One of the social challenges tackled at UX4Good was the reinvention of the American high school. The group that considered the challenge collaborated with education design initiative The Third Teacher to imagine how school works (or, just as often, doesn’t work) from the point of view of students.
Now one of our UX4Good alumni has weighed in with a brilliant take on this dilemma. Dr. Tae is a physicist just as well known for his skateboarding moves as his academic achievements. As a “spark” at UX4Good, he visited all our teams, reinvigorating their thinking. But his presence was particularly inspiring for the education group — and from his recent TEDx video, “Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?” it’s easy to see why.
In the talk (delivered as a part of the education-themed TEDxEastsidePrep), Dr. Tae considered how he learned to do a 360-degree flip on a skateboard (surely an activity many young people would be motivated to do). Thinking through the steps of the process much like a UX designer might, Dr. Tae noticed that his learning had little in common with school. Among his observations:
• Failure is normal. As any innovator knows, you may have to fail hundreds of times as a project before you really get it right. As Dr. Tae points out, there’s no point in giving the first 100 failed skateboard flips a C+, and it’s actually kind of insulting to give a successful one an A — the move is its own reward. Just as grades don’t make sense, neither does cheating. As he says in the video, “When learning is the goal and learning is the reward, there’s no point in cheating.”
• Time is flexible. Dr. Tae says that though they may not be able to express it in words, there is something all skateboarders know: “Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything.” If students were allowed to work longer on areas where they have difficulty or enabled to skip ahead when they find the work easy, they would learn more efficiently.
• Learning is more flow than fun. As Dr. Tae’s video demonstrates in painful, face-plainting detail, real learning is not fun the whole way through. Those repeated failures can actually be quite frustrating. But when success is possible, learners are inspired to power through the setbacks. Dr. Tae advises learners to seek “Goldilocks challenges” where the level of difficulty is “just right.”
• Teachers are optional. A really difficult skateboarding move requires self-direction; Dr. Tae says it took him years to learn the 360 flip. Close supervision would probably have hurt more than it would have helped. There is a role for instruction in skateboarding, he says, but only if it consists of “real-time meaningful feedback.”
Dr. Tae doesn’t come across as anti-school. But as he points out in the conclusion of the video, the whole universe of learning is much, much larger than the traditional classroom. Our group of UX designers came to a similar conclusion, imagining an educational environment that went far beyond traditional brick walls. Both ideas are a testament to the power of thinking about how people actually learn, whether they’re mastering 360 flips or particle physics.