The Training Wheel Fallacy for Teaching Writing

The Swamp Rabbit Trail System is a paved multi-use path running from the city of Greenville, South Carolina to Travelers Rest, to the north. As an avid road cyclist, I venture onto the trail occasionally since it runs near my university and allows a somewhat relaxed ride, free of the threat of car traffic (except for the crossings).

Riding a bicycle is often discussed as if it is a universal experience and a skill once learned, never forgotten. As a serious cyclist for well over thirty years, I can attest that observations along the Swamp Rabbit Trail offer a data set that leads to a different theory.

Riding a bicycle requires two essential skills, pedaling and balancing the bicycle. When I see small children and inexperienced cyclists along Swamp Rabbit, I see an oddly similar struggle—cyclists wildly fighting the steering by swinging the handlebars aggressively and pedaling in ways that are counter to gaining momentum and balance.

A stark sign of a less than competent cyclists is the weaving motion as the cyclist approaches, a dramatic contrast to the rail-steady balance of experienced riders. But the oddest thing I see in beginning and inexperienced cyclists is trying to start off by placing one foot on a pedal with the crank arm down and then frantically lifting the other foot to start the pedaling with the crank arm that is up.

That technique is a recipe for disaster, but when successful, those first pedal strokes are combined with some pretty awful weaving that covers the space two or three experienced cyclists could fit into easily.

Holding your line (riding rail straight) and riding without your hands are some of the first skills needed to be a competitive cyclist. I have taken off or changed a significant amount of clothing during hard group rides while continuing to ride at the back of the pack; on a couple of occasions, I have taken a multi-tool out of my saddle pack and adjusted my front derailleur also while continuing to ride at the back of the pack.

Ride for Safety 2018 GB
Ride for Safety 2018

Pedaling smoothly and maintaining proper weight distribution allow the bicycle to remain in a straight line, the natural momentum of rotating wheels. Another counter-intuitive behavior in road cycling is de-weighting your upper body so that you apply less effort into steering.

Beginners and inexperienced cyclists over-steer and over-pedal.

Here is an interesting problem about how most people learn to ride bicycles—the use of training wheels. Training wheels seek to address those essential skills I noted above by allowing new riders to have balance while learning to pedal.

The problem? Pedaling and balancing in cycling are not discrete, separate skills, but symbiotic skills. Learning to ride a bicycle, also, likely requires a different series of learning those skills since the balance is more valuable than the pedaling (and likely harder, at least we intuit that it is harder).

While training wheels are a traditional way to teach children to ride bicycles, balance bicycles are far superior ways to help children acquire balancing skills until they are old enough to pedal (likely much later than we tend to expect children to ride).

Now, as I have discussed before, let’s be clear that riding a bicycle is not like writing. Pedaling and holding a straight line while riding a bicycle is an acquired skill, but is not nearly as complex as it first appears; yet, writing is a creative process that involves dozens of decisions and interrelated skills and content, and is even more complex than we think as beginners.

However, our misconceptions about the teaching/learning dynamic for beginner cyclists as well as beginner students-as-writers are very similar.

The skills and decision process needed to write well are also not discrete, isolated skills that we simply need to acquire one at a time and then somehow integrate; as Lou LaBrant admonished, we learn to write by writing (not by doing skill and drill)—which is similar to the best way to learn to ride a bicycle, by riding a bicycle (without training wheels, possibly in a grass field at first instead of a sidewalk or parking lot).

Traditional approaches to teaching writing that impose templates (five-paragraph essay) and canned moves (“In this essay, I will…,” “In conclusion…”) are grounded in the same urges as teaching children to ride bicycles by using training wheels; however, these traditional approaches are as misguided and harmful as those training wheels.

Riding in large packs of cyclists requires each rider to demonstrate a high level of cycling authority, again grounded in holding a line and behaving in steady and predictable ways even while in high pressure situations (pace intensity increasing, cornering, contributing to a paceline, sprinting, etc.).

Writing authority, whether as a published writer or as a student or academic, also requires demonstrating high-level skills that are much more than the content of the writing (organization, diction, style, and having control of conventional elements of language use [grammar, mechanics, usage]).

Students are better served as writers-to-be if we always allow them to experiment in authentic and holistic contexts while seeking ways to foster essential or foundational concepts (openings, focus, elaboration, cohesion, paragraphing, closings, etc.). There is ample evidence, however, that templates and canned moves are not helpful and may even be harmful (they don’t encourage students to set them aside).

Many people still rush to buy their children bicycles with training wheels, but balance bicycles are beginning to take hold. The teaching of writing needs to make a similar transition.

Depending on templates and canned moves creates the sort of wobbly writers that remind me of my harrowing experiences trying to navigate down the Swamp Rabbit Trail confronting those teetering cyclists who have been mislead that it’s just like riding a bicycle.