Teaching & Learning · Techniques & Methodology

On the Bicycle Analogy, Pt. II

Teaching To Do and Teaching About

I recently wrote about what I called the Bicycle Analogy, comparing the process of learning to ride a bicycle with that of learning a language. I concluded that there is a strong parallel between the processes involved in learning to ride a bicycle and learning a language. In this article, I’ll broaden the analogy a little to encompass learning other than languages and also explore some of the implications of this comparison.

The main implication here is how such an analogy affects the structure and approaches employed by teachers in teaching and learning environments, such as schools, colleges, training centres and professional development programmes. Most notably, I suggest that teachers need to pay more consideration to the bicycle analogy and approach their teaching with this in mind.

School and After

Think about the learning experiences you have had in life. Presumably you went to school. You might well have gone to college. You most likely learned to drive. Perhaps you have a first aid certificate. You may have even taken an evening class in still life painting.

There are some significant differences between the things you probably learned at school and those things you learned after. One of the more obvious differences perhaps is that what you had more personal say in the things you learned after school; you chose them for yourself. This was probably based on the goals you had in life, specifically the ability to travel between places conveniently or the ability to assist people in need of urgent attention.

And that’s the second major difference. If you think about your learning experience at school and college and then your learning experiences afterwards, I suspect you’ll realise that the learning you did in formal establishments was typified by memorising lots of information, facts and figures about things that you didn’t really care about nor know the use for, and the learning you did later in life was much more closely related to things you were actually going to do while also involving a lot of the doing within the learning process.

This is the difference between learning something and learning about something.

Most of the learning experiences that people have no say in are examples of learning about things; learning terminology, definitions, explanations, theories, underlying rules. Formal schools are built almost exclusively on this principle, designed to give students as much information about as many things as they can possibly fit into the curriculum.

They fill the students heads with information about many things, some of them arguably important things, some of them not so much. But whatever the subject, the problem with this approach to learning is that it is all focused on learning about. Very little of the time spent in school is spent learning to do.

The Peculiar Position of Teachers

Teachers find themselves in a rather unique position, which threatens to blind them from the reality that this article is attempting to outline. It is because of this position that I encourage teachers to ask themselves an important question to lay a foundation for their teaching approach. The position that teachers are in is that they are testament to the idea that learning a mass of knowledge is useful.

This is true only of teachers. Only a science teacher makes a career of simply knowing lots of science facts. Good note taking and a broad memory of all things science are the livelihood of science teachers in a way that is not so for anybody else. A scientist, for example, does not make her career based on just knowledge of the science that has come before her; a scientist makes a career of actually doing science, making new discoveries. There is a wealth of skill and ability that she must master and implement in order to be a successful scientist.

This creates a strange cycle, whereby a student goes to school and memorises many facts about science. That student then goes on to become a science teacher, which success she attributes to all of the science she learned at school. She then goes on to teach all of those facts to her students believing that they are helpful and important; after all they helped her achieve her career goals, so why wouldn’t they help her students be successful too.

An English teacher, as a student learns lists of grammatical rules, structural patterns, definitions and explanations of how to parse certain types of sentence. She later becomes an English teacher and imparts this knowledge to her students. However, of the several hundred students she teaches each year, only a small handful will become English teachers themselves. The others, though English might be central to their careers in varying ways, will likely never again need to convert a passive sentence to an active sentence or explain the structure of a 3rd conditional sentence.

But of course, it is the those who becomes teachers who then teach the next generation of students. It is this self-perpetuating cycle that leads teachers not to question the system that produces them and that they continue to preserve because from within, it appears sound. Teachers teach rote knowledge because that is what they needed to succeed, and it never strikes them to think that their students might not all need the same.

Therefore, the question I encourage teachers to ask is, “what do you want your students to be?”

What do you want your students to be?

Asking ourselves this question allows us to completely reframe the context in which we are teaching. As soon as I realise that I don’t expect all of my students to follow in my footsteps and become teachers of my subject, I can think more practically about what I need to teach them. Of course, in reality, it is not for me to decide what my students should become, but it is for me to give them everything they will need to support their career and life decisions.

So start by thinking of all of the ways that your subject might impact on your students careers, or put another way, all of the careers that can be derived from the subject. For example, English as a subject is valuable for far more than becoming an English teacher. If you’re teaching English, you might be preparing your students to be journalists, authors, screenplay writer, linguists, copywriters, public relations rep, speechwriter, government communications officer, editor or many more.

