Learning Curve(s) by Ben Powell
Words by Ben Powell
At the turn of the century, the idea that skateboarding would become an accepted subject of academic discourse, or that the act of riding around on a board would facilitate the blossoming of a global network of NGO’s delivering education to some of the most underprivileged kids in the world would’ve likely sounded like the confused Instagram ravings of a 1970s bowl skater.
Yet, in 2023, not only are the two statements above absolute indisputable truth, they’re not even close to encompassing the depth of skateboarding’s permeation into the world of learning.
If there is a question at the heart of what you’re about to read then it relates to the uncontested assumption, enshrined in our culture’s collective unconscious, that the process of learning how to skateboard is, in and of itself, inherently beneficial beyond the scope of trick collecting.
Or to put it another way: is there something intrinsic to the trial and error process of forcing your skateboard to bend to your will that can be transferred and used by educators as a tool of benefit to learning more generally?
According to the host of esteemed pedagogues, social justice advocates, academics, outreach workers, influencers, proselytisers and more besides contacted herein: the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
It’s probably prudent to outline some of the most salient of the claims placing skateboarding in such an uncommon position as regards its potential to forge new pedagogic pathways at this point. (For the uninitiated, pedagogy is the field of study that concerns itself with the practice and the theory of teaching and by extension, the practice and theory of dispensing knowledge.)
First up, and a currently red-hot potato in teaching theory: resilience.
In mainstream educational discourse, ‘resilience’ is an approach to teaching that envisages learning as a journey that embraces, rather than shies away from trial and error. The relevance of that one to skateboarding should be obvious.
To quote skater, academic and novelist Kyle Beachy, ‘as skateboarders we are all profound believers in failure’s virtue.’
Current pedagogic research foregrounds the importance of concepts like collaborative learning; student empowerment; a reduction of the perceived distance between learner and teacher; learning through doing; relationship and community building; embedding joy into study; exposing pupils to a multiplicity of perspectives and the encouragement of autonomy and agency.
Even the most cursory glance at that list ought to give food for thought for anybody remotely interested in skateboarding. Does it matter that you unconsciously embraced ‘resilience’ whilst repeatedly slamming on your arse conquering a new trick at your local ledge? Does that unconsciousness diminish the possibility of that same learning process having worth in another context? Probably not…
As Dr Esther Sayers, skateboarder and Senior Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London puts it:
‘A lot of current educational drivers are success oriented and this limits the learner. Skateboarding provides an alternative to standardised governmental learning because failure is accepted and celebrated, part of the package – without it you’re not really pushing yourself hard enough. This is massively important in my view.’
How this translates into educational settings where skateboarding is incorporated into learning is something that John Dahlquist, Vice Principal of Malmö’s Bryggeriets Gymnasium is well-placed to speak on. Whilst not the first school to integrate skateboarding into the curriculum (that accolade belongs to Stockholm’s Fryshuset), Bryggeriets is widely perceived as the crucible from which much of the current thinking about the educational utility-value of skateboarding was formed. Asked about the genesis of the institution, John recalls the early days where the idea of ‘a skateboard high school sounded like a joke to many parents so we had a lot to prove at first. I always enjoyed that though. Skateboard-ing thrives in a headwind.’
Over the intervening 17 years, Malmö’s tentative experiment has, as John modestly asserts, ‘gone from a small school trying to survive, to becoming established as a serious educational entity with a reputation for providing quality education, staffed by passionate teachers who, according to the parents of our students, motivate and care in a way that not all other schools do. This is the source of most pride to me, the relationships we manage to build by sharing interests with the students, whether that be skateboarding, art, photography, filmmaking, urban design, writing or any of the other pursuits that our students excel at. These relationships are at the heart of our success as a school.’
Dahlquist’s pride reflects another aspect of the effective utilisation of skate-boarding in both his and in other similarly minded educational establishments, namely that learning is enhanced when the relationship between student and teacher goes further than a superficial formality.
Like Bryggeriets, Bordeaux’s Shifty School enshrines skateboarding at the heart of its educational remit. Shifty’s founder and director Arnaud Dedieu acknowledges the inspiration provided by both Bryggeriets and Malmö, despite Shifty being an institution offering college degrees at Bachelor and Master level and also operating as a private, fee-paying institution rather than as a part of the public school system as in Sweden.
Dedieu contextualises the beginnings of Shifty within a wider endeavour to gain civic acceptance for skateboarding as a cultural force for good:
‘We were obviously very influenced by Bryggeriets and Malmö in general, particularly in the early days of Shifty. Through talking to Gustav Eden and John Dahlquist, we came to understand the model of Malmö – in so far as once skateboarding becomes accepted within the institutions of a city, in its schools, galleries, etc. then it becomes much easier for people outside of skateboarding to understand its value to a city as a whole.
