Lee Hewes

is totes becoming a teacher…

Lessons from the bowl: bringing skate culture to the classroom.

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Positive peer assessment and feedback is something that I really want to nail in my classroom. Well, perhaps more correctly, this is something that I want my students to be really good at. Whilst I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to achieve this, or what it’s going to look like, one thing I do know is that I would like it to look very similar to the kind of interactions seen at your typical local skate park.

Now if I ask you to conjure up images of skate culture in your mind, you could be forgiven for thinking of long-haired, scruffy looking dudes with tattoos and extremely casual clothing and for perhaps even wondering why I would want to bring anything like that into the classroom. Sure, you do see scruffy looking dudes down at the skate park, but if you’ve ever noticed the consistent positivity and supportiveness of the interactions between skaters, you’d probably understand why I think skate culture is perfect for the classroom. I’ll explain what I mean.

Both of my sons have been learning to skate for several months now. They started by going to some lessons at a skateboarding school called Gromtown, not far from where we live. My boys are now confident enough with their craft that we pretty much have our boards in the back of the car full-time and are making regular trips to Kierle Skate Park down in Manly. We even took the boards with us in a packed car on a recent camping trip, knowing that at some point we’d stop for a skate along the way! Here’s a short Instavid of my 9 year old son having a bit of fun at a sweet little park up in Queensland.

Anyway, whilst hanging at various skate parks with the kids, I’ve noticed a lot about the learning culture in what might be described as an outdoor, teacher-less, peer-guided classroom.

Embracement of failure, support through error while learning:

Making mistakes is a massive part of learning pretty much anything, but this is especially true while learning how to skate. It’s not like anyone gets on a board and can straight away drop in on a half pipe, quarter pipe or bowl. On the contrary, it’s fucking scary, and fraught with danger! Skaters are aware of this, and typically support each other through the process of whatever it is their peers are trying to learn. No one laughs or jeers when somebody repeatedly fails to lay down a new trick, no one taunts another skater for failing to complete a personally created track around the bowl.

In fact, it’s the complete opposite. I’ve seen it repeatedly now and I’m consistently impressed by the positive discourse of the bowl. When a skater fails at whatever they’re trying to do, the standard response is something like, “Aw, so close!” or, “You almost made it!” This is often followed with a discussion about how they might be able to improve what they’re doing and a repeated attempt at achieving their goal. And this goes on, and on, and on throughout the day!

There’s a lot of empathy in this, too. I watched recently as a couple of older, quite adept skaters worked for quite some time on some tricks that they were each independently trying to achieve. As one of the pair repeatedly failed to complete a particular thing, his learning partner said in an understanding tone (albeit in a funny fake voice), “frustrrrrrrrating.” He knew his friend’s pain.

Collective commitment to improvement and the challenge of getting better:

No one’s at the skate park to become worse at what they’re doing. They’re there because they want to be a better skater. I think this explains a lot about the aforementioned empathy and supportiveness. Skater kids know that learning to skate is hard, they know that mistakes are potentially painful; the experienced remember what it was like when they were less experienced, they remember what it took to get better. They empathise with their fellow learners and they try to help each other along the way. There’s a collective commitment to improvement; skater kids get it.

Along with this commitment comes a recognition and acceptance of personal and peer challenge. I watched recently as one skater said to another, “I’ll give you 5 bucks if you can get it in the next 5 goes.” Now, of course, I don’t condone financial incentives in the classroom, and I’m not particularly a fan of contingency-based classroom behaviour systems, but I saw this as an awesome moment of formative assessment. This stranger knew where the skater was at, where they wanted to go, and provided some incentive for getting there – he set the challenge. If this skater fell short from a teaching perspective, it was perhaps from providing some instruction, but the way I see it, all involved knew the goal (learn move), there were at least a couple of potential medals (peer commendation, $5) and with each attempt, those in the surrounding section of the park provided feedback and missions. Positive, supportive learning environment #ftw

Purpose and investment:

Skating means something to the learners at the bowl. They’ll typically go down there with particular goals or foci, and they’ll keep going back until they achieve what it is they’re focussing on. My kids have been trying tying to learn how to perform a 50/50 for a few sessions now, they keep asking to go back and will continue to ask to go back until they nail it – there is real personal investment in what they’re trying to achieve.

I think this is possible with classwork too, in particular PBL projects. I believe that if you make the project interesting enough, provide an audience or expert whom students respect and whose feedback they value – if you have students work toward making a product that they consider worth sharing, that they will invest in learning what it is they need to know to get it off the ground.

Peer feedback:

I briefly touched on this above, but at the risk of reiterating I think it’s worth emphasising that skaters are absolute guns at peer feedback. They go to the bowl with cameras to photograph each other and check visually on how they’re going. They’re constantly giving each other tips, challenges and extra motivation to get better.

I’ve tried to give advice to my kids on how to get better at certain things with their skating, and as is natural with children, sometimes they might not take on as much of the advice from their parents as their parents would like them too. The saving grace of the skate park, however, is that the parent can simply advise their child to ask for advice from their peer skaters. As my kids have been trying new things and getting frustrated at times with their skateboard-based learning, I’ve often suggested they ask one of the kids that is pretty good how to approach what they’re trying to do. I’ve then watched as some older stranger happily shares with my kids whatever advice they can offer, gives a few demonstrations, watches my kids attempt to replicate and then offers some extra advice.

So anyway; as I’ve said, I’m not exactly sure how I’ll get there, but I know for sure that the approach to learning inherent in skate culture resembles in many ways the learning culture I’m gonna work damn hard at developing in my classroom.

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