The Bicycle School

Dr. Badrinarayanan Srinivasan
6 min readJul 22, 2020
GIF Source: https://i.gifer.com/VV2.gif

Not long ago, in a country not so far away, people learnt to ride bicycles in two ways. The first was to simply get on a bike, try to ride by oneself, fall, and keep trying till one succeeded. This method did not involve a teacher but only a highly motivated learner. The number of falls needed to manage even a short ride discouraged many enthusiasts. The ones who succeeded in learning by this method were the bravest, determined, and were completely self-taught. The other method that was widely prevalent was somebody older, stronger, and experienced would run alongside the cycle, holding it steady while the learner gradually experienced the exhilarating sensation of balancing on two wheels. One would first practice many straight runs, then gentle curves and finally tight u-turns. The mentor would often share his/her knowledge about bikes. As the occasion demanded, these were anecdotes, demonstrations of riding techniques, explanations on various parts of the bicycle, tips on maintenance, etc.

These two methods were fine, only problem was that they were not producing riders of comparable skills. Some rode with panache after a few short lessons while others were crashing into pedestrians on public roads. The Transport Department was concerned about the lack of standards and decided to establish some safety regulations. A National School of Bicycle Riding was proposed, with country-wide branches, where all learners would be taught bicycling formally. There would be rigorous tests and only those who cleared them would be awarded a license to ride on public roads. The Department of Education was entrusted with the responsibility for setting up the school.

The Department pondered on this and found that the existing body of knowledge on bicycles was vast. Bicycle riding was both a science as well an art, involving both theory and practice. A panel of leading experts was invited and consulted to frame the curriculum. The panel included the best theoretical physicists, mechanical engineers, traffic experts, historians, artists, and the best cycle riders from the circus.

Physicists were necessary as they knew the static and dynamic forces involved in bicycle riding. Mechanical engineers knew the nuts and bolts of how the bicycle was put together. Traffic experts knew the traffic rules, safety regulations, signage, etc. Historians were necessary as they had deep knowledge of the development, evolution, and the culture of bicycling. The artists were necessary as they understood the aesthetics like no one else. The circus riders were the best practitioners who could ride the bicycle backwards. The panel met, argued, and brainstormed for many weeks before agreeing on the structure of the curriculum.

The curriculum was to consist of ‘Theory’ classes and ‘Practicals’. It was proposed that all the theory would be taught in lecture halls to be applied in ‘practicals’ which were to be held in large indoor halls called ‘workshops’.

The ‘Theory’ modules proposed were:

  1. Static and dynamic forces of bicycles

2. Structure and construction of bicycles

3. History and evolution of bicycles

4. Traffic rules and safety regulations

Three ‘Workshop modules’ were proposed. These were:

1. Practical bicycle riding

2. Maintenance and repair of bicycles

3. Aesthetics of bicycle riding

Inaugurated by the Union Minister of Human Resources with much fanfare and publicity, the school hired the best teachers, and began teaching the Course.

To teach ‘Practical bicycle riding’ was the very reason behind the setting up of the school. Therefore, this workshop occupied a central place in the curriculum, assigned the maximum contact hours and carried the maximum credits. However, the manner of instruction was quite different from the traditional method of the tutor steadying the bicycle. In formal pedagogy, this was looked down upon as it was likened to ‘hand-holding’. Also, to maximize ‘efficiency’ of student to teacher ratio, the administration insisted as many as forty students to be taught by a single teacher, while the Board of Management pushed for an on-line version of the Course so that it could be made widely available to the general public.

The students were expected to figure things out on their own, but with some guidance from the teachers. The process went like this; the student would attempt a ride, following which the tutor/s would offer comments on what went wrong and suggestions on how to improve their technique from a safe distance (or on-line as the case may be).

A few months down the line, to teach riding in a step-by-step manner, the larger ‘Learning Outcome’ of riding bicycle was further broken down to a linear, logical sequence of various stages. These stages were: mounting, pedaling, accelerating, turning, braking, dismounting, etc. Each stage was expected to be mastered before the next was taken up both as Theory and Workshops, and so was conducted and graded in isolation.

Now there were modules called Theory of mounting, Theory of pedaling, Theory of accelerating, etc., each with their own set of Learning Outcomes, as well their Workshop counterparts. Students who wanted to do it all in one fluid, continuous motion were told not to ‘jump the gun’ and to follow the logical sequence as prescribed in the curriculum.

Rene Magritte- ‘Bicycle, forest, green’

Students who were naturally talented could ride the bicycle on their own, and so were able to demonstrate the individual stages. These were the teachers’ favorites and so naturally received a lot of attention from them. The not-so -talented were expected to learn by watching the talented perform. The ‘Theory’ classes were not too useful. Few were found to be relevant or applied in the ‘Practicals’. Students wondered why it was necessary to clear a module on “Bicycles in Victorian England” and how it was relevant to their riding the bicycle in their modern city today. But they just went ahead, learning the class notes by rote as their licenses depended on it.

Over the years, the curriculum was updated and many new subjects and modules were added, with their own Learning Outcomes and assignments. These were; “First aid”, “GPS navigation”, “Aerodynamics”, “Carbon fiber technology”, etc. However, contrary to expectations, all the modules seemed to exist in watertight compartments, with no integration or transference of learning from one to the other. Each teacher considered herself to be the master of her own domain, their own subject the most important, and did not think it necessary to communicate and coordinate with their colleagues, and work together towards the overall Course Learning Outcome.

The system did not seem to inspire enthusiasm but forced students to perform by inducing guilt and fear of failure. More and more students were demotivated and disillusioned by the innumerable tests and assignments that seemed to be designed as stumbling blocks to all learning. They were not turning in assignments on time and were absenting themselves from classes. One or two went to the extreme of ending their lives when they repeatedly failed exams.

A central administrative committee issued a directive, and mandatory minimum attendance percentage was introduced. The management introduced sophisticated bio-metric systems to monitor student and teacher attendance to eliminate human error. To encourage teachers to update their knowledge, and to improve the credibility of the school, the teachers were encouraged to conduct research, organize seminars, and publish research papers on bicycle riding. Now their tenure and promotions depended on their research output. Despite all these measures, with each passing year, more and more students failed to make the grade. This was an embarrassment for the school as it had hired the best faculty and had invested in the best infrastructure. To deal with the situation, performance standards were gradually lowered so that more graduates would get licenses.

In the final analysis, the setting up of a National School of Bicycle Riding, conceived by the best of experts seemed to have helped little in improving overall bicycling standards in the country. The only difference was now larger number of licensed bicyclists were crashing into pedestrians on public roads while the naturally talented rode like acrobats.These became celebrities and were widely publicized as the famous alumni of the School.

The disproportionate preoccupation with the efficiency of administration, logistics, and management of education, compartmentalizing knowledge into disconnected modules that emphasized subject grades rather than overall Competence, had created a disastrous learning ecosystem that seemed to privilege only the Genius, who did not need formal education in the first place.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GL0rbxB9Lqg

Disclaimer: All events depicted in this article are entirely fictitious. Any similarity to actual institutions, living, dying, or dead, is purely coincidental.

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