let’s throw knives: an open letter

In the promotion for his class “Dangerous Done Well,” Josh, one of our Tinkering School crossover staff members, writes: “In a manufactured world of rounded corners and bubble wrap, a child will never learn the complex, empowering and ultimately life-saving process of assessing and managing risk. An 18-year-old who has only ever used a butter knife won’t understand the obvious and apparent danger present when handed a utility knife to open boxes.”

Thus the reasoning behind learning to throw knives during the afterschool classes.

Because we’re Brightworks, though, the cool stuff abounds, and Josh has led sessions of Knife Throwing Club for the past two Fridays during the school day. Lest you think this was just a decision made because of the “cool” factor, we have Josh as guest blogger promoting and legitimizing Friday knife-throwing club:

Dear Parents,

I want your kids to come throw knives. Every Friday morning for the foreseeable future, Brightworks is hosting Knife Throwing Club (KTC) in the workshop.

How It Works

First we’ve set up stringent standards of safety. We make clear to everyone where we throw and why we throw in that location: no risk to others, minimal risk to property, long enough distances to avoid ricochet. The first 20 minutes of the first day of KTC was dedicated to this decision alone. Then we set up safe throwing procedure (as specific as the exact and acceptable responses to a “ready?” call). Our procedures are clear and our students already care for them so much that two students, Evan and Sadie, were reminding other students before I could. The students help each other remember the importance of making sure – not just assuming – that all eyes are on the blade and everyone is focused.

Then, with all this in mind, we throw blocks of wood. What we are modeling here is care, safety, and appropriate escalation. Only once you can throw a wood block safely and accurately 9 times in a row do you get to throw a taped up knife. Only once you can safely (remembering procedure, doing ready calls, etc) and accurately (hitting the pink target sure and steady) throw taped knives do you move on to knives with exposed blades. From there, once you can throw and intentionally blade-stick (knife landing with the blade sticking into the target) the small knives 9 times in a row, you can throw the professional throwing knife. It is important to note that no one, including myself, is yet qualified to throw the professional knife. Any error at all along the way, you don’t move up. Any serious error along the way and in fact you move back down.

Why We Throw Knives

The goals of knife throwing club are many-fold. One is patience. It’s really hard to hit a target that is 20 feet away 9 times in a row. Some 8-year-olds have passed the test while an 11-year-old is still working on it. One is that everyone has different skill levels (see 11-year-old struggling). One is safety, and adherence to procedure (myself and other students do not let error in procedure pass without comment and rest). One is ownership of responsibility (students call out other students because no one wants to be around an irresponsible thrower with a knife).

The most important aspects, however, are the cultivation of a growth mindset (video summary and article overview) and an understanding of the benefits of deliberate practice. The objective nature of knife throwing is dramatic, powerful, and motivating. You are either hitting the target, or you are not. You are either sticking the knife, or not. You are either sticking the knife in the part of the target you are aiming for, or not. There is no wiggle room and no fuzzy edges. No need for adult or peer critique. The action is the feedback. The growth that comes with repeated attempts is obvious and measurable.

The excitement around the idea is palpable. Sure, just tossing a knife is kind of cool, but everything changed once a kid stuck the first knife in the target on a throw. It sat there, blade first in the foamcore target, while the crowd sat silent, stunned even. Everyone wanted to stick the knife. Everyone started trying harder. Then, today, Evan stuck three in a row. If he sticks 9 in a row, it will demonstrate the control needed to throw the professional knife. His hand got sweaty with nervousness. The goal was obvious, the stakes where real, and I didn’t have to say a thing. He didn’t make it. He missed 2 of the 3 next throws. But soon, he won’t miss them. He knows the only thing between him and success is genuine effort, and that knowledge means everything.

All my best,
Joshua Rothhaas
Advising Faculty to Knife Throwing Club