Software and Computer Engineering

Training Wheels and Practicing Like You Play

While re-reading “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”, by Peter C. Brown, there was an explanation that stuck with me.

The book is approachable, nicely written and every conclusion is properly grounded in scientific research in the subject of studying and learning. Such rigor is essential when “what would we expect intuitively” diverges from “what can we measure experimentally”.

Back to the metaphor. When we are learning to ride a bike, we might put training wheels on. In such case, we come to rely on the wheels to be able to ride the bike, and are still unable to ride a bike otherwise.

When we learn with training wheels on, the training wheels become part of the model. We are learning not to “ride a bike”, but instead, how to “ride a bike with training wheels”.

For starters, that's fine: it's still better than not being able to ride any bike -- with or without training wheels -- but to go to the next step and develop full bike riding proficiency, the training wheels must be removed.

More generally, immediate corrective feedback while performing the skill are not desirable, even though it makes the activity feels easier. There's some degree of desirable difficulty where the learner must struggle with something by themselves so that they are able to master it. Delayed corrective feedback, provided only after performing -- time was taken to struggle and reflect about one's own performance -- is where deep-rooted knowledge can be truly built.

When we attempt to learn to ride a bike without training wheels, relates to the saying “practice like you play and you will play like you practice”. When learning with the goal to truly master something, the practice environment must be as similar as possible to the actual environment you are expected to perform in and display mastery on.

Holding on to your training wheels means short-term gain -- you are able to somewhat ride a bike now -- but keeps you from developing the actual skills you need for full proficiency in the long-term.