Part of Shifty’s raison d’etre is to create the context for that acceptance on an institutional level and to work with other activist groups who are striving to demonstrate the positive effect that skateboarding and its associated culture can have for everyone, not just for skateboarders.’
Shifty, like Bryggeriets, is categorically not a school that you attend to improve your kickflips, although as both attest, you will probably get better at skateboarding just by being surrounded by other skateboarders whilst you engage in your studies. Where Bryggeriets encourages students to explore their interests within a curriculum that has skateboarding built into it, Shifty offers degree-level qualifications in precisely the skills that a passionate involve-ment in skateboarding culture tends to engender. The idea of Shifty is to harness these existing skate-related skill sets and to help students refine them further, into viable, and more importantly, enjoyable career paths.
As Dedieu explains, ‘Everyone who studies here is already a skateboarder. The teaching/learning aspect works because the teachers at Shifty are both renowned professionals in their field who are also skaters like Fred Mortagne or Nicolas Malinowsky or Benjamin Deberdt. We find this makes our learners much more resilient and focused on their learning because the people teaching them are
from the same cultural world and who have proven that it is possible to develop skills within skate-boarding that can be taken to the outside world to build careers.’
Harnessing the aptitudes developed through a deep involvement in skate culture and redirecting them towards self-fulfilment is a recurrent theme that cuts across a myriad of educational spaces. Alongside the formal learning offered by institutions like Bryggeriets and Shifty, similar concepts of skateboarding’s transferable skill sets have empowered people like Stefani Nurding to offer learning pathways within the spheres of professionalised brand ambassadorship and social media influencing. As a long-time skateboarder, Nurding attributes skateboarding as the confidence builder that emboldened her to start her own brand Salon skateboards, and pursue entrepreneurial goals in the social media realm.
‘Skateboarding teaches you how to learn.’ states Nurding. ‘As an activity, skating makes it really clear how progression is related to how much energy you put in. You can apply that to all aspects of life because it shows you that even when you don’t understand something straight away, you can learn through repetition and hard work.’
These lessons fuel Nurding’s hugely successful personal brand, with her now packaging what she has learned and offering it to the outside world as an online course to help others ‘monetize their hobby’ as she puts it.
Similarly auto didactic entrepreneurship inspired by skills gleaned from skateboarding is evident in the rise of the GirlSkateUK platform. Founder Danni Gallacher has watched GirlSkateUK grow from a social media account designed to connect the then nascent female skateboard scene in the UK, into the multi-pronged enterprise it now is. Speaking on the topic of her ‘The Skate Retreat’ project, which offers skate coaching in a supportive and outdoor environment for brand new skaters, many of whom are starting out at a much older age than what was once the ‘average skateboarder’, Gallacher points out some of the specific obstacles to learning she faces in that context:
‘Ironically, the trial and error aspect of learning that skateboarding treasures actually seems to be one of the biggest hang-ups for the people that I coach. When we are younger we fail a lot, but as we get older we usually do one of three things: firstly we are (generally) a bit wiser from our past mistakes and so use that experience to reduce risk factors, secondly we tend to mask our failures or lack of knowledge about something, or we just try to avoid the scary thing altogether.’
Gallacher’s take on the principles that underpin her approach to adult learning ties into her awareness of the specificity of teaching adult beginners how to skate.
‘As we get older we develop a more nuanced hierarchy of needs for learning and thus my teaching style is influenced by andragogy principles (andragogy being the methods/practice used in adult education). As children we are content with simply knowing the how – but as adults we must also understand the why.
I often ask guests why they decided to choose skateboarding, and the most common answer is that it’s their way of challenging themselves, and to try something new. Overcoming fears, reaching new goals and beating PB’s becomes more about boosting confidence and mood, whilst improving stamina and endurance – rather than the desire to “get good”.’
Gallacher’s reference to established pedagogic theory is by no means unique, as both John Dahlquist and Arnaud Dedieu refer to a number of theorists when explaining their approaches too. For Dahlquist it is the writing of Welsh educationalist Dylan William that heavily influenced his own teaching practice. William, the so-called ‘guru of assessment’ argues that schools actively undermine learning due to their over emphasis on summative assessment (formal, exam-based, assessment of learning) due to its rigidity and inability to take into account the fact that learning is a continuously evolving journey rather than a quantifiable end point.
