Bikes, Balance & Gravity

“Look at him go! I think he’s got the hang of it!”

“Hmm, maybe not quite yet.”

It was the umpteenth time my son had fallen that day learning to ride his bike, but it looked like the frustration was getting to him at this point as I watched him get up and give his bike a good swift kick. I walked over to give him some words of encouragement. He stood there indignantly, hands balled up in little fists, and exclaimed: “I hate gravity!”

Every parent who has ever taught their child to ride a bike will understand my story and the challenges of teaching your child to ride a bike. How exactly do you teach coordination? What about balance? How do you even explain it well to a five-year-old?

I was recently reminded of this bike riding incident whilst reading Empower by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani. It made me consider all the things that you can’t really teach that are involved in riding a bike – coordination, multi-tasking, balance. That’s why we very often start with training wheels. In teaching, we would call that scaffolding – give supports to allow students to learn a few parts required on a task, then gradually remove the supports until they can do the whole process on their own.

When riding a bike the training wheels allow you to focus on pedaling, your momentum; and steering, your focus and where you’re going. When we get good at those things we remove the training wheels. That’s when we learn balance. Balance brings it all together. Without balance you don’t get far because gravity takes over.

I’m excited to implement strategies to empower my students, and I will use training wheels at first – for me and my students. A few months ago I did a blogging project with my grade 11 students. We were reading Frankenstein and I wanted them to blog at least three times as they read the book. I gave mini-lessons about using the blogging site, effective blogging, and citations and copyright. We discussed how they could write about anything they wanted as we read. I also gave a list of ideas to help them get started. As they read and posted, I gave them feedback for improvement, but no marks. At the very end of the process, students showed great improvement in all areas of their blog posts – the quality of the content, the depth of their critical thinking, and the effectiveness of their presentation of the material. What surprised me most was how many students struggled with the freedom of writing anything they wanted. I was glad I had included some starting ideas, and even then there were a few students who had a lot of difficulties and required more guidance. A.J. Juliani states that many students are “blinded by choice at first” (Spencer & Juliani 40). In his book Pure Genius, Don Wettrick pointed out that 80% of his students imploded when given 20% Time citing that “freedom is hard” (Wettrick 20). Training wheels are important to provide when starting students on the road to independence.

Having the students do multiple posts was important for the process as well because it allowed students to develop their momentum and focus. The students’ first posts were usually bare bones in terms of blogging effectiveness. There were no links or tags, and pictures and other media might have been included but didn’t always support the post effectively. They were just starting to pedal and needed to build momentum, but they also needed to hone their steering techniques. Many started with focusing only on content but then were able to broaden their focus as they moved forward. By the third post, they had pedaling and steering down pat and had developed the balance they lacked at the beginning of the project. They no longer needed the support I had in place and were able to ride on their own. In reflections from the students at the end of the semester, I am consistently told how much they enjoy the blogging project. They appreciated taking on something new and loved the freedom and creativity it allowed them – even the students who at first found that freedom difficult.

Spencer and Juliani pointed out that students need to be able to “learn, unlearn, and relearn” because we live in a world where this process is the reality and they need to be able to “get new information and analyze it, apply it, and use it to create or evaluate” (Spencer & Juliani 19). Applying their critical thinking skills in a new way, adjusting their writing processes in a new situation, and evaluating their work for effectiveness on a new platform reflect this process.

Even the teacher needs to utilize training wheels. I know when I’m not in balance. Sometimes I tend to do all the steering. I don’t let the students take the wheel and have a hard time letting go of that control. Part of my learning process has been not only to loosen up and relinquish control, but also to recognize when to do so. Sometimes I’m on a roll and the momentum is amazing! Unfortunately, for me, that tends to mean the focus can suffer and students become confused. I have learned to reflect often and ask my students for feedback. They are always helpful with their observations and suggestions and appreciate that we are trying new things and learning together. Frequent feedback and self-reflection have helped me develop and improve. No more training wheels needed – till the next time my students and I embark on a new adventure riding our learning bikes!

Spencer, John & Juliani, A.J. Empower. IMpress, 2017.

Wettrick, Don. Pure Genius. San Diego: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. 2014.

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