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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

Very interesting article, and I'm glad you found Rampfest for your son. I agree with you that an innovative approach to education is needed. The existing system does not cater to the variety of children in a school, their learning styles, preferences and abilities. However I can't help but notice the gender stereotyping in this article. There are plenty of boys who thrive in a traditional learning environment, just as there are plenty of girls who require movement as part of learning. I am reminded of a choreographer I think it may have been Frances Ring) who described how she initially didn't prosper at school, and her teacher was frustrated by her constant movement and lack of focus. She moved to a dance school and excelled. Flexible learning, more inclusive practices and an appreciation of multiple learning styles would have benefits for all school kids, not only boys.

Moira Byrne | 24 September 2012  

Thank you for this confirmation that boys learn best while active. It is indeed time to create pedagogies that enhance boys’ education. However, teacher education must change first. It is up to university course designers to do the research in consultation with school principals and significant others that can bring about this change.

Robert O'Brien | 24 September 2012  

You and your son are lucky you found Rampfest, Tony. It sounds as if it is a place which might assist his social development and self-esteem: two crucial aspects for a young man who may not be academically oriented and has problems sitting still. Perhaps the inability to sit still is due to boredom with a curriculum which may not suit his needs nor interests? Schools have always tended to put academic success as first priority. My own son, now adult, had a learning disability and it was the provision of a Teacher's Aide and an extremely sympathetic Education Victoria Inspector, who monitored this and the Principal of Kurunjang Secondary College and the teaching staff, who helped make school relevant. My son also participated in Khaki Rebels - a group founded by a former Scoutmaster for young people with disabilities, who he felt were not being adequately catered for in the Scouting Movement. My son later became a leader in it. He does have a three day a week job and is an active, valued and thoroughly integrated and popular member of his local community. Boys can be helped and mentored through the difficult stages of development (including puberty) and become mature and integrated members of the community. The adolescents at Rampfest seem to have taken on a natural mentoring role. This is something all young men need to be encouraged to do, whether at school or in the community. So many young men become alienated and destructive when they need not be. Some of these may become depressed or attempt or commit suicide. Figures for young men in both categories are far too high in this country. We talk much about "social capital" (I think it was once called "community"). Thank you for a perceptive and insightful article about how this can be facilitated practically by young people themselves.

Edward F | 24 September 2012  

Boys need room at Recess to spend some energy.Girls are happy with smaller spaces.Inner city schools like the new much publicised Albert ParkCollege despite the spin are disadvantaged without playing fields .This leads to frustration and trouble for the boys which does not help their enthusiasm for learning

Maureen Stewart | 24 September 2012  

Thanks Tony...a very enjoyable article which I have printed to put on the table in the staffroom for my colleagues to read.

Penny & Mike Elliott | 24 September 2012  

A further comment on schools not focused on successful learning for all students, particularly boys who find the industrial model of ‘one size fits all’ restrictive. This seems to be still prevalent in some secondary school environments. It is becoming common knowledge now that schools need to be supported in curriculum differentiation using universal design so that all students can learn in their own unique way. The principles of differentiated curriculum are the design of respectful tasks according to student readiness, interests and learning profile. This covers those who are considered very high achievers and those who may have difficulty with learning. Differentiating the content of a learning task as well as the product to be produced to demonstrate their learning is very respectful to all learners. Different pedagogies are required therefore school leadership in supporting classroom teachers is paramount in creating this transformational change to inclusive pracitces in all schools..

Robert O'Brien | 25 September 2012  

Thanks for a great article which highlights the benefits of an active lifestyle and also helps to break down the undeserved perceptions that some in our communities have of skateparks. Attend a community consultation on a new skatepark proposal and you will understand what I mean. Letting children off the lead long enough to participate in some slghtly risky activities, in their own space, where they can fall down, without mum or dad rushing to their aid or fussing over them is a good thing. Allowing children to develop self esteem and confidence and an ability to take on new challenges, amongst like minded peers, or in their own space, can only improve their ability to learn. The respect for each other, and the respect for risks that they face, along with the opportunity to develop social and physical abilities is an added bonus included within the triumph of helping each other to nail that new trick! If any readers are interested in exploring skateboarding as education option for their school, www.skatebordingvictoria.org.au has some information on schools programs. The weather is improving, and a world of outdoor skate parks will open up to you and your sons and daughters.

Bernard Griffiths | 25 September 2012  

My primary school aged daughters, excellent academically, really struggle with not having enough room to run climb and jump in their playground. All kids need to move around many times a day. Schools such as the one in Denmark where every period is followed by a fifteen minute run around time are desperately needed for all kids, male and female, academically inclined or not. Thanks for the article, but let's make changes for the sanity and health of all kids, not just the boys!

Alison | 28 September 2012  

The germ of your article is really important even though it is sad to realise that your discovery is that young boys are good hearted and helpful. Like it or not, feminism (or the perverse version of it) has made boys and men out to be second class inferiors. Wages were made equal a long time ago. Why then did we need to eradicate everything on offer for boys? Scouts was taken from them and yet girl guides thrives. How many boys only schools are left? Girls have oodles of single sex schools from which to choose. It is good to know that a cold warehouse in Braybrook at least exists where boys can do what they love to do i.e be with each other and work like crazy and getting better and better at their skill. Yes, boys also love to assist younger boys. There is clue there for education as well. Was surprised to find you were writing of Australia as you spoke of "side walk" and wool jumper, rather than woollen . Thanks for this well observed article and yes it is about time that we really did turn this into a roar. Boys sweet natures are being exploited and things that girls are naturally more inclined to do e.g sit still are being rewarded while boys natures are being pathologised.

Deborah Coulthard | 30 September 2012  

Tony, I stumbled upon your article yesterday and have since read it twice. You have keyed in on what too many others have discounted, that sports like skating, surfing, and other action sports meet a very specific need for many students.

We are developing an educational model that combines academics, action sports, technology, nutrition, and sustainability. I am actually in regular communication with a researcher who studied at James Cook University, in Cairns.

Please check out our video: https://vimeo.com/41526300

I'd love to discuss this idea with you in greater detail. Thanks for the great article!

James Smith | 06 October 2012