William argues that student learning should be assessed instead by what is known in education as formative assessment, due to its flexibility and presence throughout all stages of learning rather than just in an exam hall at the end. To use a skateboarding analogy, summative assessment would be adding up a skater’s points at the end of a formal skate contest to determine their worth, whereas formative assessment would be the encouragement, coping smashes and ‘yeahs’ thrown out during a communal session. It’s not difficult to see why one would empower and engage students more than the other but, as Dahlquist puts it:
‘I would hope that the whole school world agrees that summative assessments are the worst way to measure what someone actually has learnt. Grades do not seem to spark the motivation to learn things either. And note here, this is not an opinion but a conclusion that all scholars on the matter have arrived at using hard data to prove it. Still though, we have to grade students in the traditional sense, but at Bryggeriets Gymnasium we try to keep the grades away from the learning and only use it at the end of the course. To quote Billy Bragg, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”’
Similarly, Arnaud Dedieu finds an intersection between established pedagogic thinking and what they do at Shifty.
‘One of the major problems in education generally relates to issues of partial concentration and engagement in learning.’ states Dedieu. ‘We try to get around that by enveloping the learning within a thing (skateboarding) that the students are already passionate about so that they want to learn. We’re not revolutionising anything – this is an old theory from the 19th century – popularised by Friedrich Froebel (the inventor of the kindergarten) back in the 1800s. Froebel believed that “play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in the child’s soul.” He emphasised the importance of play, of “intrinsic motivation”, not compartmentalising learning – linking everything. So the ideas at the core of what we do at Shifty are far from new – they are trendy again in education now but
these concepts link directly to our approach.’
Dedieu’s mindful nod towards the theory underpinning his practice belies both the extent and the depth of the current interchange between the world of academia and the burgeoning world of self-aware skate culture, which goes far beyond that touched on so far. Whilst in the field of educational theory it is clear that skateboarding has much to offer, skateboarding culture’s place within the halls of academia now extends into all manner of fields.
The work of Professor Iain Borden is well known and rightly praised as some of the most influential academic writing on skateboarding to come from an actual, active skateboarder. Borden began thinking about skateboarding early in his academic journey and posits an undergraduate essay he wrote in 1988 on skate culture in Los Angeles as possibly the first-ever academic piece on skating.
As Borden recalls, ‘When I got more serious about it in the 1990s there were still only two people writing about skateboarding; myself and Becky Beale, who wrote sociological studies of skateboarding competitions. Becky was not a skateboarder but she was very interested in the fact that skaters didn’t run competitions like other sports in so far as everyone is rooting for everyone and there’s an element of anarchy to them. I was more interested in the way that skateboarders appropriated architecture.’
Borden continued to write on the subject, because, as he puts it, ‘aside from the fundamental fact that I’m interested in skateboarding because I skate, skateboarding functions as a critique of what architecture is and that is my field of study. The critique operates around questions like, “is it a building? Is it an object? Is it a design process and how does that work?” Then on top of that I’m trying to add on that it’s the experience and the encounter with architecture that forms much of its meaning once it exists. In a simple sense, a piece of architecture is not the same object to every person who interacts with it and that’s where skateboarding’s use of architecture becomes a potent method of critique.’
With the publication of his seminal book ‘Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body’ in 2001, Borden’s conflation of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s thought and his own work on city space and the human experience of it, forever identified him as, in his own words, ‘that funny academic skateboarding guy.’ Ironically, Borden rarely talks about skateboarding in his day-to-day role as a teacher at University College London. ‘My skateboarding research is not something that I use to teach students. I use it more as a tool for my own research. What I do get, probably once every other day, is an email that says, “I’m a student studying – insert subject – and I’d love to speak to you about skateparks and sustainability” or whatever: 99 times out of 100 I say “yes” to those requests. I suppose that’s a way that I incorporate the skateboarding stuff I’ve done into a more traditional educational context.’
Through this process, Borden’s groundbreaking work continues to permeate into a myriad of specialisms, each one of which adopts skateboarding as a lens through which to ask certain questions. As he explains, ‘looked at through Lefebvre’s perspective, skateboarding is a bodily activity and because all of human life flows through the conduit of the human body: the moment you do something like skateboarding that is a public act, everything is going to flow through the body – urban space flows through it, politics flows through it, age, health, gender, race, creativity – everything. There is almost no subject, particularly for those of us with a Humanities background, that doesn’t connect to skateboarding in some way. I see this with the students who contact me for help with their research – one will be interested in skatepark design, another in the intersection between skateboarding and race, another in the graphic design or photographic aspects of skateboarding and so on. All these myriad things flow through skateboarding and this is why it is increasingly seen as having value as a learning tool in many contexts.’
