What we can learn from that ollie

Most days in my New York City neighborhood, as I walk down the sidewalk under the ramparts of the George Washington Bridge, I stop for a while to watch the skateboarders practice their ollies. A group of kids from about 11 to 15, they hang out on a little-used strip of asphalt across from the bus station, working on their moves in a way that seems at once fluid, social, and intensely focused.

Even when they seem to be taking a break, not doing anything much, they’re actually watching each other closely. Sometimes they exchange a few words of critique or advice. Then they’ll go back and try something new, again and again.

Like Dan Coyle in The Talent Code and many others, for the last couple of years we at What Kids Can Do have been digging into the cognitive research on what’s really going on beneath that bridge—and in other places where kids are getting really good at what they do.

The kind of practice that really moves us ahead – “deliberate practice” – requires explicit elements, I’ve learned — and those elements look a lot like what those young skateboarders are doing as they work at their ollies under the bridge:

• They see something excellent that they want to know and be able to do.

• They go after that thing at a challenge level that’s just right for them.

• They break the challenge into parts and rehearse each move in a focused, attentive way, at intervals, until it comes easily each time.

• Someone notices their mistakes and helps them adjust what they’re doing.

• They savor the small successes that come along — and then they look for the next challenge.

It’s what every good teacher wishes were happening in the classroom. But it takes time and persistence — the famous 10,000 hours we’ve read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and other books drawing on that same research about achieving high performance.

And as our WKCD team documents the lives and learning of adolescents, it fascinates me how many of those 10,000 hours for kids happen “outside the lines.”

Kids spend about 5,000 hours in high school alone: six to seven hours a day, 185 days a year, for four years. Homework adds to that time, at least in theory. But when I ask kids where they experience “deliberate practice”—using the criteria we’ve spelled out above—they’re more often talking about skateboarding than about science class.

We’re going to use this space to explore with all of you who care about kids — teachers, parents, coaches, caregivers — what can bring that kind of practice into all the places where we interact with youth.

The kids under that bridge are showing us that it’s a way of being, not a curriculum. It’s at once playful and purposeful, and its result is high performance.

In this space, we’ll focus our discussions by watching and listening to kids themselves. We hope you’ll tell us what you’re seeing and hearing as you work with youth—and also share what you’re wondering and trying.

I’ll mail a free copy of Fires in the Mind to the best post I receive on this in the next week. So let’s go—it’s time to practice!

For reference and discussion, download What_Is_Deliberate_Practice? (PDF)

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2 thoughts on “What we can learn from that ollie

  1. What if school was not about teaching content or specific pre-determined skills? What if, instead, it was a collaborative process that young people engaged in with “learning experts” who helped them document and codify the learning/practice they were already doing? In a sense, the focus of school would become–learning about practice and learning.

    When I spend time with young people in schools that truly encourage students to follow their passions through project-based learning, I find that not only are they highly engaged (because they are getting to explore subjects of deep interest to them), but they also understand themselves better as learners. This seems extremely important to me.

    Mastering something after 10,000 hours is a terrific accomplishment, but given how quickly our world is changing, by the time those 10,000 hours are up, there may no longer be work in that area… In the process of mastering whatever particular thing we’re focused on, are we also mastering learning?

    The passion for skateboarding may fade (or a busted knee may make it impossible to pursue), but if those young guys under the bridge can transfer the five elements of practice you highlighted above to their next endeavor, they will be successful.

  2. Your interest (and Sam’s) of recognizing the learning that is already taking place is right on target, imho. Tapping into existing communities and social networks in order to further develop individual’s expertise is where the formalization of these informal learning experiences needs to start.

    Building off of their natural social circles and expanding them (tech makes this easy) to include “expert guides” while honoring (and developing) their own areas of expertise through kid mentorship/teaching of their peers might be the next step — what if school were more than collaborative? What if it were a back and forth of exploring and helping, where students got credit not just for content knowledge, but for helping others — build collaboration into the structure of the institution (think Amazon Reviews! “Was this helpful?”)

    Personal (mobile) tools can keep students connected to the content and collaborative access, so they can learn when they need (just-in-time) — share videos of a successful “ollie” from someone from the other side of town.

    That’s my dream anyway.

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