Biking through Scaffolding

Like many parents, I taught my children to ride a bike.  I have to say, as an educator, this was probably one of the most difficult lessons I have ever tried to convey.  In my twenty years of teaching, I’ve taught students integral calculus, thermodynamics and the theory of relativity.  In comparison to these lessons, teaching my children to ride a bike was much more challenging.  Our initial bike riding lessons incorporated falls, crashes, bleeding, bandages and tears. Even though I am an experienced educator, my patience was tested at every turn.  Teaching a child to ride a bike is hard work.

The challenge, however, was not based on the cognitive difficulty of the subject matter or the physical dexterity of my daughter or son.  To be brutally honest, I place all of the blame for any learning challenges squarely on… myself.  My initial bike riding lessons were traditional ones.  I took my daughter to a small hill, positioned her appropriately and let her go.  I figured she would learn through the shear necessity and immediacy of the task.  It was sink or swim.  And she sank.  Or rather, she crashed.  And cried.  And bled.

After several days of regrouping, we attempted lesson two in bike riding.  For this lesson, I took my daughter to a level parking lot and pushed her.  Really fast.  Running behind her bike, I shouted commands like “Pedal!” and “Steer!” and “Keep your head up!”  while trying to keep her from falling.  But she fell.  And cried.  And bled.  And threatened to never speak to me again if I forced to her ride her bike again.

Frustrated and more than a little ashamed, I figured there had to be an easier way.  After a few quick Google searches, I came upon the instructional method that turned my children’s bike riding world around.   Bike New York promotes a “balance-first” approach.  In this method, the pedals of the bike are removed and children focus solely on balancing their bike by walking it around a level surface.  After mastering this task, children begin scooting and then begin to tackle other skills such as pedaling, steering and stopping.  It was a novel approach.  After the traumatic experiences I’d put my daughter through, I was willing to try anything.  I removed the pedals from my daughter’s bike and within a few hours, she was riding.  By moving slowly through different steps, she was able to master the complex task of riding her bike.  The best part?  She didn’t fall once using the “balance-first” method.  No crashes.  No tears.  No bleeding.

But this post isn’t really about the best way to learn how to ride a bike or how wonderful (or horrible) of a parent I am.  It’s about learning.  Liev Vygotsky promoted the concept of the “zone of proximal development” to describe what learners could achieve with the assistance of a more knowledgeable other.  In this concept, the knowledgeable other provides initial supports to help students learn a task.  As the learner masters this task, the supports (or scaffolds) slowly fade until the learner can tackle the task on his/her own.  The focus then shifts to a more complex task with new supports which also eventually fade.  Little by little, the learner moves through new scaffolds and new zones until s/he eventually can tackle a complete, complex task individually.

Traditional methods of teaching bike riding involve little scaffolding.  The learner attends to all of the complexity individually with little support from the more knowledgeable other.  In the “balance-first” approach, however, the whole activity is deconstructed with the learner being scaffolded through intentional, developmental stages that build appropriately to the entire activity.  While the “sink or swim” methods of teaching bike riding might be more traditional, the “balance-first” method was definitely more instructionally sound.

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