Training Wheels

Last week my four year old daughter Maeve approached me about putting pedals on her run bike.  For those of you unfamiliar with run bikes, they are little bikes missing pedals that toddlers can push with their legs and learn to balance on.  When they get good, they can almost run on them.  Maeve had become a little pro on her run bike, and wanted to graduate to the real “big-girl” bike.

So I found my older daughter’s first real bike, inflated the tires and considered whether to put the training wheels back on.  Marianna had ridden it with training wheels for about a year or so before being cajoled into taking them off.   If she could have put them back on herself she would have, as it took her a good few weeks- not to mention a bunch of “agony of defeat” crashes- to finally get the hang of riding a bike.  She had learned to rely on the training wheels.

So I braced myself for Maeve’s inevitable wipeouts.  Tightening up her little bike helmet I hoped for the best.  Seemingly oblivious to the impending danger, she got on the bike and I began to push.  I ran alongside her as she began to pedal, and then slowly let go.  I had the band-aids as well as my “honey you have to get back on the bike” motivational speech in the ready as I watched her shakily ride a bike for the first time.  My draw dropped, as she pedaled away as if she was an old pro.

Standing there stunned, all I could think of was how wrong we do school.

Lets assume that high school is meant to prepare students to do something well in the real world, like think critically, solve larger social or environmental problems and be productive and engaged citizens.  So how do schools often do this?  By putting training wheels on students.     Many schools operate under the paradigm of a factory, that students will assembled by installing skills and competencies in then in a broken down and sequential order.  The problem is that this approach can  atrophy the very skills and competencies that students will actually need to succeed in the real world.  Far too many students learn to do well in school at the expense of doing well afterwards.  They become really good at riding a bike with training wheels oblivious to the fact that they are not learning the most important skill for riding a bike- balance.

My point here is that if schools are really serious about preparing students to succeed after they leave, then the schools might want to better simulate  the actual skills and competencies that students will need- such as being able to problem solve, take initiative, think critically, and so on- to achieve their goals and change the world.  High school should be like a run bike than a bike with training wheels,  a place where students can learn the actual skills that will help them succeed after school.  It is also a place where they should be able to make good mistakes–ones that they can recover and more importantly learn from.  School should be a place where students do not get a false sense of success from doing artificial activities that can negatively prepare them for success at the next level, such as riding a bike with training wheels.

At the Workshop there are no training wheels. Students  take on meaningful real world problems, and the teachers help them run with them.  Learning occurs in and through doing authentic work that builds the intellectual muscles necessary to creatively solve ill structured problems. It is about learning how to balance between the known and unknown, all the while moving forward.