Unicycles: A Lesson for Learning Complex Skills
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2013 Issue
By Eric Grossman
Imagine you are out at the school bus dock supervising kids arriving at school in the morning. Most shuffle off the buses, single file, and parade into school like so many ants following the trail already in front of them. The car riders may feel more special, or just more embarrassed, as parents chauffeur them each morning. You are proud of your school for encouraging the bicyclists, who you notice zipping up to the newly installed bike racks. They are a confident, independent, and fit set of kids. Unfortunately, they are a small minority of students at your school. Bicycling was so much more common when you were a kid, you think. Your mind begins to wander to how you might encourage more kids to pedal to school when your attention is caught by something in your peripheral vision. Your head swivels, along with the heads of the kids disembarking the bus. A kid is approaching the school perched atop a single wheel. He moves in short sporadic bursts coinciding with each pedal stroke. He seems to defy gravity as it is hard to imagine how he manages to stay upright. An unmistakable murmur passes through the kids at the dock and you overhear someone say, “That’s cool!”
Part of the reaction, of course, is the novelty of a unicycle. But if kids like them so much, why aren’t unicycles more common? The simple explanation is that riding a unicycle is difficult and unnatural. The steps required to learn how to ride one are unobvious and pose obstacles that, for most, are prohibitive. There are no training wheels. The activity is both remarkably interesting and remarkably difficult. These ideas circulate in your mind as you arrive to the real question—can unicycles serve an important educational purpose?
Unicycles do attract kids’ attention. They emerged, after all, as a circus act. But are there good pedagogical reasons for learning to ride them? At least one celebrated educator thinks so, and he recently won a grant to purchase ten unicycles for his program. Steve Ahn, a science teacher at Abingdon High School in Virginia, recently won a grant to purchase a set of unicycles for the extra-curricular Appalachian Teen Trekkers non-profit club that he sponsors. Why did he write the grant? His intention is to attract students to a whole set of after-school activities meant to address obesity by providing kinesthetic challenges (Abingdon is also building a climbing wall). And he thinks it will work to attract kids.
Ahn knows that any progress with kids begins with getting their attention This past spring he won the prestigious $25,000 McGlothlin Award for Teaching at the secondary level. In an interview for the Bristol Herald Courier he said, “There’s a lot I do as a teacher that’s not that exceptional, but one thing I concentrate on is connections to kids.” In a personal correspondence he told me that “you would be amazed at how kids are so attracted by trying to learn something difficult and cool.”
Because attempting to ride a unicycle is an unnatural, difficult, and complex skill, it reveals quite a bit about the process of learning, more generally. If we can distill what is required to ride a unicycle into broader steps, we can apply them to a range of valuable skills that are also difficult to learn.
When my son received a unicycle this past Christmas from his grandmother, I was worried that it would soon be collecting dust in the garage. His best hope of learning to ride, I thought, was a very realistic perspective on what was required. I encouraged him to do some research and find YouTube videos of others who had managed to master this difficult skill. I watched, mostly from a distance, and made a mini-study of the process that he went through. Reflecting on it now that he has become proficient on the unicycle, I can point to eight steps that I think are important when learning any complex skill.
- Dedicate time for practice with the expectation of a long-term commitment. The ultimate goal (in this case riding a unicycle) must be pushed into the background with the explicit recognition that it is a long way off. The regular routine toward success must occupy the near-attention of the learner. Create a schedule and a method for practice and then do what it takes to make it a habit. Some kind of feedback will be needed to reinforce the habit, like progress toward benchmarks (see #2).
- Set benchmarks to celebrate progress. In the case of the unicycle, an obvious benchmark is the distance travelled before toppling over. In the early stages (when distances are very small), the rider can count pedal rotations. The first success is completing one pedal rotation, then two, then three, etc. While my son did not need material rewards to stay motivated, I noticed that he valued positive verbal feedback to celebrate his small victories—like making it ten feet. Likewise, students learning any complex skill need positive feedback for progress.
- Engage the mind. Mastering a complex skill requires reworking physical connections in the nervous system. That takes energy. The learner must actively pay attention to important aspects of the skill. This requires focus and dialogue. Self-talk can be an important strategy, whether it is developed alone or with a coach or teacher. One technique is to create memorable phrases that serve as reminders. The rider might say to himself phrases like, Head up! Back straight! And most importantly, keep pedalling! Self-talk isn’t just for motivation, it helps to keep the mind focused on important elements of the task so that neural connections are reinforced.
- Make mistakes, and then vary them. This is a twist on the usual aphorism learn from your mistakes. The modification is needed because learning to ride the unicycle will require a lot of mistakes with little sign of progress. Another way to put it, taken from Samuel Beckett is, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” We cannot learn something complex unless we are willing to fail, repeatedly. We move forward not by “correcting” mistakes but by methodically changing our actions and noting any changes. This step is absolutely critical yet it is one that educators and learners often avoid. When we avoid the mistakes, we avoid any real learning.
- Watch others. Learning a complex skill is not a solitary endeavour. The learner should be surrounded by those who are already skilled. Because we do not have unicycle-riding neighbours, my son watched YouTube videos of those also learning and those who were proficient. He also brought his unicycle to a party and told a friend who also had received one to bring his so they could practice together.
- Visualize oneself performing the skill. Stabilizing oneself on a unicycle, for example, requires constant and fatiguing tension in the thighs. A learner can compress the time required to master this by separating some of the cognitive work involved from the actual performance of the skill. This is accomplished by attentively visualizing oneself performing specific action as one is learning them.
- Find the motivation to persevere. Learning anything is ultimately a personal endeavour; it is about who the learner becomes. No one else can cause the learner to learn, he must decide for himself that it is worthwhile. That decision may be based on incentives that others have provided, but the learner determines the relevance of those incentives to more personal goals. My son told me that he wanted to learn something uncommon to his peers. The learner has to find the self-motivation to get through the inevitable work involved after the novelty has worn off, the goal has receded into the distance, and the influence of others has waned.
- Become the thing learned. Real learning occurs when the learner identifies with the thing learned. The unicycle will become an extension of the spine and the pedals extensions of the legs. What had been foreign becomes familiar, what had been wild becomes domesticated. The ultimate expression of learning is the seamless flow between the performance and the performer. The learner no longer has to pay special attention to the task because the neural pathways for performing it have been established.
Riding a unicycle is physically striking. When kids finally reach the point of wheeling out of the school yard on their unicycle, they will have also achieved at least two additional goals: they will have a captivating means to stay active and fit and they will know what is required to learn something difficult. While it is unlikely you need to provide unicycle racks at your school anytime soon, thanks to educators like Steve Ahn, there is precedence for challenging your students to learn complex physical skills and good reason to expect they will take away a value to learning from their mistakes.
Dr. W. Eric Grossman is an associate professor of education at Emory & Henry College, Virginia, where he specializes in teaching and learning. He has written extensively on performance and motivation for Running Times magazine online and in his blogs Explore Fatigue and Above Grade.