This interconnectedness that Borden identifies is taken up by fellow academic and skater Dr Neftalie Williams, a sociologist and Postdoctoral Scholar teaching and researching in multiple arenas, alongside working with the US State Dept looking at using skateboarding as a tool for cultural diplomacy and advocacy work with The Tony Hawk Foundation. Williams’ 2020 PhD thesis entitled ‘Colour in the lines: The racial politics and possibilities of US skateboarding culture’ begins with an anecdote from his own experience as a skater of colour growing up in the USA. As a child, Williams bore witness to the fact that through their discovery of skateboarding, his peer group, ‘without realising it, were breaking down barriers between many different communities that had been put in place by people before us that stated that certain types of people shouldn’t be together in that way.’
For Williams, this potentially transformative aspect of the culture is ‘a phenomenon specific to skateboarding and the communities it generates because it operates in different spaces and in accordance with different dynamics. Because there are no teachers and you’re teaching yourselves, (which can have good and bad aspects), it creates an atmosphere without an imposed hierarchy of consensus rules determined by adults outside of the group. Along with that, the pre-existing codes of conduct governing behaviours related to being with groups that were not of the same racial or ethnic background didn’t have much effect, or at least much less so than in more traditional sports or social contexts. We carried that experience with us ever since and for me personally that has influenced all my subsequent work – that awareness that something special happened because of skateboarding at that early point.’
In his role as a teacher, Williams asks his students, ‘How do we use skateboarding and action sports culture as a lens through which to look at social justice issues and how do we go about trying to solve the problems that the world is facing?’ This approach comes from a position of belief that ‘we have an entire ecosystem within skateboarding that provides a model of how to confront many of these problems and then to extrapolate from that, ways to take that and use it towards broader societal goals, policies and initiatives.’
Williams is clear about his position within the burgeoning focus on skateboarding’s potential as a force for social good.
‘For me, as a black man in America, everything is slightly different to the mainstream academic position that has accepted skateboarding as a worthwhile object of study because, to put it simply, I’ve been black the whole time.
Just understanding the way that racism plays out in everyday life makes it really important for me that people understand that skateboarding has the potential to unlock some of these things.’
There are caveats however, something that Williams is keen to point out, particularly when skateboarding finds itself in the realm of ‘sport for development’, which has traditionally seen sporting activities evangelised as a panacea for a multitude of social exclusion and access issues.
‘You could set up a skateboard NGO and attempt to deal with all manner of issues and try to repair things with sincere intentions but still end up doing that from a position of an internalised colonial mindset. This is avoidable, but only through being completely awake to that potential pitfall. You have to be aware of all the tensions within each group and this is the downside of a lot of more mainstream “sport for development” initiatives that are only partially aware of these tensions.’
Williams does see many positive developments in the current approach of NGOs and social outreach programs using skateboarding as a route to engagement however: ‘I think not long ago, this would not be a part of the conversation simply because people didn’t understand how black and brown lives had been oppressed on the daily and thus couldn’t incorporate that awareness into their approaches. People are much more aware now and the conversation is much more nuanced and informed. That has come about because of people whose lived experience encompasses that exposure to oppression so that skateboarding is now in a position to be used as a tool in many different fields whilst being conscious of not repeating all the mistakes of the past.’
Williams’ reference to NGOs and the exponential growth in social outreach and welfare work undertaken by the numerous organisations using skateboarding as a tool is timely and perhaps one of the most interesting ways in which skate culture and educational aspirations have become intertwined.
Will Ascott, one of the founders of Free Movement, an Athens-based NGO working with refugees and displaced people in Greece’s capital, explains how skateboarding fits into their model.
‘All that mattered really was that it was fun. I had ideas of how I might be able to adapt what I’d seen in Palestine and apply it in a worthwhile way in the Athenian context, but logistically, the main issue for us was how we accessed these refugee camps on the outskirts of Athens so everything had to be mobile.’
Accordingly, Ascott and his colleagues would drive mobile ramps and skate equipment to various camps around the city and set up skateboard sessions aimed at trying to reintroduce a little joy into the kids’ lives, along with improving socialisation skills.
‘In the early days, especially in some of the more chaotic camp environments where you’d have a lot of kids who’d experienced heavy trauma, you’d get huge differences in abilities even down to simple things like being able to sit in a circle and do some stretches together before trying anything skate related.’
Free Movement’s educational remit revolved around three core principles: social cohesion, well-being and empowerment – all three of which were incorporated into the skateboard sessions the group provided. There were obstacles to delivery however, ones specific to the geo-political context that Free Movement were working within.
