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Riding slowly along a beautiful bike path in Germany last summer, I was surprised when I saw a toddler astride a balance bike and his three year old sister pedaling confidently beside him on a big-kid bike.  Then, last week in Colorado, I noticed a young boy on a balance bike successfully navigating mountainous terrain.  How were these children able to learn to bike at such a young age?  The apparent ease with which these youngsters mastered biking made me reflect on my daughter’s (and my own!) frustration and fear when we attempted to transition from training wheels to big-girl bikes without supports.  I can still hear my daughter crying, “Don’t let go, Daddy!” as she attempted to balance and ride without training wheels.  Many back breaking practice sessions later, she finally felt confident enough to ride without an adult hand on the bike.  I’m convinced that my daughter and I would have experienced a more successful, smoother transition to biking independence had we started with a balance bike, too.

Balance bikes hold an important key to the scaffolds we use in education: they develop the essential skills, not the basic skills, of biking.  In an article about balance bikes, Andy Ruina, an expert in bicycle dynamics at the Biorobotics and Locomotion Lab at Cornell University, explains that balance bikes scaffold balance, the essential skill of biking, while training wheels scaffold the simplest skills of biking: steering and pedaling.  When the training wheels are removed, the child still has not mastered the key to riding a bike and feels like she is starting over. Certainly, the goal for both biking supports is the same: to help children learn to ride a two-wheel bike independently. Unfortunately, the training wheel scaffold often seems to delay progress toward the goal rather than enhance it.

As I observe teachers across grade levels provide scaffolds for their students to help them develop skills and concepts such as writing multi-paragraph papers or applying the scientific method, I wonder if some of these scaffolds are more like training wheels than balance bikes?  I am concerned that if we provide scaffolds that cause students anxiety or require them to relearn the concept when we remove the support, then the scaffold did not successfully teach them the essential skill or prepare them to become independent.

For example, teachers in many elementary schools often give students framed paragraphs in order to support them in writing multi-paragraph papers.  These framed paragraphs generally provide suggested topic sentences and transition words to start each paragraph like first, in addition, and finally.   This ubiquitous scaffolding strategy helps young writers produce relatively well-organized multi-paragraph papers, but teachers often complain that when they take the scaffold away, the students revert to long, disjointed and unfocused single paragraph papers.  The framed paragraph is more like training wheels for the students, especially since removing the frame causes many students anxiety, often fails to produce creative, thoughtful writers, and requires secondary teachers to reteach the concepts in order to develop more sophisticated writers.  I wonder if there are other more efficient writing scaffolds for elementary students that would teach them the essential elements of writing to clearly and creatively communicate their ideas?  Perhaps reading and analyzing many, many examples of good writing would give students more balance in their own writing?

In a secondary example of scaffolding, an AP Biology teacher regularly provided her students with detailed, step-by-step directions for completing a lab.  The students had to read and carefully follow every step, record their results, and write up the lab report.  Although the students had practiced several labs with the directions throughout the year, they struggled at the end of the year to create their own experiment to test an original hypothesis.  Certainly the step-by-step lab guides had supported the students in completing a lab, but this scaffold failed to produce students who could think scientifically and test their own hypotheses.   I believe the step-by-step lab guides served as training wheels for the students by only helping them with the simple skill of following directions rather than supporting the more essential skills associated with scientific thinking.

Teachers want to support their students and provide scaffolds to help them become independent, successful learners. I now understand, however, that some scaffolds are less effective and sometimes even hold students back by supporting the basics, rather than the essential skills of a concept or task.   Now, as I analyze and reflect on the scaffolds I give students, I try to ensure that they focus on the essential skills.  If only I had known about balance bikes earlier!

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Erin says:

    This is a great example of scaffolding. It is a challenges not just to find the right skills to scaffold, but the right “level” at which to scaffold them. Too much scaffolding and they aren’t stretched enough; too little and they may not quite get where they need to go.

    I have tried out a few formative inquiry assessments with my younger students recently, making sure that they are building their hypothesis-forming and data analysis skills. This will give me a new way of looking at them, making sure that I am scaffolding the essential skills. Thanks for posting this!

  • Tan K Huynh says:

    Thank you, Beth, for this thoughtful article. You’ve added and expanded thinking about the training wheels scaffold. You’re right! Often we scaffold without teaching independence! When we take the training wheels off, the rider feels like they have to start over again! There is a clear difference between training wheels and a balance bike! There is a difference between scaffolding for independence and scaffolding to complete a task!

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