Teaching the Wrong Skills

An observation of mine is that we tend to teach the wrong skills. Oh, not every skill, but many. Consider teaching a child to ride a bike. What we do is attempt to teach them how to pedal a bike. That’s a different skill. To give the child practice, we install training wheels so the child can enjoy the bike and pedal it. However, no child learns to balance a bike while using training wheels. Eventually, in an act of frustration, the training wheels are removed and the child stumbles into learning to balance.

If we reassess this, we realize that using pedals requires no training; the child can immediately recognize where effort must be applied and the benefit of doing that. When we want to teach a child to ride a bike, we are really wanting to teach the child to balance a bike. And that should be the focus. The effective way to teach a child how to balance a bike is to remove the pedals and lower the seat so both feet rest comfortably on the ground. With pedals removed, the legs are now free to provide basic propulsion and the act of balancing comes quickly. And with balance, the child is riding the bike. That was the goal. Now add the pedals back. Having mastered balance, the child can now focus on pedaling while balancing. Simple.

Years ago, I studied the Russian language. Where I encountered frustration was with the demand to master the full structure including cases. Russian has six cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, prepositional. I never learned to speak the language well, being overwhelmed with the continual requirement for perfection. Was this needed? All I had wanted was a basic conversational ability.

A hobby of mine is building websites, so I periodically read forums of web developers. What I have noticed is when a new person posts a question, asking how to build a website, the responses are usually in-depth, referencing many skills to master and books to read, yet no one ever asks the objective of the proposed website. A website can be built in fifteen minutes or fifteen months; experts always assume the latter.

So, why does this happen? Why do we do this? I believe it happens because we make assumptions of what is to be taught instead of focusing on the needs of the student. When we say “ride a bike”, we are assuming the skill of pedaling while balancing the bike, not just balancing, yet balancing is the core skill. When we talk of teaching a language, we assume the student desires to have the mastery of the teacher, which is rarely the student’s focus. When a person asks how to build something, we assume it is a desire for an extensive set of skills.

The problem lies within ourselves, making assumptions on the objective instead of pursuing the core skill needed. The human tendency is to make assumptions; making assumptions is quicker than assessing the issue. We have done this for thousands of years, I am sure, so no ready solution awaits, but I will strive to go more slowly, to listen, to understand and to probe before arriving at what is to be taught to others, and what others are attempting to share with me. I will do this.