Learning Model: Bicycle Story

A Bicycle Built for Two

Prasad Kaipa with Michael Miley

Perhaps you're an educator, or a business person concerned about training of your employees, and of late, you're worried. You're worried about the debates raging over the direction of American education and the future of your work-force, but in a moment it comes to you: We focus so much on training and education,yet we still can't answer the question: how do people really learn?

In fact, let's ask an even more basic question: just what is learning? When, over the course of several years of research, we asked over 200 people what they thought learning was, we found that each person had his or her own answer and all of them were subtly different.

We thought you might be more interested in a story than our answer. Here it is.

An Indian Tale

We have a friend Vidya, a 25-year old woman from India, who didn't have a chance to learn to ride when she was growing up. Since she moved to the states, she's had an intense desire to learn, but never attempted it for several reasons. The first reason was her embarrassment. In America, at her age, she's already supposed to know how to ride. At this point in life, even asking someone to teach her was almost an insurmountable barrier - or so she thought. Next, she didn't want any neighbors, or worse, their children, to laugh at her when she fell down. Finally, interestingly enough, a barrier arose that was the least of her concerns: her fear of hurting herself. So much for physical cowardice.

How do we know this? During a dinner party, Vinoda (Prasad's wife) mentioned to Vidya that she herself has never learned to ride a bicycle. Vidya was astonished. When Vinoda could casually admit her ignorance in public and other people didn't make fun of her, Vidya got the courage to admit it herself and to overcome her shame of admitting it. Well, her admission opened things up. We soon discovered that, out of a group of ten Indian women, only two could ride a bicycle.

Where Prasad grew up, most boys learned how to ride, but generally girls didn't. May be it was not comfortable or seemly to ride a bicycle wearing a Sari, the traditional dress for Indian women. Regardless, their ignorance wasn't a problem for Vidya and her friends until they came to the United States where many women know how to ride.

Beyond the barriers: Unlearning

By the time the party ended, Prasad offered to teach Vidya how to ride a bike and they decided to start the following weekend. They bought an inexpensive bike and went to an empty parking lot. Vidya got on the bicycle and Prasad held her up so that she wouldn't fall.

It first appeared to Vidya that she had many different things to learn: how to pedal; how to hold the handlebars; how to turn; and how to keep her eyes ahead on the road while she did all this. She didn't see the synergy between those actions and wanted to focus on one at a time. For her balance meant not falling down.

During the first few hours, Vidya did fall down a lot and often got discouraged. She demanded that Prasad hold the bicycle at all times and to help her to stay on the seat. When she really felt comfortable with what she was doing and asked Prasad to let go, she fell down again. Prasad soon realized that teaching somebody to ride a bicycle and knowing how to ride oneself are two separate skills and his knowledge of bicycle riding is incomplete. Teaching someone to ride was also not not as easy as he'd imagined. He was beginning to wonder about his abilities to teach and why he'd promised to help in the first place! It was frustrating for not just Vidya but also for Prasad.

Vidya didn't stop trying. Each time she fell down she got right back up though tears were beginning to show in her eyes. While her anxiety, pain and frustration increased with time, her determination was obviously dominant. Prasad was inspired by her intention to learn and was willing to continue working with her. It was a challenge to both of them. It was not just Vidya learning to ride, but also Prasad learning to teach.

By the time Sun set that day, they were both exhausted. Prasad acknowledged Vidya's persistence and showed a willingness to come back the next day if she was still interested. Vidya sure was interested. Though she was frustrated at herself for not learning it in one day, she promised to show up bright and early.

On the way home, Prasad thought deeply of the events of that day. The bicycle lesson did not pan out as expected and he did not understand what went wrong.

Openness and Flow

The next morning, with renewed energy, they both started the process all over again. Both felt different and from Vidya's perspective, Prasad seemed to be paying a lot more attention to her than before. Prasad noticed a shift in Vidya's attitude. Though she was falling fairly regularly, she was indifferent to her falls. She continued her practice with an openness he had not noticed the previous day. And then, almost without noticing, it happened.

Prasad was lightly holding the bicycle and Vidya was just concentrating on riding. He noticed that she was balancing better, focusing on gaining speed and managing turns well. At one moment, he let go of her bicycle and watched what happened. He had no expectations and was ready to catch her if she fell and continued to run behind her. Surprisingly, Vidya did not fall down and continued to ride around the parking lot, oblivious to Prasad. He stopped following Vidya at one point and quietly sat down on a nearby bench watching her ride with amazing ease. It was a proud moment for Prasad.

It took few minutes for Vidya to notice her accomplishment, then disbelief showed up on her face. With Prasad cheering her on, she continued to ride the bicycle in a state of amazement. It was a magical moment for her. Effortlessly, Vidya continued till she decided to take control of the process. You know what happened then, don't you? She fell!

Surrendering to the process of learning and staying open to the possibility, Prasad and Vidya had learned their tasks unconsciously. Vidya entered a state of flow in which she was only present to the moment and not to her anxiety or to her intention to ride a bicycle. It was a stage of 'peak experience' for Vidya.

For Prasad, it was special moment. By letting go of Vidya's bicycle when he did, he set her flow state in motion.

Interestingly, that moment of flow was not really pleasant, when it happened, either for Vidya or for Prasad. Both were taut with tension and Vidya's muscles were aching. Still Vidya felt later that they were the best moments of her life and felt strangely in control.


Obviously Vidya was not ready to participate in a bicycle race that week. She continued the process of mastering various skills: turning, stopping, controlling the speed etc. She didn't need Prasad anymore and she practiced all by herself.

Does Vidya now know consciously 'how to' ride a bicycle? Probably not. Prasad did not know the answer to that question until he started teaching or training Vidya. By training Vidya, several unconscious processes implicit in riding a bicycle became clear to Prasad and those were his learnings. In a curious way, teaching is learning.

Now that Prasad successfully taught Vidya how to ride a bicycle, does he know what worked and how Vidya learned to ride? Maybe not. There are neither recipes nor short cuts to learning together. You learn with somebody and somebody learns with you. Learning occurs in circles and each time in a bigger circle than before.

How is Vidya doing? She rides regularly now and is coaching other women friends who are eager to learn bicycle riding too. She was telling Prasad that coaching others helped her to understand more about learning than when she was the student. Now, Vidya wants to learn down hill skiing this fall. She is looking for a teacher to work with her --- Any takers???

This story is built on the learning model developed by the Mithya Institute. If you want to see the model, please select learning framework. A number of chapters from the manuscript Igniting Your Natural Genius that is developed around the learning framework can also be good material to understand the concept of unlearning and the learning gap.

Prasad Kaipa is the founder and director of the Mithya Institute for Learning and Knowledge Architecture. He enjoys researching learning, working with organizations on new and creative projects and helping people to 'unlearn.' He can be reached at 4832 Pinemont Drive, Campbell, CA 95008. Voice (408) 866-8511; Fax (408) 866-8926. E-mail: prasad@mithya.com or PKaipa@aol.com.

You can send any comments or suggestions by clicking here: comments@mithya.com


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