When you think about your subject matter in the context of the jobs and careers related to it, you will very quickly realise that all of the knowledge in its rote form is not necessary relevant to a large majority of your students. In fact, the only students who would need to take on and memorise all of that language would be those who plan to go on to be teachers, linguists or maybe ELT textbook writers.

The others will instead need a complex suite of skills for applying various aspects of English language and literature to satisfy the respective professional needs.

Learning by Riding

As established in my previous piece on the bicycle analogy, the best way to learn something is by doing the thing that you want to be able to do; not by being told how to do it, not by having the theory behind the practise explained in a lecture or essay, not by practising and repeating rote actions ad nauseam in a context-free situation. Learning by doing does not just mean active learning or physical learning, the “doing” part of “learning by doing” refers specifically to the skill or practice the learner is hoping to master.

In the previous article I talked about learning to ride a bicycle and learning to drive a car. We can also think about teaching someone to catch. If you want to help a student improve her catching skills, you could show her the precise arm and hand movements involved in catching a ball, having her copy you until her movements are exactly the same and then having her practice by making the movements every time you clap your hands. Alternatively, you could just throw her a ball and then give her some pointers on her form.

Even though the former approach is physical in nature, it cannot be called “learning by doing” because the thing that the student is doing is not the thing she wants to be able to do. All she will learn in this case is how to make a catching motion on demand, but she will not develop the reflexes and the dexterity that are also needed in order to catch. After hours and hours of this practise, when her form is finally truly perfect, throw her a ball and she’ll most likely miss it.

Learning to ride a bike requires the student to actually sit on the bike, actually put his feet on the peddle and actually… ride the bike. This is learning by doing. It would not work if we suspended the student above the ground or in a swimming pool and drilled the leg movements involved in riding a bike. It can only be learned on the bike. These two examples might strike you as painfully obvious, and I hope that they do. However, teachers persist in using similarly disconnected approaches to teaching when it comes to subjects like languages, science, business studies, etc.

In each of these subjects, and effectively all subjects as far as I am concerned, students must learn by doing, if learning is to be truly effective. So ask yourself, what professional, social and academic activities that your students might want to engage in in their lives are relevant to your subject, and then do those things.

Things to Do

If you’re an English teacher, have your students spend a unit editing a newspaper and another unit writing speeches for the headteacher or the current prime minister; I won’t even go into the added skills and learning to be had while your students are researching the background for these speeches.

If you’re a science teacher, have your students look into a current real life problem, perhaps something environmental or medical for example, brainstorm solutions and then plan and conduct the relevant experiments.

If you’re a business studies teacher, have your students set up a small business, have them contact real business to ask for support or guidance rather than receiving advice just from teacher-led lectures.

If you’re a geography teacher, have your students conduct their own research into a foreign culture or environment and document their findings rather than just reading the ready-made case studies in the textbook.

If you’re a history teacher, don’t spend all your time making sure students have memorised the dates and details of long past events that have by definition become obsolete information; instead have them observe unfolding events in the present and document them applying the skills used by chroniclers and historians.

If you teach any other subject, simply start by asking yourself, what would you want your students to be when they graduate from your class, how can you envision them putting your lessons to good use, and then simply do those things. This might well mean that your new syllabus foregoes the drilling of a good number of facts and figures, dates and details that were previously considered of paramount importance. But trust me, they are not important. If you teach, for example, Maths, and you don’t believe me when I say, for example, that the quadratic equation (I think I have that right..?) is essential information, go and ask absolutely anybody else who is not a Maths teacher a) if they know what it is and b) when the last time they used it was.

Anybody for whom these things do become important can most certainly take a course or programme designed  to satisfy them, for example a course to prepare students who want to be Maths teachers. Alternatively, there is a wealth of data, statistics, facts, figures, details and dates readily accessible to your students at exactly the time they need it. For example, I have just this moment stepped away from writing this article to Google what a quadratic equation is…

Students don’t need to fill up their heads with facts and figures in the classroom. Books and the internet are perfectly sufficient resources for that. What students cannot get from a Google search, a Youtube clip nor a textbook is real experiences and contextual practice. These are the things that teachers should be giving students. If I want to understand how a bicycle works, I can look it up on Wikipedia. If I want to learn to ride a bicycle, I’m going to need to get on one. I certainly don’t need anybody to help me read a Wikipedia article, but I might quite like somebody there to help me sit on a bike and peddle without falling off.

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