Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Bicycling with my son

One of the first times my son rode his bicycle.

I went bicycling with my five year old son yesterday with his new bicycle from his Birthday. We haven’t had much of a chance to bicycle recently together, so my son hadn’t actually ridden his bicycle since the summertime. As a result, he had really forgotten a lot about what he learned over the summer about riding bicycles, and was really struggling to even get his bicycle going.

As the minutes wore on, he became more and more frustrated, although I was encouraged by his willingness to fall down and then get right back up over and over again. I did give him some advice and encouragement during this time, but since I knew he was capable of riding his bicycle, I didn’t want to be too helpful.

I realized that he had forgotten what it felt like to ride his bicycle. He was on an unfamiliar bike that was just a wee bit too large for him, and just couldn’t seem to get it together.

So I asked him to pause for a second, and get off his bicycle. I knelt, and we were face to face, and I asked him if he remembered riding his bicycle before. He said he couldn’t and his face fell a bit. I asked him if he remembered riding it down Auntie Juniper’s driveway (which is where he first learned how to ride his bicycle), and his face lit up while he nodded vigorously. I asked him to close his eyes, and imagine himself riding down Auntie Juniper’s driveway. He closed his eyes and I reminded him of how much practice he had put in, how much fun he had during the summer, and how good he had gotten at riding his bicycle. We spent about two minutes remembering together the feeling of the first time he rode a bicycle.

Right after that, he got back on his bicycle and started to ride it. He only fell down one more time while riding his bicycle, and even managed to ride it all the way around the park twice without stopping (he was pretty proud of this accomplishment). He went from unable to get his bicycle going more than a couple of feet to being as capable as he was during the summer after all of his practice.

This incident reminded me of a few things about learning:

  • What you know how to do is tied to your emotions. It is not enough to simply know things, you have to have some feelings attached to those things for them to be useful. When my son lacked confidence, he wasn’t able to ride his bicycle. When he regained his confidence, and remembered the joy he felt riding his bicycle during the summer, all of his knowledge about how to ride a bicycle came back to him.
  • Focused and contextualized practice are important in learning. You can’t really get better at riding a bicycle by talking about riding a bicycle, you have to do it. My son spent many hours riding his bicycle in order to become better at it.

    Although I see the obvious value in learning in practicing, I want to re-iterate how important it is that this practice be in a meaningful context. I often see comments on stories about mathematics education, for example, where the people talk about this or that cashier who was unable to make change without a calculator and how this points to an obviously sorry state of mathematics education. The question I want to ask in response to the often repeated story of the cashier is, when did they practice making change? They practiced arithmetic repeatedly in schools, no doubt, but how many schools have students play the part of cashiers and make change for pretend customers? How often is the skill of arithmetic practiced in context?

  • Practice should be part of a shared experience, and should have a positive emotion attached to it. If my son had learned how to ride a bicycle on his own, I wouldn’t have been able to help him remember his previous experience. If he had spent his entire time practicing in frustration or in anger during the summer, I doubt he would have remembered how to ride his bicycle yesterday.