Non Sequitur: Training Wheels

The term “non sequitur” comes from Latin and means that something does not follow from a previous premise. In formal logic the non sequitur is a type of fallacy in which a conclusion cannot be said to follow from the state premises. I use the phrase regularly as a way to account for my brain jumping to a unrelated topic than what I’ve been discussing. Hence a new category of posts is formed here.

As a Scout leader with a Boy Scout Troop I get the opportunity to talk with both Scouts and their Parents. I was having such a conversation with a Parent during a week at Summer Camp recently on the topic of Training Wheels.

In this case my use was metaphorical. The training wheels in question are an approach to parenting or mentoring where we recognize that our charges are only really learning when they are on the edge of failing.1 If my son only ever does what he can do without assistance he will forever be operating below his potential. If, instead, he is enabled to fail forward – and thus learn – because training wheels keep him from crashing too hard he will develop increased autonomy.

What does this look like?

First, your learner – child, scout, or apprentice – needs to be taught basic knowledge and skills about a task you want her to accomplish. When this is done well it will incorporate both talking and showing her what to do. If I want my niece to be able to build a book case I need to first show her and explain how to cut dados (grooves) in what will be the case side so that shelves can be slid in.

Second, I need to hand her control of the tool (this could be a chisel and mallet, a router plane, a router, or a table saw for example) and say, “Now you do it.” But, and this is key, I don’t hand her the router and say, “Do it,” on the cherry panels I’ve spent a week prepping. Why not? Because she’s going to mess up. There are LOTS of mistakes on the way to success. Rather, I start her out on a piece of plywood or a cheaper hardwood and give her a chance to practice setting up and making her cuts. I give her room to make mistakes and as she does I stop her and have her make corrections. We might call this “Guided Learning.”2

Third, when she’s shown the requisite knowledge and skills to be able to cut a dado properly I let her move onto the “real life” world, i.e. she gets to take cutting edge to expensive hardwood.

In step one the training wheels are on tight. No matter how hard she tries to peddle things will be okay because I’m physically hands on with her during the process explaining and demonstrating everything that goes into making the dado.

In step two I progressively loosen the training wheels. I have her practice on scrap plywood and I’m correcting each step of her preparation and body mechanics until I feel confident she can safely move forward. Then I let her move to making the set up and cutting without correction and we review how the whole process went. Once she can correct and prevent her own errors we move to a more “realistic” wood and the process is repeated.

In step three I’m confident that she is just about ready for the big time and I have her set up and make cuts in my production material. Here, by changing the environment, I am loosing up the training wheels once more and I have to be ready to reign her or let her fly.

I’ve yet to find a skill – from making eggs to teaching firefighters emergency procedures for a failure of their air supply – that cannot be taught with this method. Is it time consuming? If you want to get back to Confectionary Crunch or Annoyed Avians on your phone it is. In comparison to the amount of time it takes to go back and fix problems brought on by misunderstanding and under practicing skills it’s a blink of an eye.3

So go forth and find ways to slowly start loosening those training wheels. Let your charges wobble and teeter and if need be fall so they can steadily build the ability to succeed without you.

  1. This is essentially the notion of Lev Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development.” A learner succeeds when she is monitored and assisted in a zone between what she cannot do at all and what she can do without assistance. The concept of learning scaffolding is often applied here. For those not demanding the shibboleth of pedagogical conceptual schemes the training wheels metaphor is the same thing.
  2. Pick your label but I like the Boy Scouts teaching acronym: EDGE; Explain, Demonstrate, Guide, Enable.
  3. It takes approximately 200 perfect repetitions of a skill (or around 50 hours) for a skill to be learned to where automaticity (where we are capable enough to not think discreetly about every step in a process) sets in. Conversely (and this is anecdotal because I cannot find a good scholarly reference but it’s borne out in my experience), once a process had been learned incorrectly it takes between 2000 and 3000 repetitions to retrain someone.

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