This past weekend was the first of 3 weekends I’ll be spending in teaching a cave rescue class. As I’ve written before, I usually spend at least 1 week a year teaching students how to help rescue folks out of caves. I don’t get paid money, and in fact have to pay for my own travel and sometimes other expenses. But, I love it. Unfortunately, the large event we had planned for NY this year had to be postponed due to Covid-19.
A Little Background
Fortunately, New York is one state where folks have been very good about social distancing and wearing masks, so that gave me the opportunity to try something new: teaching what we call a “Modular Level 1” class. Instead of taking an entire week off to teach, we spread the teaching out over three weekends and several nights. This can often better accommodate peoples schedules. After a lot of planning and discussions I finally decided to go ahead and see if I could host a class. Through a series of fortunate events4, by the time I was ready to close registration, I actually had more than enough students. What makes this class different from other classes I’ve taught is that more than 1/2 the students have never been in a cave. However, most of those are in medical school and a goal of mine has been to get more highly trained medical folks into cave rescue. So, we greenlighted the class.
The first day of class is really mostly about “check-ins”. Each student must demonstrate a certain set of skills. When I teach the Level 2 class, this generally goes quickly because the students have already gone through Level 1 and the students tend to be more serious in general about their caving skills. But for Level 1, we get a broader range of students with a broader range of skills. And in this case, some folks who were just entering the community of being knot tying and SRT (Single Rope Technique).
There’s a mantra, I first heard among the medical education community, but is hardly unique to them, “See one, do one, teach one.” There’s a logic to this. Obviously you have to see or learn a skill first. Then obviously you need to be able to do it. However, the purpose and goal of that last one eludes some people.
Without getting too technical, let me give an example: in SRT, cavers and rescuers need the ability to climb the rope and, while attached to the rope, successfully change-over to be able to descend the rope. I’ve literally done this 100s of times in my life. I obviously have the first two parts of that mantra down I’ve seen it, and and done it. But teaching it is a whole other ball game. Being able to DO something, doesn’t mean you can successfully teach it. We do many things based strictly on experience and muscle memory. If you think about walking, you may realize you do it naturally without any real thought. But imagine trying to teach someone how to do it. You probably can’t, unless you’re a trained physical therapist.
Much is the same with the aforementioned change-over. Just because I could do it, didn’t mean I could successfully teach it. However, over the years, as I’ve taught it more and more I’ve come to recognize certain mistakes and certain areas I need to focus on. I’ve gotten better at teaching it. So by teaching more, I’m learning to become a better teacher. By being able to teach it, I also understand it and know it better. The “teach one” part of the mantra is important because it means you can give forward the skills you’ve learned, but also means you have a better understanding of them in the first place. You can’t effectively teach what you don’t understand.
In addition to learning how to teach better, I’ve also realized that some approaches work better than others for people. There’s a common knot we tie in the rope community called an “alpine butterfly”. There are at least four ways I’m aware of to teach it. One method involves looping the rope over your hand 3 times in a certain pattern and then pulling on the right loop in the right way through the others, the knot “magically” appears. I’ll admit I’ve never been able to master this and as a result, obviously don’t teach this way. The method I use is a bit more off-color in its description. Writing it down it comes down to:
- Take a bight of the rope
- Put two twists in it
- Take the loop, aka head, pass it between the legs of the rope
- Shove the head through the asshole formed between the two twists
- Pull tight and dress
At the end of that, you have a beautiful alpine butterfly. On Saturday night I was helping a student perfect her butterfly. She was having trouble with the 3 loops over the hand method. I showed her the asshole method. She almost instantly got it. Now, that’s NOT to say the asshole way is the better way, it’s simply the way that worked better for her.
Besides learning how to teach better, I actually learn a lot from my students. For example, one of the students who does have extensive alpine rescue experience was asking about our use of what are known as Prusik loops to tie Prusik Knots. In her training and experience she uses something similar called a VT Prusik. I had seen these before in previous training, but had not had a chance to see them in action or play with them. She did a quick demonstration and then on Monday sent me a link with more information. Needless to say, by the end I was ordering a pair so I could start to play with them myself. I can already see where I might use them in certain cases.
Another example of learning is that I’m starting to adopt a different way of tying what’s known as a Münter hitch. I’ve been tying these successfully for decades, but started noticing another method that’s fairly common and in my mind, if not more intuitive, it is at least a bit more of a visual mnemonic. I think it’ll reduce my chances of tying one poorly so I’ve started using it more and more. And this is because I saw how quickly students would pick it up.
By Saturday night most of the students had passed their check-offs, but not in what I’d call a solid fashion. They were still at the stage where they were simply reproducing what they saw. This is common in the early stages of learning. As a result, I decided to adjust the Sunday morning schedule and spend a bit more time on simply practicing and honing their skills. What we really want at some point is for the skills to “gel” (i.e. go from a liquid state where their ability is in flux to a state where there abilities are more solid). What can be interesting about this is for some folks, this can be a fairly quick process and in fact I noticed by lunchtime for a number of students, their abilities had gone from simple rote reproduction to an actual more gelled state. After lunch we put in some more time and with some of the students I’d simply walk up, call out a knot for them to tie, walk away, give them a minute or so and come back to see what they had done. In most cases, they were successful. The night before that would not have worked. They’re still a long way to go from being as good as I or they might like, but they were no ready to go out in the field and safely put a patient over the edge.
So we have two more weekends to go before they can call themselves trained as Level 1 students and hopefully they’ll keep learning and improving beyond that. For me, as long and tiring as the weekend was (I think I got about 5-6 hours of sleep each night, at most) it was rewarding because I got to see students learn skills we taught AND because I got to learn stuff too. It was a great weekend and I look forward to the next two.