Like Riding a Bike: What good instructional design looks like

While teaching my children to ride a bicycle, I realized I had been taught in the wrong way. Comparing how they learned to how I learned revealed several key principles of good instructional design.

Training Wheels = Poor Instructional Design

Trying to learn how to ride a bicycle using training wheels, as I did, is the wrong way. It is easier and more effective to teach children how to ride a bicycle on something (e.g., a LIKEaBIKETM) that is not actually a bicycle, but that focuses novices’ efforts on the critical element of riding--balancing while in motion--while taking away everything that might interfere with learning what is most critical. This new approach holds important lessons for classroom teachers.

When I was young, my parents bought me a small 16 inch “BMX” bicycle with training wheels (similar to the bicycle in the picture below). I practiced with the training wheels on, which meant I practiced steering, pedaling and braking, but never balancing while moving, which is the most important skill in learning to ride a bicycle. I could not practice the most important skill because the feature designed to protect me from falling--the training wheels--actually got in the way of me learning what I needed to learn to avoid falling; i.e. learning to balance without the training wheels. As soon as I leaned over a bit while riding, one of the training wheels would touch the ground and balance the bike, instead of me learning to do it. This is an example of poor educational design:

Balance Bike = Good Instructional Design

By comparison, my daughters learned on a LIKEaBIKETM, which is smaller, does not have pedals or brakes, and limits steering radius (see the picture below). The only thing a LIKEaBIKETM is designed to teach you is how to coast with your feet off the ground. Each of my daughters could do this safely because this teaching tool was low enough for her to put her feet on the ground, slow enough on a level surface so that she could stop herself without brakes, and so limited in steering radius that she could not turn the front wheel sharply enough to fall over. This is an example of good educational design:

Several Principles of Good Instructional Design

What can this small wooden teaching tool that is something like a bike teach us about educational design in the classroom?

1. The most important lesson is that the educational designer (in most cases, the classroom teacher) has to be very clear about what she or he wants a student to learn. This is why training wheels are flawed. They interfere with learning what is most important--balancing while moving--even though they were designed for the sole purpose of teaching children how to ride a bicycle. Though training wheels make it possible to learn other elements of riding a bicycle, for example steering and pedaling, in the absence of first learning how to balance on two wheels while in motion, even those other skills are learned imperfectly. For example, you only learn how to make real turns when the training wheels come off.

2. Students do not learn as well when they have to learn everything at once. This seems obvious when you write it out, but it is a point we often ignore in the classroom. I can still remember how terrified I was at five on my first ride without training wheels: I couldn’t pedal fast enough to stay upright, so I fell. If I went fast enough down an incline so I didn’t need to pedal, because I didn’t know how use the coaster brake I became scared and I turned the wheels too far to one side, so I fell. Similarly, if we give students a complex task to learn and complete, like writing a persuasive essay, we must first make sure they are conversant in the skills they will need to be successful: understanding the audience, researching information, organizing information and creating an outline, using grammar correctly, writing clear sentences, writing organized paragraphs with effective transitions, and revising and rewriting.

3. We all learn better by trying than by listening, even if it is only a small part of the whole skill that we are actually trying. You cannot learn how to ride a bicycle by sitting and listening to someone who knows how to ride a bicycle tell you what to do. You can learn it by trying to lift your foot off the ground while coasting on something that is not a bike, learning from your mistakes, and trying again. Granted, this too is obvious, but unfortunately we still teach by telling students what to do, rather than by giving them “authentic” tasks that are designed so students work iteratively towards understanding, by trying, struggling, and learning from mistakes.

4. We have to provide better, more immediate feedback to students on their learning progress, so they know what they are supposed to learn, can understand whether or not they are making progress, and know what to do to help themselves improve. When my daughters rode a LIKEaBIKETM, they knew the goal was to be able to balance while moving so they could ride a real bicycle. They also knew whether they were successful or not. And, when they were not successful, they could practice safely, at their own pace, and know whether they were improving. An added reward was that their practice always led to improvement, so they learned quickly the value of more practice.

5. Learning important things should not have an unreasonable time limit. We have places to go and content to cover, but if learning is the real goal, then arbitrary or unreasonable content milestones (e.g., “we will cover five chapters of the textbook this month”) or time limits for learning key concepts must be used sparingly. I did not tell my daughters they had 45 minutes or 90 minutes to learn how to ride a bicycle, with the possibility they could never return to the skill they had been working on after the final assessment because we had to move on to learning how to play the guitar, for example. Working on something for a limited amount of time and then stopping and moving to something new before children have learned it is wrong, and this becomes clear when you think about doing this when children are trying to learn to ride. In this case, it is obvious that the only way to make sure they learn how to ride is to let them practice until they do. Important learning goals at school are not any different.

An observation, which is probably true whenever you are trying to improve established practices, is that even something widely accepted and apparently sound--learning to ride on a real bicycle with training wheels--is not necessarily the best solution. And with the “curse of knowledge,” it is very difficult for experts--that is, those who already know how to do something well and learned using older models--to design educational experiences that will engage and teach novices what it is most important for them to learn, because experts lose sight of what it feels like to be a novice who is trying to learn something.

Teachers: Be the Student

This may be the single greatest obstacle to good educational design: teachers are already pretty good at the skills they are trying to teach, so they cannot experience the educational tasks they design as their students do. As experts, we rarely experience the assignments we create as our students experience them. This is why it is so important to follow good design principles when creating learning tasks for students.

Another good way to understand what learning is like for students is for teachers to try to learn something new that is difficult for them. For the most part, teachers get to do what they are good at, while we require students to work concurrently on subjects in which they are not proficient. You don’t learn very much about learning, however, until you try to do something you are not good at. That is when you begin to understand what your students face.