Tag Archives: student-centered learning

Skateboarding as a Model for Student-Centered Learning

That's me, doing a handplant. Based on the fashion, I guess it is mid 80s, mabe a bit after. Photo credits probably Sami Knuutila or Samuli Holmala.

That’s me, doing a handplant. Based on the fashion, I guess it is mid 80s, mabe a bit after. Photo credits probably Sami Knuutila or Samuli Holmala.

If you haven’t yet watched Rodney Mullen’s TEDx talk, stop what you are doing (including reading this blog) for 18 minutes, and check it out below.

Ok, now we can continue. I hope you liked the video. If you are  a non-skater, I must emphasize that this is the man who has, maybe alongside Tony Hawk and Danny Way, invented most of the tricks and their key variations which constitute modern day skating.

When I was skating, virtually every day from early 80s to early 90s, these guys as well as Natas Kaupas, Mark Gonzales, Ray Barbee, Matt Hensley, Guy Mariano, and Jason Lee were my heroes. Many of them have since stretched their creativity beyond skating. Jason Lee has turned a Hollywood actor, Matt Hensley plays accordion in a popular punk band Flogging Molly.

And you must’ve heard of Tony Hawk who has built a hugely successful video game franchise on skating. Tony still rides, by the way, he just tried out whether he can still pull off a 900 on a vert ramp at the age of 48. Turns out he can:

So, skateboarding aligns with innovating, as you saw from Mullen’s TED talk above. I’d like to continue with this, drawing connections between skating and education, in particular student-centered learning.

Central concepts in learning are motivation, practicing/drilling, testing, and assessment. You have to be motivated to learn in the first place, then you have to practice, practice, practice, and finally test & assess whether you learned or not. And then iterate or move on.

In skateboarding, the motivating aspects are very intrinsic. You want to show yourself and your pals that you can land a trick. That’s it basically. It most likely hurts a lot before you can master it, but finally it is there. Then you can improve the style, create some variations, etc. But the bottom line is that there are very few external motivators, especially if you are a non-pro skater who doesn’t make a living from winning competitions and scoring sponsorship deals. The same applies to student-centered learning. The student really wants to learn something and this calls for…

Practice/drilling. Mullen didn’t mention it in the video but the saying goes that “innovating is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”. This means that the heureka moment is only but a small part of coming up with the finalized innovation. For skateboarding, I would say that the ratio is even sadder, something like “0,1% inspiration and 99,9% perspiration”. It is easy to imagine all sorts of tricks, but really landing them is something else. I still feel sorry for my shins, although it has been 20+ years since they had several daily confrontations with plywood.

Assessment. In skating, most if not all assessment is self-assessment. Sometimes your skating buddies can watch you try something and then give hints: “you’re going too slow for the rail”, “put your front ankle like this”, “kick with back foot for the late shove-it”. These hints can help, but in the end it is up to you to implement them. While airbourne, you are supposed to do several things with your body simultaneously in order to successfully land a flip or a 360 or an ollie impossible. Only you can teach your muscles, hence self-assessment.

Finally, testing. In skateboarding, testing plays little role, if you don’t count the myriad of micro-tests you perform to yourself to try out whether your little plan to complete a trick works out or not. There are no standardized tests. Even competitions have no formal expectations of types of tricks that you have to perform in order to score well. This is what drastically separates skateboarding competitions e.g. from figure skating competitions.

Skateboarding will most likely enter the Olympics at the Tokyo 2020 games. This is one step towards the standardized testing model of skateboarding, of which I am not a big fan. And I am not alone. I am not one of those who deny skating of being a sport or a hobby, claiming that it is a way of life. However, I definitely think that you take something very essential away from it if you start to evaluate tricks according to some predefined and explicitly stated template.

By the way, I bought a deck last summer, to my calculations 21 years after I last owned one. I’ll leave you with your’s truly performing a 360 no-comply in summer 2015:








How to Steer Self-Organizing Classes?

I finally got to read the wonderful Wired piece about the Mexican school. It tells a true story about how a teacher adopted Sugata Mitra -esque teaching methods. As a by-product he discovered a 12 years old genius in his class. Strongly recommended reading.

Like Mitra with his hole in the wall experiment, Sergio Juárez Correa gave his class some problems and then just stepped back, letting them discuss and come up with solutions. As you can guess, the results were excellent. Besides Paloma Noyola Bueno (the genius), also other students significantly improved their learning.

The great thing about self-organizing approaches is that they are student-centered. Students can choose the methods they want to apply. Sometimes they can even select the problems they want to tackle. This presumably makes them more motivated. That’s very easy to believe.

I think it would still be too idealistic and naïve to claim that this method as such is bulletproof, always yielding to the best results with each student, in each context. In reality the teacher has reason to intervene every once in the while and carefully steer the students to a preferable direction.

The keyword here is ‘carefully’. How to subtly get the kids to take interest in something, without appearing bossy and in effect resorting back to traditional methods? The best way to get the students to lose their motivation is to first claim that they can do things how they want and then take it back.

There are some tips and tricks for the teacher to apply. First strategy is to give the student a set of choices instead of complete freedom: “In this project your job is to run a business. Choose your domain from consulting, logistics, or automotive industry.” “Log on to any of these three mathematics games to learn fractions.” “You can do this exercise individually or in groups.”

The second pointer is to start with small tasks. Teaching typically corresponds to mandatory curriculum items. However, there can be plenty of room for variation in how these items are addressed.

The third advice is to be present. As with flipped classroom, also student-centered methods free the teacher from giving lectures to actually interacting with the kids. So “stepping back” should not be taken too seriously. Or rather the step should be so short that the teacher was still available for the students.

You could argue that following the above proposals dilutes the core message of self-organized and student-centered learning. If the teacher steps in very often, it actually becomes teacher-centered learning. In the Wired story Juarez Correa said that he was sometimes very tempted to intervene when his students seemed to have difficulties, but he resisted the urge.

What do you think? Can student-centered approach be introduced partially or in batches. Instead of blowing up one big hole in the wall, can we drill several smaller ones?