Context Driving Content–A Case Study In Skateboarding Innovation

I began to lose interest in school as I entered my teenage years. Yes, I performed well, did my homework, completed the assignments, but I can’t say I was into school. What I wanted to do was two things—play guitar and skateboard. I would also add play basketball too for good measure. Now that I am working in the field of education as a teacher, I see how all three of those are frameworks to understand potential innovations in how learning experiences are crafted and delivered.

In this post, I just want to focus on skateboarding. I believe there is a lot from the skateboarding world that can be brought into the education space. These could be entrepreneurship, creativity, expression, physical fitness. But there is one key idea I want to focus on that was explained by skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen in his TED Talk “Pop an ollie and innovate!”.

In this talk Mullen asks the question:

“How can I expand, how can the context, how can the environment change the very nature of what I do?”

So let me give you some background. Rodney Mullen started out as a world-class freestyle skater. Freestyle skateboarding is one of the oldest forms of skating. It involves doing tricks on flat ground and was often part of organized contests in which the skaters were judged on their technical skills. Mullen was the best in the world at this, winning 34 of the 35 contents he entered.

Mullen was a true innovator of the sport having invented hundreds of tricks. Foremost among these is the ollie which is now considered a staple maneuver in skateboarding. He also created other tricks that are foundational moves in the modern skateboarding world like the kickflip, heelflip, 36o flip.

At this time though, vert was the more popular form of skateboarding. The high air maneuvers and aerial spins most popularized by Tony Hawk drew thousands of fans across the world. Much of the industry at this time—from the clothing, shoes, boards, wheels, and other equipment were all geared towards vert skating

In the early 1990s, a new form of skateboarding emerged and eventually took over, street skating. Skaters moved off the flat ground, out of the ramps and empty swimming pools, and into the urban landscape. This emerging style was more improvisational in style. The skater was now interacting with the environment, analyzing the architecture and determining what they could do with the contexts they were presented with.

So what does this have to do with learning? Well let’s look back at the quote from Mullen: “How can I expand, how can the context, how can the environment change the very nature of what I do?”. This was someone who was recognized as being the best in the world at his craft. He had created the very tricks that the entire sport of skateboarding was built on. But he recognized that these tricks had no relevance when they are being done on flat ground. What they were lacking was some context.

I feel we are doing the same thing to our learners. We are giving them content (tricks/maneuvers if you will) without any context. They are basically skateboarding on flat ground. Completing math problems in isolation, writing analytical essays without relevance, learning verb conjugations without conversation—these are all examples of content that is lacking context.

I would propose that an important innovation that teachers need to consider and implement is to allow the context dictate what kind of content they deliver. Mullen made this key pivot and ended up completely revolutionizing street skateboarding. He took the various tricks he invented for flatground and reimagined them for use on the urban landscape. He would carefully analyze the components of the terrain and make decisions about what tricks (content) to execute (deliver) based on that terrain (context).

A simple example of how this could look would be in mathematics. Don’t limit yourself to teaching linear equations according to the exacting standards set by national curricula. Look at the context of a linear equation. Maybe sales of a certain item for example, and build out learning tasks that emphasize how that content could be applied in that context.

And don’t limit yourself to solely placing the content into this new context. Dig deeper, bring in new technical skills that can be used to build on this content knowledge. Students can engage with spreadsheets using data formulas, and graphing functions. This could also lead to projects in which students design a business plan or collaborate on an entrepreneurial venture.

I see the application of this going beyond the context-based learning as developed by the Salter approach. I imagine a learning experience that I would call “context-driven learning”. This can be applied to build the competencies required to develop a student-driven capstone project to be used as an assessment at the culmination of a division.

More about how context can drive content needs to be thought through. I find Rodney Mullen’s insights into how he innovated his skateboard practice as an inspiring way to think about how I can innovate my teaching practice. Watch the TED talk and decide for yourself.

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