One of the highlights of my summer was watching my son Graham learn how to ride a bike. He’s only 3 years old- so I was blown away when he took off without training wheels on the 3rd day of riding. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ride a two-wheeler until I was like ten, and that was after many, many knee-skinning spills! How did Graham do it? His secret is using a balance bike and avoiding the pitfalls of “training wheel teaching”, which is a metaphor that I think will serve me well in my own classroom.
Last summer when we were shopping around for a tricycle for Graham, a friend recommended buying a balance bike instead (a bike with only two wheels, but no pedals). They claimed the balance bikes help kids to learn how to balance so well that their own child skipped training wheels and went right to a two-wheeler when they were older. I was intrigued, but a little skeptical: training wheels have been around since the early 1900s helping generation after generation learn how to ride a bike- was there really a better way? The more I looked into it though, the more excitement I found about the benefits of the new balance bike design, and so we bought it (literally and figuratively!).
For the next year, Graham loved riding on his balance bike. At first he was basically walking around with a bike between his legs, but pretty soon he figured out that he could pick up his feet and start to glide around. When he discovered that he could roll down small hills and “balance” with his feet outstretched he was smitten, and he would do this over and and over again with glee. I was impressed- he was certainly learning how to balance.
Then this summer we put him on his first real bike, without any training wheels. He had never pedaled before, so that became a huge distraction and his sense of balance seemed to go out the window. After two days of this he could pedal the bike forward, but only at the cost of my aching back as I had to jog behind him with my hands on his sides to prevent disaster. The few times I tried pulling my hands away he would shout “Don’t let go!” until I came back. He was leaning hard against me the whole time and I was wondering how long my back would last before the training wheels would need to be re-attached…
But on day 3 it happened. His bike picked up speed on a gradual downhill, his weight came off my hands as the bike straightened, and I let go. Graham biked down the hill on his own, until he came to a gliding stop and I had to rush back in to catch his fall. From then on it was “No holding dad!”. His balance came back and he was riding all on his own. Now I’m convinced: balance bikes really are a better way to learn, and they should make training wheels completely obsolete.
What about in my own classroom? Do I teach science with training wheels or a balance bike? The concept of “scaffolding” instruction is a classic one in education that teachers all use- breaking down complex skills into small, discrete steps and aiding students to take those steps until they have enough practice that the scaffolding can be removed and the students can do the complex skill independently. But how can you tell if your scaffolded teaching is a training wheel or a balance bike?
Balance bikes teach the skill that’s the most critical and difficult to learn for biking: the balancing. It takes a lot of practice to develop an intuitive feel for balancing, and training wheels don’t teach this skill because they take the opportunity for falling away. In effect, training wheels only teach you the lesser skills of biking: pedaling, braking, steering. Most of us can probably remember the terror of the training wheels being taken away and the sudden realization that you don’t really know how to ride a bike after all. Without the critical skill of balancing, none of the other sub-skills are very useful (except maybe braking to avoid hitting that tree!). Whereas after being on a balance bike, it only took my son a few days to pick up the easier sub-skills, and without any traumatic experiences either.
This year, whenever I’m scaffolding instruction, I will be careful to make sure my scaffolding is a balance bike, not a training wheel. I need to identify the critical skills and assist students in practicing those first to develop fluency, and not get bogged down in sub-skills that they can pick up later.
Here’s an example: our first unit of the year in 6th grade science is an introduction to science inquiry- basically learning how scientists do science. The over-arching learning goal is how to design and conduct a controlled experiment, so there’s a lot of different skills involved: asking a scientific question, making a testable hypothesis, identifying and controlling variables, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions and asking new questions. In the past I have treated these skills fairly equally with a series of scaffolded activities designed to teach individual skills, leading up to an independently designed and conducted experiment. The results have always been very mixed, which I chalked up to 6th graders simply needing more practice. But what if there was a better “balance bike” way to learn?
Some of the science inquiry skills are more easily picked up than others, and some are more critical to creating a decent scientific experiment. If you value substance over surface, I think you would agree that the most critical skill is controlling variables to ensure that the experiment’s results are valid and reliable. Who cares about how detailed a procedure is or how neatly graphed the data is if the experiment is off the mark or the data is junk? In my opinion, being able to identify and control the variables in an experiment is the most important science inquiry skill, and the one that students struggle with the most.
So instead of my typical series of training wheel teaching activities for science inquiry, I’m going to try to address the critical skill first and foremost like a balance bike does. The first few experiments we do will all focus on the variables: Are we collecting the right data to answer our question (validity)? Are we collecting accurate data (reliability)? To explore this deeply I’m thinking of having teams design their own simple experiments and then assess each other’s to make sure it’s valid and reliable. Only after students have a good sense of variables will we move on to the sub-skills of writing a reproducible procedure, collecting and graphing data, and drawing a well thought-out conclusion. I look forward to seeing how well this new “balanced” approach works!