Catching The Wave of Learning


It’s impossible to be in this part of Australia (Northern New South Wales, around the beautiful, laid-back town of Byron Bay) and not be intrigued by the culture and lifestyle which hangs around surfing. Being the kind of person I am, I started thinking about how this links to learning.

Those links crystallised when I spent a couple of fascinating hours in the company of a man, justifiably known as a ‘surfing legend’. To talk to Rusty Miller is like looking at a potted history of surfing: in 1965 he won the USA championship (he’s 68, in case you’e wondering, and has the body of a 30 year old), believed to be the first to surf the massive Uluwatu wave in Bali, he was featured in the ‘Morning of the Earth’ film which brought surfing to the world’s attention, and is forever immortalised in that iconic photo (see above), which he now, literally uses as his calling card for his daily teaching sessions in Byron Bay’s perfect surfing waters. He has seen surfing’s image go from hobo to high street, from zen recreation to extreme sport. But what I was really interested in talking to Rusty about, was how he teaches, and how learning happens in the surf community.

Surfing’s a fascinating case study in a transition from informal learning to highly commercial academies – and all within the past 40 years.  When Rusty first got up on a surf board, aged 10, there were no surf schools – now there are thousands in Australia alone. His was an apprenticeship of tacit learning and enculturation, hanging out with lifeguards and being mentored by them: ‘I can’t remember them saying ‘do this’ or ‘do that’, but they’d look out for me.  I just went out with them. If it was too big, they’d say ‘oh, you can’t go out’. “ So he wouldn’t.

Context is everything –  it’s clear that the spiritual, and environmental elements of surfing were the bedrock of his learning and his subsequent teaching,an attitude which Rusty feels is being lost in the hyper commercialisation of the sport: ‘Surfing is a kind of  sport, but it’s  more about your personal relationship with waves. I don’t want to get too cosmic about it, but waves are more of  a planetary pulse, an actual pulse, which comes out of storms. But man’s made it a competition with the waves, and, with the marketing, you can make millions of dollars out of it. In my day they made money out of selling the surfboards, but now they’re selling the accessories – the lifestyle. Every surfer worries about that, that it’s somehow sold out.’

I haven’t seen Rusty teach, but you only have to be in his presence for a short while to realise that he has all the skills of a great pedagogue. He was, for example, ‘personalising learning, and assessing for learning,, long before they became educational buzzwords: “I’m getting really good at assessing where people are at. People learn differently. There’s a mental attitude about learning that you can assess, by talking to them,  it could be something simple like “This guy doesn’t feel good about himself”. So there’s a relationship between their attitude and what I see them physically doing.”


He also understands that, to be a good teacher you have to be learner yourself. His approach is not through ‘teaching as performance’ (which would be very easy for Rusty to do), but through, listening, finding the way in to the learner’s cognition, and drawing upon a whole range of disciplines. Rusty is something of a polymath: an accomplished photographer, writer, musician and student of philosophy. As he puts it, 

“I’m still excited about it, because I’m learning so much. It’s like the clerk in Canterbury Tales….’and gladly will he learn, and gladly teach’. That’s why I’m so stoked.”  How many surfers can quote Chaucer back at you?

There was an item on the news this morning, unfavorably comparing Australian students to their Chinese counterparts. The sub-text, once again, was education as a competitive sport, with pressure relentlessly building up on students to ‘win’ against all-comers. No matter that a love of learning is being killed off in that hot-housed 10-year process, just so long as we beat the Asian countries in the league tables. Maybe I’ve been living in surf-dominated communities for too long, but I couldn’t help but see analogies everywhere. We, in the westernised world, are terrified at the economic prospect of Asian dominance in the next 10-20 years. But like a wave surely hits the land, China, South Korea, India, and others are set to dominate, and there’s not much we can do about it. 

In Tim Baker’s excellent book on the personal passions behind surfing, ‘High Surf’, he argues that surfing is in danger of losing its reason for being, through a business-driven focus on competition. Much the same could be said of education. We’ve lost the vision of education helping us find our way through life, because we turned it into an extreme, competitive sport. 

By contrast, Rusty believes in teaching surfing in the almost-forgotten Hawaiian tradition, ‘like a dance – one sweeping motion’, concentrating on grace, and being ‘citizens of the water’ so that we understand the ocean better, and the flow of our lives better, too.  Similarly, the great teachers we remember from our schooldays taught us much more than how to pass the exam – they helped us understand who we were and what we could be in the world.

‘One lesson and a lifetime of homework’ is Rusty’s mantra, and he still learns, and gladly teaches every single day, because he loves those waves as much as he did when he was a 10-year old kid in California:Surfing isn’t something that you do at 2.30 on a Tuesday afternoon, because the best waves might be on Tuesday morning at 9.30!. So, the things that surfers have done to set up  their lives so they could go surfing when they wanted to, are  amazing.” Such passion for learning is obvious in everyone you see running into the ocean here, none more so than in this humble, 68 year-old master teacher.

So instead of urging our kids to ‘fight the (economic) wave’ – through schooling – why not concentrate on re-structuring education, so that learning becomes a lifelong passion for its own sake, and we build our lives around that passion, the way surfers build flexibility into their lives, so they can catch the next wave?

Most of us working in education have seen glimpses of learners catching the equivalent wave of enthusiasm in finding their element, or pursuing knowledge. And we’ve all had moments where they stand up for the first time, displaying the first signs of mastery – it’s such moments that keep us in the profession. The big question is: how do we, as educators, get them to ride that wave of learning, be there for them if they fall off, but  ensure that, like Rusty, we’re teaching people to teach themselves, for the rest of their lives?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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6 Responses to Catching The Wave of Learning

  1. Tim baker says:

    Glad you enjoyed High Surf David. yes Rusty is a great teacher and does important work keep the essence of surfing and ocean wisdom alive. I think maybe the tide is turning and surfers are hungry for that kind of traditional wisdom again.

  2. Stephen_Hurley says:

    David… Wonderful post and message. I was at a chat last night with OECD’S Andreas Schleicher who reminded us: “You know, in the end, schooling ends one day and the key of success is really to what extent people have the capacity and motivation to want to continue learning throughout life”. Inspired me to write about it. Nice to find resonance here this morning!

  3. David Price says:

    Tim, Really admire the book. very much enjoying it.Stephen, great to hook up. Glad I’m in tune with Andreas – I’m a fan of his! Would be great to meet in Ontario one day.

  4. Stephen_Hurley says:

    Andreas has the ability to speak with authority, but make it seem so obvious! Yes, we have good pubs in Ontario!

  5. Tricia Shantz says:

    I tried to tweet but having not done it before it didn’t work. just wondering where in Ontario as I’m Rusty’s wife and from Kitchener- a long way from the surf.

  6. Hoz says:

    Great blog, thanks for sharing.A year ago I shared my thoughts on the joint subjects of surfing and learning:

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