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Ruth Findlater's design narrative: teaching navigation

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Ruth Findlater
26 March 2016




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Title: teaching navigation by sailing around the Torres Strait


I was asked to run a course for Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who wanted to qualify as a Master of a small coastal vessel.  We lived together on a 35 metre boat, reinforcing skills that they already had, learning new ones and we shared knowledge of traditional and western ways of navigating the oceans.


I was the trainer and  lived on board a commercial vessel with 15 students and 5 ships crew for 4 weeks.  The students ranged in age from late teens to mid 40's, most had been driving small runabout boats since childhood and some had commercial boating experience.  All were highly motivated to complete the course, as it led to potential employment outcomes.  Each day we built on the previous days knowledge, putting our learning into practice each afternoon, when the students planned the voyage amongst the islands, and then took increasing responsibility for starting the engines and drivign the boat to the new location. As we lived together, a lot of informal teaching took place in the evenings, as we gathered on the back deck fishing. There were a number of students who had good traditional knowledge of navigation and had good English language skills.  The cultural norms of Torres Strait islanders are that they work together to help each other, They do not like to be "Shamed"  this means standing out for either getting an answer wrong or correct.  There were also some elders within the group who were able to help with the logistics of the course, and acting as the conduit between me, a white female trainer, and the predominantly male student cohort.


Although most students had a very good knowledge of navigating their locals waters, handed down over many generations, I wanted them to be able to understand how that knowledge looks on charts and other navigation equipment.  This would mean that their increased knowledge becomes transferrable to other locations, and therefore imporves their employment prospects.   I wanted the students to be able to interpret information contained on a chart, to plot a safe passage, and to be able to calculate how long a journey would take.


I began by purchasing a number of charts which covered the local area, so that students could use them each day.  I hoped that the constant reinforcement in a practical way, using Work Integrated Learning approach, would deepen their understanding and increase their confidence.  We had a number of ipads available to use, which did not have a sim card.  We had a modem available which I was assured would let us connect all ipads simultaneously.  I used an app called Socrative and created a number of quiz questions which I hoped would allow students to answer in a non threatening way; their answers would remain anonymous to each other, but I would be able to see who was struggling.  Unfortunately the level of internet was not enough to allow this app to work, this was a big setback. 

I decided to use the natural groups that had formed and get teams to come up with the answers, whilst at the same time reinforcing to all the team members that it was important to work as a team and make sure that all the members could do the activity.  This actually worked very well, with the natural leaders amongst the cohort taking a lead role in the activity.


All the students gained the required skills in navigation. The unexpected outcome was that the groups really liked working together and exploring different ways of learning.  The level of confidence in speaking English improved, as did my level of speaking Creole! The biggest outcome of this trial course was that an Indigenous Training Cadet was appointed, who was also able to take on the role of "bridge" between student and trainer, both from a language and also from a cultural perspective.


The use of groups in learning and teaching, This method also reinforced the importance of students having the opportunity to practice thier growing skills in an authentic environment.  For us, having the ships crew also reinforcing the messages I was sharing helped them to realise that these were skills that were needed as a commercial ships master and not just ideas that the trainer had thought up. I gained a useful understanding of how community works in Torres Strait, and how this often differs from teaching in a non indigenous environment where often students are more concerned with their own learning and are often less inclined to help their peers


Ruth Findlater
12:39 on 26 March 2016

Embedded Content


Ian Purdon
7:59am 2 April 2016

Thanks for sharing your narrative, Ruth - it sounds like the perfect job. Also, from your description of your approach (hands-on experiential learning, situatedness, transfer of learners’ existing knowledge into new domains, adapting to technology failure, a community of learners, etc.), it sounds like students will have benefitted a great deal from the experience.

In terms of results though, please can you confirm: did learners have to take any final test and did this lead to a qualification? You mentioned that one of the aims of the course was employability, so how do learners demonstrate to employers that they now have this new expertise? If there is no certification, then perhaps this is an area to develop, in order to close the gap between learning and employment.

As to the question of implicit assumptions, I’m interested to know more about the differences between traditional and western ways of navigation. The narrative refers to these differences, but I’m not sure what these are. There’s also a reference to differences in learning styles between teaching in indigenous and nonindigenous environments. Have you run similar sailing courses for nonindigenous groups?

