Learning Like a Skateboarder

Blended learning environments can mimic "out of school" learning experiences

Written by Jeff Gerlach on Thursday, 06 February 2014.

While watching a Ted Talk that discused how learning to skateboard differs from traditional learning, I began to think of the customization that blended learning can help provide to learners and how that really mimics the skateboard learning process.

Check out the talk for yourself below and then continue reading for my extended thoughts on the talk.

No one knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything.

“Failure is normal… It’s expected,” Dr. Tae states. He was discussing skateboarding, but it certainly applies to learning in general. This is a big reason why I support flexible timelines in student learning by way of blended instruction. We need to give students adequate time to “figure it out,” but at the same time we don’t want to hold students back that are ready to progress forward. No two students learn at the same pace, and every student will struggle with some lessons more than others. When a teacher builds lessons online, they give executive control of pace and sequence to the learner which customizes learning. These are the kind of opportunities that we need to provide to our students.

There are no grades... The reward in skateboarding is landing the trick.

I contend that grades do not make great learning goals because they aren’t an intrinsic reward, nor are they vessels for corrective feedback. The reward of learning is the learning itself. Students do not improve academically when they get a D slapped on their work if they don’t understand. Not understanding cannot be remedied by way of a scarlet letter. What students need is real-time feedback when they hit a bump along their learning pathways and they need teachers to get the heck out of the way when it is smooth sailing.

Which segways well into the next quote...

Teachers are completely optional.

Tae states that teachers are optional in the skateboarding learning environment. He does mention that they can be helpful, so long as they provide real-time meaningful feedback. This really resonates with me personally. Learning by doing things over and over on my own intuition is something that I have done forever. I spent much of my childhood passing, dangling and shooting pucks in my backyard; working on becoming a better hockey player. I have learned so much by working on skills over and over until I was able to execute them with enough precision to add them to my game.

Yet, I didn’t do it alone. I started watching hockey games on TV because my dad watched them. He would explain the game to me, and I would absorb as many titbits as I could. He would buy me sticks, skates, pads, and league fees and hand me off to coaches that would teach me more about the game than he could. Over time, I watched more and more hockey games on my own and learned from watching the players. Was this independent informal learning? Or were the players and commentators my teachers?

It becomes incredibly difficult to separate the feedback that my trial and error provided me from the observational and mentoral feedback that others provided me. I imagine Tae’s experience was similar in nature. I think much of our “ah ha!” moments come in our independent practice. This is often the time when we finally figure it out and start working toward mastery. Yet, we cannot discount the feedback from others in this process. In fairness, Tae never argues that all good learning needs to come without teacher guidance. He simply states that feedback must be real-time, at the very moment that it is needed.

Blended learning environments create a fantastic structure for real-time feedback and lots of independent practice. Because students work through these environments at their own pace, there is a “work your [butt] off until you figure it out” expectation similar to skateboarding when learning online. There is less direct instruction, which leaves students to ask and answer a simple question, “How am I going to accomplish all that is asked of me in this module?”

This doesn’t mean that a blended room will be entirely devoid of teacher guidance. The online modules are designed intentionally to support learning by the teacher. In addition, shifting direct instruction to the online environment allows the teacher to devote full efforts to answering questions and generally checking in with student progress. The F2F environment becomes a hotbed of real-time feedback.

I think particularly, what teachers enjoy about feedback in a blended setting is that online student progress tracking gives them insight to student progress without needing the student to raise their hand for help. Teachers are able to monitor students passively and intervene in short order when it is clear that the student is struggling. This level of personalized feedback gives students the guidance they need at the exact time they need it.

About the Author

Jeff Gerlach

Jeff Gerlach

Jeff Gerlach (@JGer1) is an instructional design coach for Michigan Virtual University. He works with teachers to design blended learning experiences for students through presentations, school partnerships, online courses and 1:1 coaching. He holds a master's degree in educational technology from Michigan State and has experience as a face-to-face teacher in the metro Detroit area where he blended his classroom for six school years.

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