About learning: It’s like riding a bike, but first you have to learn

I am trying to teach my five-year-old, Juliet, how to ride a bicycle.  I know the way to teach a kid to ride a bike, the right way to do it. You seat them on the bike, you get them going, then give them a big push and let go. I’ve done research and found this to be the best way and I’ve successfully used it to teach four of Juliet’s siblings to ride.




But with Juliet I made a mistake that many parents make when they teach their kids; I tried to push her too fast, too soon. The problem is, my daughter is different than my other kids.  Of course, they’re all different.  She took a couple of falls and now she doesn’t want to get back on that bicycle. . She has said this, “Daddy, I don’t want to do it, I’m scared.”  I try to reason with her but she just reasons right back at me, “You don’t understand, why would I do it if I’m scared?  There’s no reason to try to like things that are scary.  It doesn’t make sense.”


And we go back-and-forth… but I still haven’t gotten her back on the two wheeler. This is a problem for me because, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a genuine passion for bicycles and bicycle riding.  The bicycle is my favorite thing.  I’ve written about it on this blog several times.


I made the mistake that we make sometimes as teachers; I forgot how difficult it might be for someone to learn the thing that I’m most passionate about. As an English teacher I did this too. I took for granted that my students knew how to do things that for me had become second nature.  I love to read. I’ve been reading for a long time. In fact I have a Master of Arts in English literature. I’m so passionate about reading and writing that I forget how difficult it was for me to learn to do these things when I was a child myself.  I would assume that my students could do things that I hadn’t prepared them to do.


There’s an expression, it’s like learning to ride a bike, once you can do it, you never forget how. This is true about many things in our lives, not just bike riding.  Cooking an egg, sinking a lay-up, writing in cursive… are all skills that we remember how to do long after we’ve learned how.  What gets lost in this idiom however is the fact that we once didn’t know how to ride a bike, we had to learn.  Cycling involves a complex series of minute adjustments and corrections:  slight right, slight left, left, right, slight right again, turn right, turn right again, left again and again… you can’t even explain it in words.   Once we know how to do it, we don’t even notice what we’re doing while we’re pedaling forward. If we have to think about it, we’re not going to be able to ride the bike. There is a well-known experiment  in which a welder altered the geometry of a bicycle’s steering in such a way that turning right made the bike go left and vice versa, nobody was able to ride the thing.   The algorithm to riding a bike is extremely complicated.


This has implications for teachers:


  • We need to be prepared for the fact that students are not going to learn the first time out what it is they’ve been taught. For every lesson, teachers need to ask, “What are the common misconceptions in this concept?   Where are students going to encounter confusion?  What are the potential challenges?” And the teacher must prepare for these obstacles.


  • Teaching is not telling. I can talk to Juliet all I want about cycling, but if I don’t find a way to get her back on the bike to try it again, she’s not going to learn.  We learn by doing things.  The teacher’s job is to CAUSE learning by creating conditions and activities through which this will occur.


  • We need to communicate to students that they empathize with them and that they are attuned to their learning difficulties. It’s you and me against the curriculum. I’m going to do everything I can in my power to make it easier for you, to make it accessible to you.


  • All kids are different.  They all learn differently and demonstrate their learning in diverse ways.  Just as each of my own five kids is unique, each of the 25 kids in front of us in class is an individual with their own readiness levels and ways of learning.  We must constantly examine our impact and adjust our teaching according to the needs of our students.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to get Juliet back on that bicycle but my passion is going to feed my persistence to get her to try again.  Riding a bike is just too awesome for us to give up!




About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
This entry was posted in Best Practice, Reflections, Teaching/Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to About learning: It’s like riding a bike, but first you have to learn

  1. luckylife1818@yahoo.com says:

    You touched my heart…thank you.

    Happy beyond that Samantha is with you and the team you inspire!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Brother, I love the way you write. So much wisdom, and it feels like a conversation with you. My only complaint is…that you don’t blog every single day. Maybe it’s the adorable Juliet that’s swaying my opinion, but this may be your best one yet.

    ~ D

  3. Great metaphor for learning. If I could add, the retooled bicycle is what learning disabled students feel liking in classroom. So, differentiation should look different for them than the typical learner. Thanks for sharing. – JC

  4. Great metaphor for learning. If I could add, the retooled bicycle that no one could ride is how a learning disabled student can feel in the classroom. So, differentiation should come from that unique perspective for these learners. Thanks for sharing, – JC

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