Susan Clements
6:09am 3 April 2016

I enjoyed reading this design narrative, I could imagine everyone fishing in the evening and discussing the days work without even realising they were still learning.  I found it intresting that the culture of the learners was to work together, and to not stand out by getting things right or wrong.  The idea of giving them ipads so that they couldnt see each others work but the course facilitator could see, and help if they were struggling, was an excellent solution to what could have been a problem. 


Ruth Findlater
6:58am 3 April 2016

Thank you Ian and Susan for your kind comments on my training programme.  

The students were all enrolled in a Certificate II in maritime Operations (Coxswain) and this was one of the units that make up this qualification.  We actually delivered the whole course on board the vessel, with students taking an increasing role as their skills developed.  Each afternoon they were split into 3 groups; 1 was responsible for the engine room - conducting the pre start checks, making regular rounds and completing a number of tasks which reinforced their engineering teaching - for example tracing the fuel system, working out fuel consumption rates, as well as some activities which used models that we had developed.  The second group were the masters, they had to work in the wheelhouse under the supervision of the Master.  They became confident in using a radar, plotter, listening to the ships radio, keeping a lookout and practising theircollision regulations, as well as plotting our position on a chart every 20 minutes.  The 3rd group were the deck group and worked under supervision to anchor the vessel, check that the vessel was prepared for sea (everything lashed down etc) they also launched the dinghys from the deck house roof.  They also had activities to complete, including making a safety video.

The students have to complete a number of assessments, we chose to move away from written exams for this style of delivery - language issues and really the course is so practical and we observe so much that it was really easy to determine competence.  Students had a workbook which they had to complete, some parts as groups but a lot was individual - although of course they worked in groups and then decided their own answers. 

At the end of the course those students who had completed the qualification were able to sit for oral examinations with the marine authority who tested that knowledge again and successful candidates were given the licence to act as Master on a Coxswain sized boat.  

The main difference between western and traditional navigation is that western navigation skills are very dependent on marine charts and equipment such as radars and chart plotters.   The students move from island to island by boat much as we move between village to village by car.  They know that the sail with 2 hills in line with each other (a transit) until the tree on the next island is in view - or they travel by stars, follow the line of the reef etc etc.  They also have a very good knowledge of the effect of tides, essential up there as they run at about 7 miles per hour...

and Susan, last week I came up with a practical solution to the feedback with little app called plicker.  the students all have a card, i can ask a question and then quickly use the phone camera to scan - giving a less high tech way for me to see which indivuals are struggling whilst they get hte overall class response..worked really well with a trial course this week, 


Ian Purdon
7:19am 3 April 2016

Thanks for answering my questions, Ruth. Really fascinating to read how the course was structured, what actually happens on board. and differences between the two styles of navigation. Brilliant - crystal clear.

What an interesting course, really interested in (and impressed with) the combination of activities used to meet not only learning needs of individual learners but also their cultural needs.  The lack of internet could have really affected the quality of the course and ruined the ‘plan’ but you didn’t let it, took it all in your stride which demonstrated to me a key positive of a good learning design, its flexibility.


Denise McDonough
8:49pm 12 April 2016 (Edited 8:53pm 12 April 2016)

I really enjoyed the narrative, I could feel the sense of engagement and excitement that your learners must have felt. All the activities were completely authentic. Your integration of the professional crew, use of charts and all that was part of running a boat was a very inventive way to engage learners. The ultimate carrot and motivation was how they could  transfer those skills to new ventures; i.e. employment. Solidly based on evidence and a fascinating glimpse into another world! No narrative about technology could be so compelling.

I admired the use of natural groups. It could be tricky multi cultural groups to make false assumptions about who might get. Forced groups in a close proximity can be stressful especially when there is probably already some anxiety. (I am thinking about the shared hotel rooms at work conferences - I'd rather not go).

I have a question and a suggestion:

Were the workbooks for their own use or did they have any feedback from a tutor on how they did? I am thinking in terms a review type exercise before the oral exam. Mock orals between the students might also be interesting practice, maybe they already do it informally.


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