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Best of 2012: Skating solutions to boys' education


'Skate park' by Chris JohnstonThey don't tell you about indoor skateparks. They show you the ultrasound, they hand you the wrinkly baby and say, 'a little boy'. What they don't say is, 'you will spend every day of the school holidays at an indoor skatepark.'

My son is eight and rides a blue scooter. He got it for his birthday and for about ten minutes was content to ride it up and down the sidewalk in front of the house. Then he decided we should go to a small skatepark.

It was a largely concrete affair, covered in graffiti, and populated by kids with low slung jeans and battered skateboards that they rode intermittently between cigarettes. My son experimented with the various ramps, chatted to teenage boys and got some fresh air while I sat on a bench and read.

One day, he met a kid from school and came over to tell me about a magical place called Rampfest.

I held off as long as I could. I pretended I couldn't find it online, that it had closed, that it was for older kids. One rainy day, however, I relented. The outdoor venue would no longer be good enough. He took out a membership at Rampfest and it was there that we would be spending our time.

Rampfest is in a suburb called Braybrook, 9km west of Melbourne, a place whose very name can cause those sensitive souls east of the Yarra, or even east of the Maribyrnong, to shudder in fear. The truth is that it we will all be wishing we had bought there ten years ago soon. It's close to the city, pleasant enough, and well appointed, as they say, with things like, well, Rampfest.

I live in snooty Yarraville, an overpriced renovation ghetto just a couple of minutes away. Nice place, but no indoor skateboard facilities.

Rampfest is housed in a large warehouse that echoes with the sound of bmx bikes, scooters and skateboards landing implausible jumps. Or not. The soundtrack ranges from hip hop to metal that sounds, to my ear, like Dio era Black Sabbath but probably isn't. The park is a maze of wooden ramps, foam pits and swimming pool shaped valleys where boys, and I mean BOYS (girls rarely appear), practice moves with names like tailwhips and grinds.

I sit in a sort of indoor/outdoor (as they call it in Yarraville) arrangement near the front desk, set my laptop up on a metal patio table, pour some hot tea from my thermos, and wait for my son to come and hit me up for some money for lollies or a soft drink. I'm not entirely sure what he does inside. I have only been in once and it was so hair raising that I have avoided it ever since. It looked like a cross between roller derby and Pozieres.

I'm not really selling it, am I? A chaotic warehouse in Braybrook, filled with teenage boys on skateboards ... and have I mentioned how cold it is? I had to buy new socks, gloves, and a wool jumper after I spent one Saturday shivering for three hours.

But it does have a bright side.

I was a high school teacher for 15 years. When I started, there were murmurings that the education system wasn't working for boys. By the time I finished, that murmur had become a roar.

I was vaguely interested in the discussion but found the occasional anti feminist tone unpleasant and unproductive. Yes, I thought the classroom environment was a problem for boys. No, I didn't think the feminist movement, which had ensured that my mum was paid the same as her male work colleagues in the 1970s, was at fault. So I let it pass, knowing that, like everything in education, it would come back at some point.

But then my son started school. He goes to a friendly little primary establishment where everyone knows him and he is making steady progress. But he doesn't love it. His handwriting is atrocious, he finds sitting for long periods a drag, and he doesn't understand why the girls are 'better at everything'.

He likes sport and art. Both of these involve, according to him, 'doing stuff' and not just sitting. I say to him that he has to learn to sit and that all of the other stuff is really important but I am starting to see his point.

And it is at Rampfest that I have seen it.

In my years as an English teacher, I taught a lot of teenage boys. I saw some of them get interested in books and writing but I saw an awful lot that didn't get much interested in anything. I watched them argue with teachers, fight, bully each other, tag desks, break things, get suspended, and waste a lot of time — mine, other kids', but mostly their own.

When I first brought my son to Rampfest, I commented to a friend that it was like someone had corralled the 100 or so worst boys I had ever taught and put them on wheels in a shed. With my son in the middle! But over the next few weeks, I started to see something else entirely.

The first thing was the care that the older boys took around the younger ones. There are 16-year-olds on bmx bikes sailing around eight-year-olds on scooters but there are very few accidents. The older kids seem to accept responsibility for safety in a manner that would surely surprise their teachers and maybe even their parents.

But it is more than just looking out for them. Older boys have taken my son aside to teach him tricks and techniques. They include him in discussions and warn him if he is in a dangerous spot. They observe the rules of the place and are respectful and polite with the management.

Even more of a surprise is their focus. To watch them practice a small manoeuvre over and over, to watch them work together to fix a bike, to listen to the passionate and informed discussions about their sport is to see another side to these kids. They may not be model students at school. No doubt their reports would use words like distracted, disruptive and disengaged. But that's not what I see here.

There have been a few articles recently about boys and schools. What is the answer? I'm not suggesting that schools set up skateboard parks, though stranger things have been tried and some have even worked. But perhaps some consideration of the dynamics might be instructive.

Despite what people often say, it isn't all about competition for boys. It can be about mastery. It can be about specific skills. My sense is that the boys at Rampfest are competing mainly with themselves.

