Hands off education

30 Apr

At the 56a bikespace we’re all about DIY – teaching you to work on your bike. So it’s no surprise that we try our best at the ‘hands-off’ approach to mechanics. One of our ex-mechanics, Tom Martin, has taken this idea to a new level during his work with ‘at-risk’ youth by introducing analytical thinking to the process of fixing one’s bike.

Tom created a program at the London Bike Kitchen called Youth Mechanics, which took a new spin on education: “Take all of the traditional subjects you learned at school, and ask what intrinsic educational value they hold. Why do we study science, for example? Of course the state realizes the need to produce citizens who know how to read a thermometer or safely defrost a chicken breast. But even the most elementary science courses go into great detail on subjects that probably won’t ever be of practical use unless the student actually goes on to be a professional scientist. One reason we spend so much time absorbing seemingly irrelevant information is that science, as an academic subject, is one medium for teaching certain high-level thinking skills. Even if you never need to figure out an element’s atomic weight outside of the classroom, you’ve learned a method of deciphering information and coming to useful conclusions. As shorthand, let’s call this ‘analytical thinking.’”

For some further food for thought on relationships of power, analytic thinking, and how it relates to bicycles (amongst other things), here’s some notes from the Youth Mechanics program, which also appeared on the Collective Development Blog. Italics are added.


Cat and Mouse: Notes from a youth alternative education program

What follows below are notes from a May 1 workshop on bicycle mechanics. The purpose of the course is teaching analytic thinking strategies through handskills. This was week eight of a ten-week program.

The students are getting very comfortable in the workshop, so much so that they seem to feel that they no longer need to heed my instruction (at least when my instructions are organizational, eg, ‘stop talking and work on your bike’). I’m uncomfortable with what an authoritarian this makes me. I’ve been reading Paulo Freire again, and I would prefer to be teaching ‘with them,’ but it seems that their teenage attitude to the class is still to push me to my limit, thereby testing their own abilities in challenging my authority. The boys are the most obvious case, but [a female student] also participates in this resistance, mostly by avoiding work. She sometimes feigns illness or ‘lightheadedness’.

I’m not sure how to teach ‘with’ them because it’s hard to convince them of the necessity of the course. I think they are only half-way sold on the idea that the course actually has to do with analytic thought processes. They probably don’t see the value in that, either, as frankly I’m not sure I would if I were them. They are in this program because the state understands them as NEETs [Not in Education, Employment or Training] and apparently they won’t have particularly improved job prospects after this (or so the students say). Analytical thinking is probably lower on the list than, say, CV building or job skills.

This is an important problem, and one Freire would have my head for: How can I imagine these individuals as lacking in analytical thinking skills, never mind connect this lack to their ‘success’ in society, without their explicit agreement? What authority or expertise do I have to teach them? Some, surely, for the though I’ve put into it; but this is the problem with experiential instruction. If you want to respect different kinds of knowing, you have to start with the idea that these kids already know a lot; we all learn from our varied experience. But, then, how is my unique knowing preferable to theirs?

Furthermore, if I do come up with reasons to believe that they are somehow deficient in their analytical thinking process, how can I justify teaching them if they don’t see the value in it? At the moment, they enjoy the process of fooling around in a workshop (as do I). [One student] even said that he’s glad he joined [the program that brings them to the workshop] because he gets to come to [the bicycle mechanic program]. Just to be clear, this is 4 hours a week, of their 24 required hours, and 10 weeks of their required 24. It’s encouraging to hear that [the bicycle workshop] makes it all worth it, but it saddens me to think how awful the rest of the program must be. Anyhow, I’m concerned that they are only enjoying [the bicycle mechanic program] as a break and a social outing, and don’t realize the value of what I’m trying to achieve. I suppose this can be said for much education when young people are involved, but it’s still an uncomfortable attitude to hold. I would be excited to come up with a strategy that actually involves their input to the curriculum. I think this would also improve their attitude towards the program. I try to be as much of a peer as I can, but one can only do so much.


Looking at these notes a few days later, I’m struck by how I have ended up employing the same tactics that I designed this program to deconstruct. The bicycle mechanic program I facilitate was meant to inspire resistance to traditional forms of education, especially hierarchical, linear instruction. In a sentence, the idea was that the greater purpose of state- led institutionalized education is to reproduce social distinctions, rather than foster real thinking skills. Something totally outside of traditional education practice – like this handskills-in-intellect workshop – should challenge this model and prove how thinking and learning can have very different shapes from what we experience in the classroom.

I see in my notes, however, that I use the term ‘resistance’ to describe how the students are reacting to my teaching. Obviously, this divide is unintended. I had hoped to teach with the students, to resist together problematic social reproduction in education; what I see happening, to some extent, is a copy-cat scenario in which, instead, I become just another classroom instructor whose authority demands undermining. The frustrating part is that I totally agree with that attitude; authority for authority’s sake requires resistance, pure and simple.

The challenge left is to get the students on my side, so that future classes can go through the program learning with, rather than from, me. I see two major barriers here: First, I will need to overcome not only the student’s own conditioning and expectations, but mine as well. All of us have come up in a classroom environment, so this is deep-seated learned behavior. More importantly, though, I will have to convince the students that what I am teaching is worthwhile. This is a particularly daunting challenge, because the students and I do not have a shared worldview here; they lack the specific language and theory base that I have constructed the program around, and I lack the lived experience of being in their position, knowing what they know and wanting what they want.

I’ll leave this off with a question: Is it any less presumptuous of me to have designed an ‘alternative’ curriculum, if it still imagines them as having yet to discover the skills they need to live full lives as inspired, creative thinkers? How do I combine what I know with what they know, so that we can go through this process together, and not fall into the same old cat-and-mouse games?




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