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Like Riding a Bike

What I learned about learning by teaching my daughter to ride

During the spring of this year, my not quite four-year-old daughter learned to ride a bike. The process was remarkably quick and painless. It was also training-wheel free! I absolutely love the looks of joy on her face and amazement on neighbors’ faces as a tiny human rides by them with no training wheels and no help.

It took her about a week to go from first attempts at riding the bike to riding independently. Now she flies around wherever she wants, up and down hills, and has mastered all the basics of riding a bike.

As I walk (and now run) behind her, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about her learning process and which aspects of it apply to learning in general. And thinking about this through the lens of master-based learning, I’ve had yet another reminder of how important it is to master the essentials of whatever you are trying to learn. In this piece I’ll break down her learning process and see how the lessons I’ve learned by watching her apply to my current pursuit of learning to code. Hopefully they can apply to whatever you are trying to learn as well.

Photo by Cassie Matias on Unsplash

The essentials of riding a bike

For those of us who learned to ride a bike years or decades ago, it’s easy to forget exactly how complex the task really is. We are asking our bodies to coordinate at least three distinct tasks: steering, balancing, and pedaling. For most of us, this is too much to learn all at once. We need to take some complexity out in order to focus on one or two tasks at a time. Once we are proficient with one or more of these tasks, it’s much easier to add in others.

The usual process is to use training wheels to eliminate the need to balance. The idea here is that the nascent bike-rider can focus on pedaling and steering and gradually learn to balance. Obviously, this works — it’s how most people I know learned. But, my daughter and other kids I know have learned in a different way that seems to be far quicker and easier. This tells me that training wheels are not optimal. Why? I’d argue that they take the most essential aspect of riding a bike and saves it until last.

Think about your own bike-riding experiences: There are times you can go quite a while without pedaling (going down-hill or coasting on flat ground.) There are also times where you can think minimally about steering (maybe in a wide open parking lot.) But tell me about a time where you didn’t have your balance and you’re probably telling me about a time you fell off your bike. Balance is the most essential aspect of riding a bike — yet with the most common method of learning to ride a bike it’s the last thing you learn.

Balance first

For her third birthday, we gave my daughter a “balance bike”. For those unfamiliar, a balance bike is just a small two-wheeler but it has no pedals. The idea is that the rider propels themselves by pushing forward with their feet, Flintstone-style. This takes pedaling completely out of the equation. It also allows them to slowly build up confidence in their balance by gradually lifting up their feet for longer and longer periods of time.

Photo by Jordan Sanchez on Unsplash

This approach allows the rider to master the most essential part of biking — balance — gradually and without other distractions. There is no false confidence from being caught by the training wheels. There is no big moment when the training wheels come off. The rider just gradually builds up confidence in their ability to balance until it becomes automatic. Once mastery of balance is achieved, pedaling is relatively easy.

After practicing for a year on the balance bike, my daughter saw the hand-me-down pedal bike in the garage and said “I want to try that.” Looking back at my three-year-old, I said the magic words: “I don’t think you’re ready yet.” She apparently took that as a challenge because a week or two later she was riding independently. “Dad, I don’t need you anymore!” she said as she rode off, leaving me with visions of her driving away to college.

It was an amazingly quick and largely painless transition. Other parents whose kids have gone the balance bike route have recounted similar stories. The contrast of these stories to the slower and seemingly more difficult training wheel route got me thinking about the differences between these two methods. What makes them different? Are there lessons that can be generalized to other areas, especially learning to program?

The essentials of programming

Many would-be programmers begin with tutorials designed to make quick progress on impressive-looking projects. These tutorials might use a development framework which helps abstract away much of the underlying complexity. It feels good to be moving forward and seeing progress on something “real”. But time and time again I’ve heard people tell stories about trying to modify one of those projects or start one on their own only to bump into all sorts of issues that they don’t know how to solve. They take off the training wheels and find their balance is not what they thought.

Programming is a completely different skill than riding a bike. One is physical, the other is mental. Coding is arguably far more complex than riding a bike, but I think there are valuable lessons from the balance bike versus training wheels. As a student at Launch School, I believe in a mastery-based approach, so these are the lessons I’ve taken away:

  1. Focus on the most essential skills first. In biking, balance is the most essential skill. What about programming? Beyond basic syntax, I would argue that understanding things like variable scope, mutation, how passing arguments to a function works, and mastery of basic collections (like arrays and hashes) along with common functions/methods from the standard library are the essentials to learning a programming language. I can build lots of things without the latest framework. But it is likely that I will struggle to really build anything of my own if I don’t understand the concepts above.
  2. Mastering an essential skill takes lots of practice in isolation. Understanding something and being able to do it consistently, without much conscious effort are two different things. My daughter understood right away that she needed to balance. But mastering that skill took many hours of practice. And it was best to be able to practice it gradually and without the distraction of pedaling. As I have learned to code I’ve needed lots of practice drills on isolated skills and concepts in order to really master them. Once I’ve done that I’m ready to use those skills in combination to build more complex programs. This idea of building up essential in Launch School’s mastery-based learning philosophy.
  3. Learn essential skills in such a way that allows the learner to control the pace. A child on a balance bike is in control of how much they want to test their balance skills. All they need to do is pick up their feet and then put them down again when they feel wobbly. They can progress as quickly or as slowly as they would like. We don’t always have this luxury when learning skills as adults, but thorough, self-paced learning is important for foundational skills. Mastering foundational skills means you are confident you can trust them later on. I can now debug certain problems in minutes that used to take me hours before I mastered the fundamentals. I used to look up how to do something only to encountered three more skills that I didn’t really understand. By the time I dove into each of those skills, I would feel lost and overwhelmed — like someone had suddenly taken off the training wheels. I still get overwhelmed sometimes, but I now have a much more solid foundation to build on. I also have practice learning incrementally and building up the bigger picture from each part. This has helped me tackle much more complex challenges than I previously thought possible.
  4. Seek out expert guidance. My daughter is smart, confident, and all-around awesome. (Yes, I’m biased, but still…) However, I’m fairly certain that she could never have learned to ride a bike completely on her own. Her mother and I were there to coach, give pushes, clean up scraped knees, and encourage her. Similarly, I have had guidance from various online courses and now from Launch School. There is an overwhelming amount of information out there on programming. Whatever path you might choose I think it’s good advice to start with the basics, avoid programs that give flashy promises, especially within an impressively short time-span, and try not to get distracted by each new thing that pops up. Whether your guide is a more experienced friend, a book, a stranger on the internet, or a formal school, find the best one that is available to you and try to stick with their guidance.

Whether we are riding a bike or learning to program, each of us learns differently. The specifics of what works for me or my daughter may not work for you but I think these points above are generally applicable to learning any skill to mastery. Perhaps there are more. What do you think?

If you’d like to understand more about how we learn, I highly recommend the free course Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley.

At the time of writing this I’m nearing the end of the Core curriculum at Launch School and many of my ideas about mastery-based learning have come from working through this curriculum.

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Josh Keller

Josh Keller

Father of two. Musician. Music therapist. Teacher. Aspiring software engineer.

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