tomorrow or the day after. All things come to those who wait.

  1. Respect

Surfers come from different social backgrounds, different walks of life. The age difference on the waves can be quite staggering, from teenagers whipping up and down waves to athletes in the prime of their age cutting through barrels to more senior surfers coasting along their longboards with a smile on their faces. There is an etiquette among them and an understanding of who should take priority on a wave. The stronger surfers will go further back to take the larger waves, the weaker ones stay closer to the shore and agree to move out of the trajectory of the former. The world of surfers, which can easily fall into Hollywood clichés of blonde-haired hippies, tends to be synonymous with convictions about life and the environment connected to sustainability and peace. The world of surfers is not predicated on blaming, shaming, mistrust and labelling, it is predicated on a deep sense of unity.

However, the greatest respect, the respect that bonds all surfers, is that of the ocean. This vast blue covering of more than 70 percent of the globe, the giver of life itself, is respected profoundly, and with this respect comes a love of nature, the creatures of the sea, the cleanliness of the beach, the song of dolphins.

Although we look to schools for literacy and technical learning, the two greatest planetary challenges that all educational systems must turn to are the environment and learning to live together peacefully. What better way to teach sustainability than through a love of nature, a real reverence and respect for its majesty and the gift of life on earth that it gives us? Sustainability objectives in schools should not only reduce our carbon footprint, but put young people in contact with nature as they do in the forest school systems, allowing them to appreciate their deep atavistic connection with nature.

And schools are the places where young people learn to socialise with one another, where social codes are understood and nurtured. Education for peace programmes, such as the Model United Nations system, community service and restorative practices must be strengthened across school systems and the history lessons that we teach should move from the traditional glorification of war to the celebration of inclusion, peace and humanity. Above all, schools should be places where we learn to listen to each other, to celebrate who we are and to be happy through our common humanity, not divided through our differences.

My daughter and I decide to head back to the shore: our arms are tired from the paddling and our souls have been filled with the courage, patience and respect needed to leave the water feeling replenished. There is a vague frustration that we could have caught a bigger wave, that we might have been steadier in managing another, but that comes with the experience, for it is not meant to be perfect, it is a microcosm of life itself, and at the end of the day, you can only do your best. That is the deeper lesson any education teaches us, the one lesson nobody sees – that is nobody but yourself, in the private eye of your soul, for in truth the real responsibility to learn lies with no one else.

On the beach, with the firm sand under our feet and the boards tucked under our arms, we make our way back to land, looking forward to the next day when we will connect once more with the ocean and with ourselves. May our next day at school be much like this one at sea.

7 thoughts on “Surfing and Education: Three Lessons

  1. This article explores the connections between surfing and education, drawing on three lessons learned from the author’s personal experience. The first lesson is about overcoming fear and embracing challenges. The second lesson is about finding balance and harmony in life. The third lesson is about cultivating a sense of wonder and curiosity.

  2. It is a nice article about surfing and education: three lessons. I like how you have researched and presented these exact points so clearly. I agree with all the points that you have stated here, love this blog.

  3. Powerful articulation of values – narrated with lyrical beauty and authenticity. A beautiful reminder to all educators about what truly matters as they engage with young people in educational institutions and beyond. Thanks, Conrad.

  4. This article encapsulates the invitation that is available to each of us daily but has much greater implications for those of us responsible for shaping school systems and influencing educators and learners who make these spaces like the sea – vast, abounding, diverse, beautiful, unpredictable and fully worth the risk. Thank you for this stirring reflection, Conrad, that has offered inspiration to me.

  5. I appreciate this article. There was so much valuable information. I partícularly enjoyed the reminder of one of the sole functions of a school, which is to socialize students. If so, I believe overall; we are not doing a good job. Schools reflect communities, and students are streamlined into different paths based on their education. I think a high school education has more weight in shaping a child’s trajectory than a university.

  6. I found this both inspiring and uplifting. It’s reassuring that someone with your ability to influence and bring about real purposeful change in education, values learning in this way.
    In my 30 years of teaching, I never met another teacher who didn’t feel this way, yet we all had to sign up to an unworkable system just to have the opportunity to try and make a difference.
    The Global educational landscape is already a deeply uneven playing field, but if these values of Courage, Patience and Respect were an intrinsic part of the way educators could teach and students could learn both in content and process, then the world would have a real chance to heal and grow on all levels.

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