Training Wheels

Last week, a heavy-handed knock on the door of our new house startled me. It was the kind of knock that signified both power and anger. It seemed strange – I didn’t think we had pissed anyone off yet in our new neighborhood. A second, louder knock alerted me that the person at the door meant business.

Upon opening the door, I had to take a moment to process. A tiny girl – no older than 5 – dressed in all pink and wearing a helmet said “CAN I GET ON YOUR SWING?” She lived two doors down and had ridden her three-wheeled-scooter over to meet the new neighbors. “Sure!” I said, starting to ask her name and where she had come from. The porch swing she wanted to get on was just above waist-height, so she interrupted me to ask for help getting on. It was such a cute little request that I almost shattered the core of my pedagogical foundations by helping her. But I caught myself.

“I believe you can do it on your own with some more effort and tries,” I told her. She grabbed the swing, threw a leg up on it, and began to climb on top; it was an ungraceful move and the swing almost sent her over backwards, but she was on top no less than 20 seconds later. She asked me for a push. This I also refused: “I believe you can get yourself going.”

My wife came outside to see what was happening. “Can you give me a push?” the girl asked her. “Do you know how to push yourself on a swing?” Danielle asked, “Move your legs back and forth and feel your body generate momentum.” God bless my wife. As expected, the girl was up and swinging on her own within a minute of experimenting with different leg and body movements.

At this point, the girl’s dad walked up to the porch and introduced himself to us – a nice guy who seemed like he was interested in the outdoors and teaching his kid to explore them, even if just by starting that exploration via three-wheeler scooter around the neighborhood. “Daddy, I need a push!” the girl said. He immediately pushed her in what seemed to be a zombie-like reflex, never taking his eyes off us or breaking conversation. She yelled louder for a bigger push. He obliged. She then asked him to stop the swing and help her off it. He did just that. She ran down the stairs, came back up, and asked for help back on the swing, even though she had just done it by herself minutes ago! He obliged.

The whole interaction – mundane and ordinary when seen without pedagogical lenses – left me stunned. You see, I teach that same girl in my 12th grade class – I just hadn’t recognized her younger features at first. I actually teach her in my 11th grade section, too! 9th and 10th for that matter, as well. She is great in so many ways – positive, hard-working, and kind, the result of loving parenting. However, in 9th grade, she also will not complete a trigonometry practice problem without calling me to her table and having me watch every step, asking “right?” for each procedure. In 10th grade, she has an amazing experience lined up in her internship class, but I’m not sure if she planned any of it. In 11th, she thinks SAT Study sessions need to be assigned to her or scheduled for her, and in 12th she can’t figure out why college applications are done independently of classwork. She also asked me to write her recommendation 3 days before it was due to the college. I recognize that I teach in an alternative school, and as a result, I have both the autonomy and time with students to have very high expectations for them in terms of ownership of their work, regulations of their schedules, and self-reliance. However, I’ve been struggling to figure out why, after three years of my constant badgering and consistent expectations, this particular student (who actually makes up 60% of the students I teach, males and females) is still lapsing in her development of responsibility. The answer is at the very least partially because of the training wheels on her scooter. And the ones on her bike. And her dad’s helping hand, doing for her things that she could do perfectly well on her own.

The purpose of training wheels, as you well know, is to help children (or adults) learn how to ride a bicycle. In educational terms, they are scaffolding – ironically they are much closer to the term’s physical reality than are most metaphorical educational scaffolds. Properly used, they provide a physical structure that will allow the user to ride on two wheels in a straight line, yet touch the ground and support the weight of the user should the bike lean too far in one direction.

The reality of what training wheels do is allow a user to have an experience by lowering or eliminating the inherent risk involved in that experience. The reality of how they do that in modern society is by being low enough to the ground that the learner can always be leaning on one (or even sometimes both) of the wheels. “Eventually, the child will become heavy enough to bend the training wheel struts upward, making the bike suitably tippy,” wrote bicycle information legend Sheldon Brown, “then they will finally learn to balance.” Though a great idea, you can infer (and already knew) that training wheels, as used today, don’t work.

Importantly, training wheels were never intended to be permanent. This has the impact of creating a metaphorical fork in the road for most kids learning to ride a bike: after using training wheels for a while, kids recognize that they want to feel ‘grown-up’ enough to ride without them and they either 1) just freakin’ learn or 2) give up and never learn. I can speak to this personally – I spent 3 years on training wheels. One weekend, I went over to my best friend Preston’s house and saw that he no longer had training wheels on his bike. Though my dad had tried to take my training wheels off several times and failed, when I saw Preston ride down the street and back, I got jealous, borrowed his bike, and rode off. I was 5. Another friend of mine, Daniel, decided he would just never learn to ride a bike. His parents were OK with that – I remember trying to teach him one day in 9th grade when he wanted to hang out with my group of friends who were constructing a mountain bike jump in the woods behind our neighborhood. He ran into a parked car on the street and hasn’t tried since.

The fact of the matter is, kids like to learn. I will go so far as to say they crave it – it’s written in our DNA. Luckily, riding a bike is typically an experience that kids have before society (somewhere along the line) tells them learning isn’t cool. So it seemed to me that the vast majority of kids out there, at least when I was growing up, chose the ‘just freakin’ learn’ path. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem that way to me anymore – 40% of the 4th grade class at my current school cannot ride a bike. That fact is of course not valid as a ‘statistic’ representative of our country or even state by any means, so don’t get my purpose here wrong. The point is not so much to say that kids have stopped learning how to ride bikes as it is to say that training wheels are ubiquitous in our society, and most of them are not attached to bikes. They are the helping hand of a father doing tasks for his daughter that she could do perfectly well herself; they are the teacher who allows assignments to be turned in late with no penalty; they are the YouTube videos of people playing the video game that kids watch to know how to beat the same game at their house; they are the myriad ways that our society is intolerant to allowing adolescents to experience authentic failure.

The most pernicious aspect of ‘the training wheels of character,’ as we might call them, is that there is often no desire from the learner to have them removed, as happens with training wheels on bikes. There is also no moment at which parents decide it’s been long enough and take the wheels off. The weight at which the metal bends and forces the learner to actually learn is known as college, which has become almost a given rather than a choice for any kid in middle-class America. Of course, the most recent statistics regarding graduation rates for bachelor’s degrees show that 59% of students graduate within 6 years – leaving 41% of students with debts to pay and no degree to show for it.

Thus, training wheels of character serve the same purpose as real training wheels, but have different dynamics that are worth exploring if we have stakes in our country’s educational system. The trends that we will explore fall into two categories: next week we will tackle the dynamics of removing training wheels as well as the viability of proposed solutions like the P-16 movement, and the week after we will take on the impacts of training wheels on educational tool of risk.

Brown, Sheldon. (2008). Teaching Kids to Ride. Accessed 12/7/2017 from
National Center for Education Statistics. (Last Updated 2017). The Condition of Education: Undergraduate Retention and Graduation Rates. Accessed 12/7/2017 from

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