Educational Training Wheels

A high school English teacher who blogs under the moniker Shakespeare’s Sister describes a perplexing classroom situation. She works through a task using “I do, We do, You do,” where she first models the thinking and searching she wants to see; then students do it together in small groups before shifting into individual practice.

During the “I do,” students answer and interact and pinpoint literary devices. Yet the teacher explains, “once I was no longer leading the group, they could not effectively answer questions.” Why the confusion and inability to perform the analysis they have just done, beautifully, at the teacher’s prompt? Why the “I don’t get it” and “We need help”? A colleague offered Shakespeare’s Sister this explanation:

Over the years in this school, they have learned that if they do that, teachers will give them more time, and more help, and more time, and more help — to the point where, if they wait out the teacher for long enough, they will help them through every step of completing something. (my emphasis)

This may help students achieve better grades, but the teacher can’t help them on high-stakes assessments in the same way. And this kind of student can become an unbearable coworker who constantly can’t help the group advance and ends up doing nothing for a project.

It’s like riding a bike with training wheels: when the child realizes she’s careening along on her own perfectly well, her helper having quietly let go of the seat 20 feet earlier, she promptly crashes into the grass. She has to have the support, or she sabotages her own progress.

This can happen when you take your first online class. Gone is the smiling instructor who rushes over to a desk the moment a hand is raised. Less accessible are the classmates who can be cajoled into re-explaining and even doing the work for you. There’s just you, and a screen, and some directions and lectures and examples. Rather than “I do, we do, you do,” it can be more a matter of “I show, you do.” Training wheels are there, sort of. Lectures can be watched twenty times…but it’s the same lecture, not twenty different explanations. And you may be terrified of falling / failing in your own efforts to the point that you won’t even approach the assignments.

But if you remember learning to really ride a bike — no training wheels — you may remember the giddy sense of freedom. You could ride down to the corner and sometimes around the block or even to a friend’s house. There was exhilaration. You wanted that trailing parent or sibling nowhere near your bicycle, thank you very much. You felt grown.

And you didn’t learn to ride that bike by watching someone else. You had to do it yourself.

Good online courses give students training wheels and a nice helmet for protection and advice and opportunities to try and try again.

They also say, look, eventually you have to get on the bicycle. You’ll never ride if you never start pedaling. You’re not helpless. You’re here to learn in spite of the spills and scratches.

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