Sunday, December 11, 2011

Skateboard U.

I was watching a bunch of young skateboarders the other day tipping and flipping and zipping around on their skateboards, turning and whirling, jumping up and off of concrete blocks. My first thought, as it often is, was “Go home and read some Sartre.” But the more I watched, the more I realized that I was witnessing a prototype of the ideal learning environment.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink identifies succinctly (and yes, I’m furious with him that he did it and not me!) three essential drives of our bizarre species, the things we all share that motivate us to get up each morning and hit the pillow at night feeling we’ve done good work. And I realized that all three were clearly present in the skateboard scene.

The first is Autonomy, the freedom to find our own way to orchestrate our learning. We may have the guidance of a teacher or a systematic structure to scaffold our understanding and measure our progress, but at some point in the process, we need the autonomy to figure things out our own way at our own pace with our own standard of success and failure. The skateboard gathering was Autonomy Central, each person working on their own particular tricks without anyone looking over their shoulder demanding a certain level of performance or a series of steps to be mastered according to the National Standards of Skateboarding Timetable. All the Nervous Nellies who wonder how the skateboard performance can be measured, tested, ranked and filed away can rest assured that there is a natural assessment of success and failure in the form of skinned knees, flying skateboards and crashing into walls. Of course, at the Skateboard Championships, specific standards may be applied, but not at Stage 1 of the learning process. And besides, I suspect most of these young folks were spending their time skateboarding because 1) it’s fun 2) all of Sartre’s books were not available at the library or 3) it gives them some sense of power and control. Which leads us to Drive 2:

Mastery—that’s what struck me the most watching these kids, the sheer determination to get back on the board and work out their particular trick over and over and over and yet over again until it became encoded in the muscle memory. It’s the exact same process as the concert pianist practicing, the painter painting 1,000 still lifes or basketball player shooting 1,000 free throws. The sense of freedom that comes from mastery, the sense of control over the task at hand, the struggle against the resistance of a particular medium, the urge to bring together the ephemeral vision in one’s head with the tangible reality of the physical substance one is crafting— all of it was at work in Skateboard U. Watching the skateboarder’s attempt to defy gravity, understand physics with their toes, weave geometric patterns around the plaza, was poetry in motion and a lesson in human perseverance. But is that enough to justify all the hours devoted to it?

And that brings us to Purpose, the sense that there’s a greater goal behind it all that keeps us engaged when frustration hits or it’s raining outside. And here I really need to go into the field and put on my Studs Terkel hat and actually talk to these young folks: “Why are you doing this?” But that would mean postponing this Blog for a few days, so for now, I’ll just guess. I suspect that simply the pleasure of Mastery might be enough for many of them, but alongside that, they’re fulfilling their quota of other deep human drives— companionship with fellow enthusiasts, exercise, the thrill of risk and on-the-edge daredevilry, fresh air, the joy of transcending our human limitations and flying for a moment, going faster than our legs can carry us.

All that is well and good, but I suspect that Daniel Pink’s idea of purpose is something larger than oneself that brings good to the world. And here is where Skateboard U. needs a few more subjects in its curriculum. Apply the same autonomy and enthusiasm to stewardship, social justice, youth in trouble and you got yourself a great learning institution.

Well, actually, some skateboarders might be perceived a youth in trouble and though Skateboard U. doesn’t keep them off the streets, it puts them on the streets with a fun and mostly non-invasive activity. And the Occupy movement could be more mobile with skateboards. In-between practicing their tricks, skateboarders could deliver meals to the infirm. A little creative adjustment and we’re three for three in the Daniel Pink curricula.

As for Sartre, he was a depressed guy with way too much angst. He probably just needed to get out of the house, get some exercise and fresh air and hang with his homies at Skateboard U. We would have missed existentialism, but hey, who cares?

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