Like Riding a Bike


“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filing of a vessel.”

This weekend I thought about learning new skills, new knowledge and how at some level, it’s all like riding a bicycle.

We had some players do new things, reach new levels of effort, execute new skills. We had been teaching some of these skills for years, but the girls had breakthroughs this weekend.

Here’s how it relates to riding a bike. You can explain everything. You can make every instruction as clear as possible. You can model it. You can walk someone through it. None of this is sufficient for true skill-building or deep learning.

At some point, the student needs to experience it firsthand. This is the essence of teaching and an important distinction from lecturing. Great teachers and coaches do not instruct as much as they coax. They lead a student only as close to the precipice as needed, and then they wait for the leap of faith.

Sometimes it is difficult for a student to take that leap of faith, but it must be done if the student is to truly own the knowledge and make it their own. Thus, new knowledge is deeply personal. It is an internal change based on faith, trust, and experience.

The distinction between knowing it as fact vs knowing it on faith, trust, and experience is one I see on a daily basis. Sometimes we believe we know facts cognitively, but we lack the faith, trust, and experience to know it by heart, feel it in the bones, trust it in the gut. That last level of learning is critical.

Sometimes it isn’t all that hard to achieve. The student just seems to know it by heart from the very beginning. It’s like all we need to do is get out of the way. And I think this is a good reminder for all of us who teach and coach.

Our ability to learn is incredible, and it isn’t an act of force. We don’t control others’ learning. Learning is an act of subtly. It’s a twist here, a tweak there, a getting out of the way in many cases.

In other cases, it’s gently coaxing the student out of their own way. This is one reason why having a great relationship with a student matters when learning is not coming easily. It’s about knowing the student, what is already inside him, and pointing to the gap between what’s inside and what’s to be learned. The learning is all about bridging that gap, and it’s leap of faith and trust the student must take on her own.

If you see that gap as a vessel that needs to be filled, you are likely to try to fill it, and in the process, you are more likely to confuse the student by pointing in the wrong direction: Toward what you know. The gap can’t be filled by the teacher, it must be traversed by the student. Traversing the gap requires the student to use an internal fire to move mentally or physically, and I believe this is why Socrates viewed learning as a kindling of a flame rather than the filling of a vessel.

Learning is about the fire inside the student, the will and curiosity to pedal that bike, to take the leap of faith and trust into the gap. As teachers and coaches, if we are to be at our best, we need to respect that individual journey.

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