Parkour Pedagogy

Today was parents’ day at the gym where my boys are taking a parkour class. This is hands-down their favourite hour of the week, and today I saw why: their instructor could teach a master class in pedagogy if he weren’t so busy running up walls. Here are some of his teaching moves:

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Establish a clear routine – the kids knew exactly where to go and what to do as class started. The coach pointed out what was different about today (“there are a lot of parents in the space”) and made suggestions about how to handle this (“so make sure you don’t accidentally kick anyone”).

Demonstrate – right away, he demonstrated something cool and new. The new vault was related to one they had already practiced, but it was a bit harder. And he gave an advance organizer (more on this later this week, probably) by telling them the plan for the session: “We’re going to practice all the vaults we’ve already learned and add some new ones. Then we’ll learn a new way to get up a wall.” He also set a purpose: “if you’re being attacked by, like, three bad guys and you need to get away, these moves will come in handy.” I scoffed, but the kids didn’t.

Connect new skills to prior knowledge – the instructor really shone here. First, he related the new skill to a previously mastered skill (a new vault was the next version of an easier vault). Next, he visually demonstrated the whole vault. Then he broke it down, showing the motion step by step and pointing out what was different from the previous skill. Finally, he used a metaphor that the kids related to – a fantastic way to connect new knowledge to old – pausing at important points in the vault demonstration and saying, “so, you don’t want to look like some girl on a piano in an old time movie (pause, pose – giggles); you want to look like Spiderman in a movie poster (pause, pose – oohs and aahs).” I heard one or two kids breathe the word “Spiderman” as they tried to remember where their foot was supposed to go.

Interleaving (Practicing an old skill and a new skill in connection – I could be accused of being a bit liberal with this definition her, but I’m ok with that.) The kids learned several new moves today (some of them nearly gave me a heart attack). In every case, they practiced the new move in combination with one at which they already had some competence. This meant that every attempt offered them a decent chance of some success and some failure.

Lots of practice – they ran around and around the circuit, practicing over and over. They actually ran until they were panting, something that is rare for my kids. There was time to jump and then time to watch others. And the coach had planned so that while he supported a new skill one-on-one (shimmying up between two walls), the kids independently practiced a skill they had already started but not mastered (running up a wall and heaving themselves to the top – Heaven help us all).

Which leads me to the next two things…

Failure is part of the practice – the coach openly talked about failure. He didn’t expect anyone to be immediately successful or succesful every time. He didn’t harp on this, it was just part of what was going to happen. He anticipated it (this will probably happen to you), planned for it (when it does, you should keep moving forward in the circuit; you’ll try it again the next time), and made it clear that any failure was not the last step of the activity. The learning would come. The kids fell over and over. They made mistake after mistake. In the whole hour, only one child got upset, and both the coach and the other kids reminded him that it was no big deal if he didn’t get the move this week.

Peer support – the coach moved around unhurriedly. After all, there was going to be enough practice time that he could observe each child. And the kids were busy helping each other. They gave plenty of high fives and compliments and showed a willingness to demonstrate or help a peer when asked. This meant that the coach wasn’t pressured to be everywhere at once and learning was happening all the time.

Consequences – At first I thought maybe parkour is just so dang cool that the coach doesn’t have to fight for their attention, but that wasn’t true. After all, he has a bunch of 7-10 year olds out there, and they have busy minds and bodies. And he really needs them to pay attention. (His motto is “Don’t Die”; parkour is not for the faint of heart.) So the consequence of not listening or not following the rules (four pushups) is non-judgmental and non-negotiable – AND it builds strength to do the desired activity.

Consolidation – after the skill-building portion, the coach set up a new circuit and allowed the kids to decide how to approach it. They independently chose which skills to practice – some kids ran the circuit trying to perfect the same moves over and over; others tried different versions every time.

Inspire – Finally, the coach showed them what the next step looks like, and sent them off convinced that practice would get them there. (My 7-year-old now wants to jump off of our roof, but that’s a different story altogether…)

Obviously the kids are signed up for this class again. And me? I’ll be at parents’ day, taking notes!

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This kid has been seriously inspired to practice – in every doorway he can find. Also, he wants you to see his cool parkour moves.

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Slice of Life, Day 26, March 2018

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this wonderful month of inspiration.

17 thoughts on “Parkour Pedagogy

  1. First, love the coach and his teaching methods. Second, your post mirrors the coach’s teaching. It’s a wonderful metaphor for constructing a lesson plan. Third, your kid is so cute. He reminds me of my youngest who used to jump off the roof into the trampoline. I might have to share a story about his antics.

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  2. I have over the years (I have 16 and 18-year-old boys) that I have learned so much from coaches. It is amazing to notice pedagogy when you are not expecting it. One of my guys did parkour when he was young – it is not for the faint of heart. Hang in there!
    Clare

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  3. Where have I been? This is a totally new sport to me. It looks like such great fun and exercise for kids. I love your list of disciplines we can learn from.

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  4. How fun! I wish kids could work like this in gym class! Seems very supportive and non-competitive. I also like how you broke down the elements of the coach’s instruction. What is sticking with me is the “Failure is part of the practice” portion. I think I need to use this for my math instruction. My students get so discouraged when they think they should just “understand” math without practice or problem-solving. I need to make it more acceptable to try and fail, but keep practicing. Thanks for your post.

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    1. The failure part was what finally convinced me to write about it. I talk about productive failure as an ideal, but I find it very hard to work it into my teaching practice. I blame it on the tyranny of grades, but it’s definitely something I want to work on.

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  5. A perfect slice under your blog name. Sound pedagogy is sound pedagogy, no matter the skill or subject. Ah! Interleaving. So important along with retrieval practice and spaced repetition. Love the brain research that affirms these “teaching moves.” You might like this site, this article, if you’re not already familiar with it: https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/how-memory-works

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  6. Yay! Shout-out to that coach for his apparent skill and to you for breaking down the elements of his pedagogical practice. I have also learned lots from my sons’ coaches over the years. I work in the field of PE and am especially pleased to see what you notice about how the coach’s methods lead to student success and satisfaction.

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  7. Such an interesting post! I was also really struck with failure being part of the process, a necessary and productive part of the process, and I got to thinking about how that looks in our classrooms and how that looks for ourselves. I don’t think that schools tend to be places that look at or contextualize failure in productive, healthy ways–and that’s weird, because failure is the most essential and expected part of learning.

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  8. I love this coach. I would like him to come teach a lesson in my class, please and thank you. I really want to see how the push-up consequence might work in my own classroom. Tomorrow is the first day after Spring Break, so I’m thinking it may be apropos. This post was a good reminder of all the necessary ingredients in a perfectly-crafted lesson plan. Again, good reminder for me, as I gear up for teaching chickadees again mañana. I’m so glad I don’t have kids-I’d be a nervous nelly watching all this activity! I get nervous watching my dog run around like a maniac! 🙂

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