Balance Bikes vs. Training Wheels as a social commentary

I have posted before about the magic of balance bikes on this blog. Of course, I don’t recommend buying a Balance Bike. Just take the pedals off of an appropriately sized bike, and balance away. According to the “experts,” this is the best way to learn how to ride a bike.

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.

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.

Two examples:

1. I was talking to a father of a 4 or 5 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 like three using the same method. 

He gave a little speech about how that was all very well, but excuse me, no offense, but 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 popped into my head the other day for some reason, and I got to thinking that they 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 they way we’re going to keep doing it.

This attitude shows up all over the place. From the people that say, “I was spanked, and I turned out fine.” To the people that just go to school without any thought about it, because everyone else goes to school.

This attitude 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- avoid the hot stove, to- add, subtract, and multiply); we’ll continue to do it this way, because that’s the way we’ve always done it. 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 their 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” a kid how to ride a bike, but you can also take the pedals off and let them learn on their own.





3 thoughts on “Balance Bikes vs. Training Wheels as a social commentary

  1. Excellent post Cheryl. I’ve encountered the first attitude many times with regard to TV as a means of learning. “*I* have learned so much from TV, and *I* can still write, think logically, maintain attention on subject matter, etc.”

    On the second attitude, it’s interesting how language leads us to this conclusion. The word “student” is almost defined more by his relationship to the institution of school and teacher than to the subject matter. A girl reading surreptitiously under her desk is not a “student” who is learning–they are a deviant who must be reprimanded.

    • I like your second note, Dave. I’ve seen students get reprimanded for going nuts on really interesting research projects because they weren’t doing the assigned material or leaving “enough time” there for. Yikes.

  2. Interesting post about the bikes. It’s getting me thinking. We have been using all methods of learning to ride a bike. Our son is 3 and loves the pedalling aspect but at the speed he goes we can’t run along with him without the training wheels. He also loves the balance bike, but feels it’s a diffferent thing, and fortunately for our wallet we have an amazing group of neighbours and kids all around the same age and everyones shares. We recently found and free bike that fits him and we are keen to help him ride without the training wheels as he is very interested in being able to do so…..the idea of removing the pedals for him is amazing though. I’ll be out tomorrow doing that for him.

    Like you we are all about letting him do and experience as he sees fit. He runs around mowing the back lawn with our push mower all by himself and regularly prunes out flowers and shrubs with the pruning snips. My neighbours/relatives find this disturbing, however I feel if he is taught the safety aspect properly from a young age with proper supervision he will learn not to harm himself and learn to do things as they are in reality. I’m happy to hear it’s been going well thus far for you!

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