What a skateboard ramp taught me about education


“My kid’s diagnosis is dyslexia”, she said to me in a low tone of voice. I wasn’t surprised. I’ve been tutoring this kid for more than three years, and in the last couple of months he was showing a steady decline in school performance. He had a hard time reading and writing, and was becoming very hyperactive and uneasy. The first “catastrophe”: very low grades in school. His mother dropped him off at my house two days a week after 8 hours at school, for intense tutoring.

“Get him to memorize his History lesson for the quiz, and look at past year’s Math tests to practice from those exercises. Oh, and please write him some flash-cards with a summary from the Reading story”.

This wasn’t the purpose I wanted to achieve when I decided I’ll tutor children as a part time job. I’d explain to her that her son needed to work more autonomously, and that memorization wasn’t going to help him to become more educated. And the problem was precisely that: our definitions of becoming “educated” broadly differed.

Twice a week it was the same routine: she’ll drop her kid off at my house to tell me how awfully he was doing at school and how lazy, forgetful, and clueless he was becoming. Despite of this, I was looking at something else: a kid that was not only full of energy, but also bright and creative. He might be slow at reading, but he had a gift for making up stories. He might had trouble with short-term memory, but he was excellent at drawing connections and looking at the big picture. He might had a hard time writing, but he was pretty agile with word games on the computer.

Under the standard education system, he was a failure. He was falling behind and wasn’t able to cope with the day-to-day school structure: schedules, exams, being quiet, raising your hand, having homework…

But why he should be limited to this obsolete methodology? Why he should be learning things the same way, if now we have more resources to learn differently? With these questions in mind, we forgot about flash-cards, memorization and repetition. We started using Apps for dyslexics, making up stories to learn concepts, playing with a skateboard ramp to learn angles, and exploring my backyard to learn science. Turns out, we were having a lot of fun. He had invaluable talents that we would’ve never discovered if we had stick exclusively to a pen, a paper, and a book.

So, what?

We’ve talked about this before: everything we know is changing dramatically. Learning differently, at the pace of an exponential technology growth, requires of different skills. The good news is: there’s an unlimited quantity of resources to learn autonomously. Thinking outside the box is not something only students should do, but also teachers, workers, parents… Abandoning traditional paths can be scary at first, but it doesn’t compares with the satisfaction of truly learning. Engaging in a self-directed learning process pushes your limits and inspires you to learn, not because you’ll get an A on the final grade, but because you now know something that you didn’t knew before.

In the end, I reached my objective: not having to tutor this kid anymore. My role was giving him the tools and the encouragement to learn on his own. I was only a watering can; the blossoming is something he will do by himself…

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