‘Our initial educational focus would be to just encourage the kids to share space and be around each other. There’s a whole other layer at work there too because even within the refugee communities themselves there is a lot of hostility between different ethnic or religious groups. So to begin with, the outcomes of using skateboarding extended as far as trying to get kids from different groups to be together peacefully and of course to encourage as many girls to participate as possible.’
Despite the inevitable burnout associated with working within such spaces Ascott is sanguine about Free Movement’s future since they became more city-based.
‘In the first few years when we worked solely in the camps, people were supportive of what we were doing but there was very little overlap between us and the indigenous skate scene. Early on the team was mainly British whereas now our volunteers come from a much more diverse demographic. Also, many of the ideas at the heart of Free Movement and other NGOs relating to the value of skating as an educational and social tool are much more accepted in skateboarding generally these days – particularly around issues like female participation and access – those are part of everyday discourse in this city’s skate scene and internationally. This has led to stronger connections being made between disparate groups where we now see local Athenian skaters delivering lessons to all manner of kids who are interested. It’s much more organic and non-hierarchical now.’
Vuyo Cekiso, Programs Officer at Skateistan South Africa echoes much of Ascott’s enthusiasm for the way that skateboarding can reach displaced children.
‘The majority of our students are foreign nationals who have found themselves in South Africa and thus have limited or no access to education here because of a lack of documentation. So there is a learning gap straight away.’
Cekiso explains how skateboarding’s hands-on learning mentorship, which takes place in Skateistan’s skatepark long before the pupils enter the classroom, helps to build trust in children who’ve often been through traumatic upheaval prior to their arrival.
‘Play is a very good instrument with which to address education. This is something that skateboarding teaches: a new student who doesn’t know how to skate will find that there is a coach literally holding their hand teaching them something as basic as how to stand up whilst rolling. Naturally through that process, trust and rapport is already being established. By the time we get to class, a child has already created a relationship with this person.’
Skateistan Johannesburg operates as an after school program aiming to fill in gaps in learning for children in precarious situations who’ve had difficult relationships with mainstream school learning often due to poverty.
Cekiso frames her approach to education as being one with ‘fun as its core principle’ that aims to connect classroom learning to real life situations related to the shared passion of skateboarding, which chimes clearly with the philosophy at the heart of both Bryggeriets’ and Shifty’s ethos too.
Cekiso explains: ‘Most of our students do not enjoy mathematics when they first arrive at the skate school. To them it’s this complicated, complex thing that has normalised the idea that only some of the students will understand it, leaving those who don’t understand maths excluded from learning. Here at Skateistan we took the maths curriculum and placed into it practicality. If we are talking about sums and measurements then skateparks are built, literally, around measurements. So we would address aspects of mathematics by pointing to the angles, the measurements and relationships of shapes within the skatepark that the students use every day. We use what we have to address the problems that our students have.’
Johannesburg’s skate school, like all NGOs using skateboarding, also focuses on inclusivity using the board as a tool to empower women and girls by creating a safe space in the middle of a city, which as Cekiso attests, can be genuinely very dangerous.
‘Every Tuesday is our women-only day and all those sessions are run by female coaches because representation is important: “nothing about us without us.”
We’ve done a lot of work around female-to-female mentoring as a way to try and break up some of the stereotypes that exist around what women and girls can do. We have a lot of students who come from very rural, traditional communities where gender stereotypes are still very much in place. So we try by all means to say that this thing (skateboarding) is here to stay and that these young women will be the people making this impact.’
Asked if she could encapsulate why she believes in the educational utility of skateboarding, Cekiso is unequivocal.
‘Skateboarding unites. Just in the context of South Africa, Skateistan has successfully taken children from the streets and into school using nothing more than a skateboard. Through that we have managed to create a safe space for children to learn and skateboarding enabled that because it inherently presents a powerful way to break down limitations created by certain social dynamics. Simple things like what girls can and can’t do – skateboarding provides a platform to interrogate questions such as that. Skateboarding is a tool through which we can address access, we can address safety, we can address inclusion, we can address education – just talking about it fills me with joy.’
What better way to conclude than that?
Naturally, this piece has only managed to interrogate a tiny fragment of this huge and ever evolving field that combines skateboarding and education so, for those interested in reading further: a cursory web search of any of the people or institutions involved will throw open infinite new vistas to explore.
Huge thanks and praise to everybody who took the time to share their wisdom here and to all those people who push humanity forwards in classrooms across the world on a daily basis.