Taking off the Stabilisers

Wobbling our way to Independence

This is a guest post from Zoe Enser (@GreeboRunner) Director of CPD and Improvement at Seahaven Academy.

Let me take you back to the summer of 1970 something. It was my seventh summer and, much to my parent’s growing frustration, I was still inexplicably unable to ride my bike without stabilisers. They had tried everything: lifting the training wheels up or removing one stabiliser to encourage me to balance more by myself, telling me to watch someone do it, firmly instructing me to try harder and moaning at me every time they saw me wobbling away on my little purple shopper. They even tried a complicated mechanism whereby I had to try cycling between two fixed planks to keep my wheel upright and I won’t even go into the story of the ‘well let’s just see what happens if we push her down a hill’ day.

I’m not writing this to paint a picture of my parents as monsters, they weren’t, and I can understand their frustration; my older brother had achieved this with seemingly little effort. They themselves could barely remember the moment they leapt from two legs to two wheels. I, it would appear, was stuck. I couldn’t grasp the independence they wanted me to have, which meant me continuing to wobble around the garden in clumsy circles as opposed to whizzing along a lane with joyful abandon. I was still too dependent and that simply wouldn’t do.

The desire for “independent learners”

Recently I have been having a lot of conversations with teachers about dependence and independence. Lack of independence seems to be the bane of many teacher’s lives and, much like my parents, it seems to lead to much frustration and soul searching. This is the one thing many of the teachers I speak to would want to change in their students. They long for them to throw off those training wheels and fly. It seems like the holy grail of teaching, where we see happy and engaged students, embarking on complex tasks with little, or no, input from us. But why is it still not happening and what is it we are trying to achieve? Do we expect to see independence in every lesson? Should it be at the end of a teaching unit? How on earth do we get them there?

To return to my bike riding analogy, I think there were a number of things which delayed my independence. First, I only had my older brother to demonstrate the process. My ‘model’ was eight years older, four feet taller and sitting atop a racer! I could see little relation to myself and him, other than it might be cool to be able to do that.

Secondly, I rarely got to practise. Even though I was lucky enough to be bestowed with a size appropriate bike each time I outgrew the last one, for at least 8 months of the year it sat in the shed. When it was dragged out from behind the various broken bits of car and gardening equipment, it often had at least one flat tire and dodgy brakes. Another month might pass before said beastie was in full working order, and then the practising could begin. Very slowly. Very much like I had never sat on a bike before. The much needed muscle power in my legs had been depleted and the first half an hour was simply spent trying to get the thing going without needing a push.

Finally, when the support was being dismantled, it was happening much too quickly, after all the summer was rapidly disappearing and the bike needed to be packed away. I still hadn’t mastered the skills I needed for balance though and I didn’t have the strength.  My tentative attempts were met with frustration, both from myself and from my increasingly disappointed parents. I wanted to whizz down the road with the wind in my hair but I frequently landed flat on my back, sometimes with quite painful consequences.

Building to independence in the classroom

I can see a number of parallels with my experience then and that of my students. Like many of my students, the model I was given needed to be broken down to be within my reach. I needed to understand the steps that it took to get to the dizzying heights of my older brother (he could even ride without holding on to the handlebars!), and whilst it was good to know what the finished product might look like, it was completely unattainable for me at that stage. I am a huge advocate of using high quality and aspirational models in my classroom, but these need to be carefully selected for the class and used as models not just examples. I use a lot of live modelling to demonstrate my processes, illustrating each step and allowing students to explore the stages as we go. That might include me modelling a simple opening sentence and students then taking that further or it might mean me modelling more extensively, but explicitly telling the students what I want to achieve and how I am aiming to do this.

Students need the chance to practise each step carefully; therefore, I get them practising different parts of the process, sometimes allowing them to focus on finding quotations, sometimes on analysing individual word choices, sometimes on writing about the big ideas in a text.

Once they are ready, I will begin to remove the supports I have put in place. This is a delicate moment, which may be at very different points for different students, different classes and different tasks. If they are removed too quickly then they could come clattering down and find it too difficult to get back up; some students may have fallen so many times they simply just don’t bother anymore. It’s also safer to stay down as it is not so far to fall next time. The timing here is crucial and should be informed by knowing where your students are at. I make sure I monitor the class very closely at this stage too, quick to add a keyword or sentence to the board or to give a verbal reminder. If necessary, I will work with a small group in the class to continue to support them while the rest of the class get on with their practise more independently.

Once they have had these opportunities they can become more fluent in that particular activity and may then be able to move to complete independence. We can sit back and watch as they enjoy the ride. But it is important to be mindful that if the context, complexity or parameters of the task change radically then the supports need to be put back in until they are ready to be withdrawn again. After all, you have just put them on a different bike. Possibly on a hill. Maybe with some bumpy bits. They will need some guidance to get used to it again.

Culture and the problems with transfer

My own cycling experience also came to me when reading Adharanand Finn’s book Running with the Kenyans[1]. It was interesting to note that there has been a distinct difficulty in transferring the athletic prowess of Kenyans, so renown as distance runners, to cycling. Kenyan runners dominate in the world of distance running so cycling coach, Nicolas Leong, selected a group of men who demonstrated both power and speed with the view to transfer those skills to a bike. As you will note from the lack of Kenyan cyclists competing in the Tour de France, this was not successful. Roads in Kenya provide effective surfaces for runners, less so for bikes. Running is regarded as an efficient, cheap mode of transport for most of the community, including children; bikes in contrast are expensive and cumbersome. Kenyan athletes are immersed in a culture of running, surrounded by people at both top level as well as everyday runners. They have neither the inclination nor facilities to become cyclists, even when a world class coach from Singapore turns up waving a shiny new bike.

It is therefore apparent that, like myself and the Kenyans, my students need to be provided with the right conditions, equipment and opportunities to practise their skills before independence can occur. Some students may already have had exposure to this environment, an environment where they have been immersed in books and reading for pleasure, exposed to culturally rich dialogues filled with history, music and art and given opportunities to experience a myriad of different viewpoints. These students will not only know what a bike is, but will have seen a range of different models, learnt about its history, seen others riding it and know about the experience. Other’s might not have even seen a bike.

It is this last group of students I mentioned who I think we really need to be aware of when seeking independence. Independence is of course a desirable aim for all, but will it always be something that can be achieved at the end of a lesson, the end of a unit or the end of a year? Some will be able to achieve independence at different times and we need to provide them with what they need on route to achieving this. If there is one thing my early cycling experience has taught me though, is that in our quest for independence we must be careful we don’t just push our students down the hill and hope they start peddling. Let them keep the stabilisers a while longer, give them a push when needed and don’t feel too bad if they are still wobbling too much. Independence is an end goal not a starting point.

  Zoe Enser, enthusiastic cyclist, but one who never quite mastered riding with no handlebars.

[1] Adharanand Finn Running with the Kenyans (London: Bloomsbury: 2012)

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: The Essential Guide to Effective and Efficient Teaching is available for pre-order now.

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