Last week I was sitting in the park watching a skateboarder. He was alone and clearly practicing his moves, trying to get better at a variety of different stunts. I must have watched him for 15 minutes and, I estimated that he nailed about 20% of his attempts, probably less.
As I watched him fail over and over again, I couldn’t but realize the rarity of his public display of failure. But in most other situations where we are around others, let alone perfect strangers, this is far from the norm. Rarely do we openly display our imperfections for everyone to see. If anything, we hide them to protect our image. Yes, in the public sphere, your weaknesses are yours and yours alone. We are only allowed to put our best foot forward. Otherwise, we’re uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassed.
Not skateboarders. In the skateboarding culture, public failure is not only commonplace but its desirable. Falling off your board is a necessary means of getting better, no matter if everyone in the park is there to witness it. You do it. You inherently admit weakness. Sure, getting better at maneuvering a skateboard requires lots of room and public spaces (like parks and empty parking lots) are the most convenient and accessible places to do so. Nonetheless, the willingness of skateboarders to outwardly showcase their shortcomings is fascinating to me.
My intrigue is heightened when I think about the culture of education in which I function. Students (and teachers) work in a system that often downplays struggle, placing lots of emphasis on correct responses. Case in point, its a regular occurrence for students in my class to erase their whiteboard work that hasn’t led them to a correct final answer. They refuse to be wrong publically — especially when all eyes are on them. This is certainly a reflection of my own inability to champion mistakes and struggle in my classroom, but its also representative of how formal schooling has made our kids feel and think about being wrong. If you don’t land on the correct answer, it’s not worth showing your process publically. No, you must keep that valuable part of learning all to yourself until you arrive at a “correct” answer when, only at that time, it is acceptable show your thinking.
There’s a lot we can learn from skateboarders.