A Gnarly Way to Learn

A Gnarly Way to Learn

By Shannon Taggart, Primary Years Program (PYP) Coordinator 

"It is the kind of joy that fuels inspiration – if I can build a skateboard, imagine what else I can do?"

The first thing you notice upon entering Mr. Mike O’Brien’s art classroom is the variation of progress. Every project is at a different stage of design or construction. Near the back of the room, students are applying thin layers of glue to a number of identically cut pieces of wood. Meanwhile, a few desks away, other children use masking tape to outline vivid paint patterns they have refined over many drafts in their sketchbooks. When the gluing, pressure forming, painting, and adding hardware are complete, they will finally be ready to ride.

The Grade 6 Skateboard Project is a perennial favourite for students in the Primary Years Programme (PYP) at STS. Children who have not yet reached that age dream of the day when it will finally be their turn, while youth and teenagers in our Middle Years and Diploma Programmes look back on it with the fondest of memories – of not only what they achieved with wood, glue, and hard work, but all of the life lessons they learned along the way. As the Skateboard Project so beautifully illustrates, this transdisciplinary approach to learning lies at the heart of the PYP.

As educators, preparing our students for the future can be an intimidating concept. After all, predicting it with any degree of accuracy can be nearly impossible. However, by presenting a challenge, then teaching them how to examine, identify, research, communicate, empathize, and self-manage that challenge, they will be equipped with the versatility and resourcefulness to be ready for every possible future – no matter what path they choose to take.

These collaborative academic and life skills create a web of experience and knowledge. It is a lifelong journey that begins in Kindergarten, with children as young as four and progresses through PYP to Grade 12 and beyond.

In Grade 2, students begin to explore who they are as artists and how their artwork reflects themselves. In Grade 4, they discover how simple machines are combined to create complex machines. By the time they have reached Grade 6, they have a solid understanding of the design process and have the capability to apply their collected knowledge to their projects.

The Skateboard Project is a textbook example of transdisciplinary learning in action. It includes aspects of math, art, and physics and has even evolved over the past few years to include physical and health education. More than simply a technical marvel or stunning art display, these skateboards represent seven years of growth and development on the part of the students.

Students perform research. They use their social skills to provide feedback and suggestions. They can express who they are through their designs, and they have exercised their critical thinking skills, ideated, and empathized with the user at every stage. They have prototyped and tested a number of ideas and gained valuable knowledge and insight from each one: How will this work? How are the pieces going to all fit together? Will this have the result I originally envisioned, what needs to change, and what can I learn from this process?

The IB Programme understands that authentic growth emerges from a challenge, big or small, and Mr. O’Brien is a master at letting children sit ‘in the challenge.’ As educators, we challenge our students because we believe in their potential. We walk beside them and, rather than swoop in with the correct answer at every opportunity, give them a safe environment in which to address the problem, the tools which may be applied to solve them, and the space to develop a strong sense of self-reliance and resilience that will carry them to success throughout their lives.

In many ways, the Skateboard Project is both the culmination of these students’ skills thus far and an act of incredible confidence in their ability to learn new ones. For some, this might be the first time they have set foot on a board deck. They know the physics inside and out and understand how it is supposed to work, but it all comes down to this moment.

Those first nervous steps, followed by a slow roll across the floor or pavement, are almost immediately replaced by a look of sheer delight as they see their efforts come to fruition. It is the kind of joy that fuels inspiration – if I can build a skateboard, imagine what else I can do?

Anything. Anything at all.


 Why Skateboards?

Perspective from Mr. Mike O'Brien, Elementary School Art Teacher - 

For your entire life, your parents are pulling you, looking over you, and supervising you. Riding a skateboard or a bike is one of the first moments they say:

Ok, we trust you.
We’ve given you the best upbringing we can.
We believe in your potential.
We’re going to allow you to take risks.

But it’s also about:

Hey man, you might fall, and with this, you WILL.
But you will also grow positively as a result.

With COVID-19, the lockdown, and Zoom, that growth of character has been fractured. This is my intent, and the intent of the skateboard project – to return to the character-building opportunities that make great kids great adults.


Published in the 2023 edition of Optimum Magazine