Schools, whether we care to admit it or not, are intensely competitive places. In Victoria, the VCE exam machine has become such a monster that most schools begin to prepare their students at year nine or earlier. My son talks entirely in terms of being the worst handwriter, or the second best at art. I never hear this in relation to his scooter. He talks about being nearly able to do a trick or having worked out how to do a particular move.

But what about the classroom environment itself? People have been saying for years that boys need to move. They need to be able to get up and do something else when they feel restless and not be stuck sitting at a desk in an uncomfortable chair for an hour.

I'm not naive. I understand the logistical difficulties in changing the structure of a schoo;. But maybe it's worth a try. IT has created possibilities for online learning. Many schools are experimenting with virtual classrooms. It's not flaky speculation or science fiction anymore but schools, teachers, and parents might have to get over the idea that kids can only learn in a classroom in a 50 minute period if any of this is going to make a difference.

And I include myself. As a teacher I liked to talk to my students. I liked to get up at the front of the room and entertain them while I taught. The idea of flexible learning would've forced me to change my style dramatically.

But my observations at Rampfest have had an effect. My son shouldn't be dragged kicking and screaming through an unsuitable education system because teachers don't want to change the way we approach education.

Part of the problem is that we have always looked at ways of modifying the education system for boys without paying due attention to the other places that boys learn and interact with each other.

Schools have been battling with adolescent boys for centuries. Maybe it's time to start giving some ground. There are lessons to be learned in a big shed in Braybrook if you are willing to brave the cold and the music. Come by for a chat, I'll be at my table. 

Tony ThompsonTony Thompson is a Melbourne based writer and former teacher. His articles on education have appeared in The Age and he has written two books for teenagers which were published by Black Dog Books. 


Topic tags: Tony Thompson, skate park, education



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Existing comments

Two things: 1. I think stereotyping is problematic. My son didn't (and doesn't) need to move - he is now a computer programmer - but I agree that more boys than girls learn by doing. 2. I have an on-line 'friend' whose spelling and grammar are poor, but he doesn't let that stop him being involved in discussions. He talks about hating school and especially English until one English teacher asked students to do a book review on any book they liked and agreed that yes, he could do his on a car workshop manual. This opened up a whole new world for him and he has read ever since (he is now retired and I guess in his 60s). Being creative is important, but it also takes extra time if you have to mark work on a topic about which you know next to nothing, and want to produce lessons that provide a range of different styles of learning activity. :-(

Judy Redman | 08 January 2013  

Interesting what Tony Thompson says - my grandson is not good at sport, is successful academically and also finds school difficult. The worship of sport has made him want to be part of that, too, but he just can't make the grade. His academic work doesn't get him anywhere! Great for Tony's son that he's found a niche at Rampfest - my grandson hasn't found a niche as yet and he progresses to secondary school this year. It's a matter of concern to us all- will the same happen there?

Mary | 08 January 2013  

'I was a high school teacher for 15 years. When I started, there were murmurings that the education system wasn't working for boys. By the time I finished, that murmur had become a roar. I was vaguely interested in the discussion ...' I'm glad that you are taking a little more interest in boy's education in general now that you have a son who sharpens your point of view. You give no mention of the years in which you were a teacher, but the continuing problems in boys' education is almost universal. The education system has been geared to making boys 'sit still and listen' from time immemorial, and most teachers would still prefer it. Somehow, the view that education is about holding a student's head still while somebody pours information into his/her memory continues to have attractions. The anti-feminist tone that you refer to was less to do with how female staff were paid and more to do with how boy behaviour became labelled as bad behaviour over time by an increasingly female staff ratio. And it is boy behaviour in the classroom that is the biggest indicator that something is not working. School did not work well for me or my two brothers. One was considered retarded and unteachable, he has a PhD. One was constantly targeted as the school troublemaker, he became a senior manager covering half his state. One was written off through school as unmotivated, he also has a PhD. The best thing we ever did was leave school, all three of us. Years later we started learning how to learn, all three of us. When my own son was traveling through school I was closely involved. Except for one year of having wonderful teachers, nothing much had changed from my own experience. He,too, only started learning in his twenties. These days he is a respected manager. A few years ago I wrote a YA novel about a boy in strife and in a school for kids who don't handle normal school. (Chase up Ford Street Publishing, another one of Melbourne's lesser known arenas for growing kids.) I had to invent the school for the book as I knew of nowhere that worked for most boys. I've since discovered one or two schools that run surprisingly like the place I imagined for the book. I'm glad Tony Thompson is starting to take boys' education seriously. It's been a long time coming, considering he was a teacher for so long himself. I'll start letting go of my cynicism about how schools go about educating boys when I see real changes. Until then, Tony, welcome to the dark side.

Kim Miller | 08 January 2013  

Try music. "please mum can I have a guitar?" No, your teachers say you have enough problems (no coordinataion + learning difficulties). "Well we'll give him a go". Did not solve the other problems but we all have our strengths and it certainly gave a reason to go to school each day.

Ena Mary | 12 January 2013  

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