like riding a bicycle

One of my sons recently taught me a lesson about scaffolding. For years now, he’s been riding a bike with training wheels, but this summer we wanted him to learn to ride without them. They’re noisy and cumbersome, and they really slowed him down. So, I encouraged him to ride upright, so that he wasn’t on the training wheels. I was even planning to start raising the wheels, so that he would be less dependent on them. The idea, I guess, was that he’d eventually decide he didn’t need them.

Well, things didn’t work out that way. He kept riding on the training wheels, no matter how much I praised him whenever he wasn’t on them. At around this time, though, I saw a segment on Sesame Street that showed Scandinavian kids (much younger than my son) balancing perfectly well on bicycle-like scooters without pedals. I ran out to the garage, pulled both the training wheels and pedals off his bike, and had him sit-and-scoot up and down the street a few times over the course of a couple of days. After about maybe a total of ten minutes riding this way, I put the pedals back on, and (to my great surprise) he was immediately riding on his own.

What’s the lesson here? I think that both approaches–training wheels and removing the pedals–are kinds of scaffolding, but with very different assumptions. The idea with the training wheels was to gradually scale back the amount of support, so that my son would eventually be able to ride on his own. The thing with taking the pedals off, and then putting them back on, was different. Without the distraction of the pedals, he quickly realized that he already knew how to balance on the bike. Once he had that confidence, then riding with the pedals back on wasn’t daunting at all.

All this made me think of The Tipping Point, in which Malcolm Gladwell argues (among other things) that effectual change is often the result of a sudden and dramatic shift, as opposed to gradual changes over time. And this has me wondering about my writing courses, whether I might be employing some well-intentioned, but ultimately counter-productive forms of scaffolding with my students. If so, how do I remove the training wheels, and build on their own sense of balance?


2 thoughts on “like riding a bicycle

  1. This could be a cognitive/kinesthetic load problem too. What with the training wheels slowing him down, and his kid-bike being so heavy and cumbersome to begin with, much of his attentional and muscular effort in the training wheels situation was focused on the pedaling. Taking the pedaling out of the equation entirely enabled him to focus both his attention and his kinesis on the balancing instead. In hindsight, this makes perfect sense. He already knew how to ride a tricycle. Pedaling is the easy part. It’s the balancing that’s hard (says the adult who occasionally still crashes her bike). So the no-pedals gave him a way to isolate the part of the process that was giving him trouble. If only all complex problems could be deconstructed as easily as yanking the pedals off a bike…

  2. This is fascinating, and reminds me of an article I read recently about how Japanese preschoolchildren are given what Americans would consider extreme freedom in their outdoor play. They are encouraged to explore, expected to climb high heights, to figure out for themselves what is dangerous (without rules or an adult doing that for them), etc. And Japanese schoolchildren can all, apparently, ride unicycles (which to this American is utterly mind-blowing). There is a real connection between what we can do with our bodies–and, as we see here, what we let or guide our children to do with their bodies–and what we can accomplish with both body and mind. I’m starting to think about this in terms of teaching college writing, and what ways kinesthetic awareness can be brought to bear on that…

    [Oh, and thanks for the tip–my kid will someday have a pedal-less bike for awhile rather than training wheels!]


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