Lately I’ve been struggling to come up with a short, easy way to introduce a complicated idea that comes up a lot when I talk about research assignment design and library instruction. In a Q&A somewhere, I used the phrase “no training wheels” and that’s kind of stuck with me — but I’ve never really felt comfortable with it.
Basically, what I’m railing against here is the idea that instead of figuring out interesting, authentic and developmentally appropriate research assignments for new college students we assign the same types of activities we assign to all students, no matter what their level, and then try and make them easier or simpler with shortcuts like peer review ticky boxes or evaluation checklists.
A research paper isn’t a thesis, no, but at the end of the day it requires students to do many of the same things that the lit review portion of a thesis requires.
To do a good job, a student must find, choose, read and use information from sources — add in the “three peer-reviewed articles” requirement, and we’re talking about sources that are produced in a context, for a reason, to contribute to a specific discourse. And most first-year students have neither the domain knowledge nor the understanding of that disciplinary discourse that experts have. Which matters, because the experts rely heavily on both of those things to do all of that finding, choosing, reading and using well.
To make this doable, we introduce the training wheels I mentioned above, but if you’ve been around here for any time at all you know that I think those things don’t work very well.
So increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the answer isn’t better training wheels — it’s better assignments. But the metaphor has always seemed problematic to me. “No training wheels” implies no help. It implies starting off on the two-wheeler without any kind of safety net, crashing and falling and crashing again and hoping that the essential learning will come before the crashing destroys any desire you have to ride the bike in the first place.
See, the other problem with the “no training wheels” metaphor is that it’s increasingly dated. Just a couple of weeks ago a friend was telling me that removing training wheels is no longer the developmental milestone it once was. Balance bikes have rendered it moot.
Best of all, the balance bike metaphor extends beautifully, because it’s not just about recognizing that beginners need extra help. It’s specific about the type of help that actually helps. Balance bikes work because they allow children to learn and practice an authentic and essential skill in a safe way.
To learn to bike, you must solve two problems: the pedaling problem and the balance problem. Training wheels only solve the pedaling problem—that is, the easy one. Learning to balance on a bike is much more difficult, and a “training” tool that eliminates the need to balance is worse than beside the point. Training wheels only train you to ride a bike with training wheels.
In other words, on balance bikes they don’t learn balancing for beginners, they learn actual balance — a skill they can transfer when they move on to fully-featured bicycles.
And that’s what we need when it comes to research assignments — we don’t need tricks and shortcuts that try and do the hard cognitive work of research for students — we need to break those assignments down and design new activities that let students practice essential skills and then transfer them to more complex tasks and contexts.