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No Need for Training Wheels

No Need for Training Wheels

Written by
Cheryl Bier

Cheryl is a single mother making natural wooden toys for a living in order to stay home and unschool her eight-year-old son. She blogs at www.mamamadethem.wordpress.com; find her toys at www.mamamadethem.etsy.com.

I remember trying to ride my bike with training wheels. I wobbled all over the place. I hated them. So I went into the barn, found the appropriate wrenches, and removed them for good. Then I learned how to ride a bike.

When it was time for my son Caleb to learn, I took the advice of a friend and bought him a little tiny bike at the thrift store for five dollars and removed the pedals. After about two weeks of balancing, we put the pedals back on, and after a couple of tries he was whizzing around the neighborhood. I was ecstatic. I wanted to tell the world.

The “experts” on beginning bike riding are agreed that balance bikes are the best way to learn how to ride.

The funny thing I’ve noticed though, in my zeal for evangelizing about balance bikes, is that there is some amount of hostility against the idea.

Here are two examples:

1. I was talking to a father of a four- or five-year-old about kids learning how to ride bikes, and I mentioned how amazingly fast Caleb picked up the skill when he used the bike without pedals. And I may have mentioned my friend’s kids who were riding when they were three and four using the same method.

Sure you can “teach” a kid how to ride a bike, but you can also take the pedals off and let him learn on his own.
He gave a little speech about how that was all very well, but “excuse me, no offense,” he had learned to ride a bike with training wheels, and well, that was good enough for him. I let it go.

2. I passed the little bike that Caleb learned on to a friend who was saying her son really wanted a bike. I told her about taking the pedals off for Caleb and how well it worked. The kid hopped on the bike right away and was trying to push it around the playground with his feet, but the pedals were in the way. I tried to take them off right then, but they were too tight.

Another day when I saw her, I asked her if she’d taken the pedals off for him. She said no, that they were going to buy training wheels for him. Her husband said he wanted to teach his son how to ride a bike. (Meaning, I suppose, that if he learned by balancing, the father wouldn’t be “teaching” him.)

These conversations correspond perfectly with two attitudes about education.

Attitude One: That’s the way we’ve always done it. That’s the way I did it, and that’s the way we’re going to keep doing it.
This attitude shows up everywhere, from the people who say, “I was spanked, and I turned out fine,” to the people who just go to school without any thought about it, because everyone else goes to school.

The idea is flawed for so many reasons. Just because people have been beating their children for thousands of years, doesn’t mean that beating (spanking) is the best way for someone to learn something. In fact research shows that it promotes violence in a society, rather than promoting well-adjusted adults. But this attitude is not interested in the research, because it doesn’t fit with their prior experience of the world.

It doesn’t matter how much faster and less painfully a lesson can be learned (from avoiding the hot stove, to adding, subtracting, and multiplying); we’ll continue to do it this way, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

You can put training wheels on a kid’s bike and on her education. But training wheels do nothing but stretch out the time it takes to learn the skill, both in riding bikes and in life. And if training wheels (and teachers) do something else, it’s that they teach the trainee that he needs them, that he can’t ride without them.
Schools are classic examples. Alternative methods of education consistently show better results than conventional schooling, but for some reason they are never adopted by the public school system. (See Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto for more reasons why the school system is resistant to reform.)

Attitude Two: You can’t learn it, if I don’t teach it to you.

There are two manifestations of this attitude. One actively prevents the student from learning things that the teacher doesn’t want him to learn. “You are only allowed to learn this if I am the one teaching it to you.” The other says that the student is incapable of learning without the teacher.

As much as I enjoy aspects of Waldorf education, I disagree with their idea (or Steiner’s idea) that certain things should not be learned before certain ages. Strict Waldorf followers will discourage a four-year-old from trying to learn how to read, because it’s not time yet. They are also big on the idea that the knowledge flows from the teacher, and the students are receptacles, not active participants.

And of course, just think of all the things you aren’t allowed to learn in regular schools. You have to come to the “right” conclusions about subject matter, not your own conclusions, or the conclusion of other books that you have read that opened your eyes about the real reasons for the civil war or Lincoln’s real attitude toward blacks. Not to mention his attitude toward dissidents (he threw them in jail). You have to come to the conclusion that Lincoln was a hero. He “saved” the Union. The Civil War was right and necessary.

If you go to a Christian school, you have to give the Christian answers to pass the test. You aren’t allowed to learn about evolution or atheism.

And of course you aren’t allowed to jump ahead in your learning in conventional schools; that is strongly discouraged. You learn what the teacher tells you to learn, when she tells you to learn it, how she tells you to learn it.

The attitude that students can’t learn without the teacher is what stops many people from unschooling. Students need to be taught. Either they can’t or they won’t go out and learn these things for themselves. The teacher, in this attitude, has an inflated sense of her own importance. And the student, as much as he buys into this idea, has a diminished opinion of the power he has to learn on his own.

You can put training wheels on a kid’s bike and on her education. But training wheels do nothing but stretch out the time it takes to learn the skill, both in riding bikes and in life. And if training wheels (and teachers) do something else, it’s that they teach the trainee that he needs them, that he can’t ride without them.

Sure you can “teach” kids how to ride bikes, but you can also take the pedals off and let them learn on their own.

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