When the Time is Right

Living in Hong Kong provides many opportunities and conveniences. Cycling on the island is not always one of them. In the early hours of weekend mornings one can spot groups of riders on the road in tight formations climbing hills before zipping down their slopes, but the narrow roads and even faster drivers make this a rather dangerous pastime for adults. In the three years I lived there I never saw a child ride along the Hong Kong roads, and for good reason. In fact, there are very few designated and safe places for youths to cycle at all and many of these are rather far out in the New Territories. That is one reason why my daughter Alexia never learned to ride a bicycle when we lived in Hong Kong. There were simply too few opportunities and since she never saw her friends model bike riding, she never had the inclination to ride herself.

Living in a compound in Riyadh is a whole different proposition. The heat can be just as oppressive as in Hong Kong during parts of the year (trade 32C and 99% humidity for 47C and 15% humidity), but the compound’s safe streets bring children who come from all parts of the world out on their bikes. Unlike in Hong Kong, there is little traffic and bikes are the kids’ main mode of transport. 

When we arrived in Saudi Arabia, I bought my son Nico a bicycle and he has been out every day. (He learned to ride in Singapore.) Alexia, who was 8 years old when we arrived, did not want a bike. She simply would not get on one. The problem was that Alexia was too big for a bike with training wheels but did not have the confidence to ride without them. I tried to get her to ride my son’s bike (seat down, handles tilted, running along beside her…) without success. I watched YouTube for alternative ways to teach since I was having no success at all. Nothing. So for several months, Alexia rode her scooter and that was that. 

Then in mid-March, without any prompting, Alexia climbed on Nico’s bike and started to balance alongside the sidewalk curb. She did not attempt to use the pedals but just tried to keep steady, which was difficult since she was stationary. Then she placed her feet on the pedals, tried to push off…and fell over. Spotting this from not too far away, I came over to help. Alexia tried again and I held her, but honestly I thought this was going to be another episode where I end up out of breath and soaked in sweat, consoling a frustrated little girl.

Not this time. Alexia picked up and went. She went three times around the perimeter of the compound and told me she wanted a bike of her own. 

Alexia just needed to be ready to learn. 

This raises the question, why do we design curriculum based on when we believe children should learn what (and often how)? Compound this inexplicability with the fact that we batch children based on age and assume all 20 or 30 students in the room are ready and willing to learn the same concept on the same designated day. Somehow we accept that every individual in the room is open and ready to learn a skill because the curriculum says that it is time to learn said skill. Even if we make room for some level of differentiation, even if we allow for sequentiality and increased complexity, this makes little sense. Sure, the children will pick up skills, but are we ensuring retention, meaningfulness, and transferability? Are we providing a context for deeper learning?

It didn’t matter if I was ready to teach her or if I thought she was ready to learn. It mattered that it was the right time, right place, the right incentive for Alexia.

All learners need to be ready emotionally before we can expect them to learn and have this learning stick. Of course there is a short-term issue at play and any parent will attest that it is very difficult to reason with child going through a tantrum—not much will get through until things calm down. There is, however, also a longer term question of emotional readiness. Learning is most effective when the child is emotionally ready. Alexia did not physically change over a week and suddenly become capable of riding a bike. She was not emotionally open, emotionally ready until she decided she was. Whatever triggered that is a mystery, at least to me—this makes me want to ask Alexia if she is aware herself. I realized that my job was to give Alexia what she needed when she was emotionally ready, or rather, my job was to provide the conditions to spark Alexia’s emotional readiness, to provide a context (access to a bike) and a stretch her enough so that she could access her learning when she was ready (encourage her to ride and make her feel physically and emotionally safe). She would learn when she was ready and I tried to be there to give her what she needed. (To be fair, Alexia picked the bike up all on her own, so I really didn’t do much other than provide her with encouragement and Nico’s bike, but this is a lesson learned for me as well.)

If we accept the idea—which continues to be controversial in some circles—that schools should focus on providing learners with what they need, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept the notion that delivering the same instruction of content (too often at the same level of challenge) to a group of learners is the most effective way to foster deep and meaningful learning. Rather, it makes more sense to provide experiences for learners that require the acquisition and development of specific content, skills, and competencies as and when they need it. This means that a student plays a critical part in determining how the unit unfolds. Much like the “choose your own adventure” books we read as kids, the teacher provides the shell for learning, with target competency outcomes to reach (preferably identified in collaboration with the student), and the student determines how she will demonstrate mastery of the competencies and understanding of the main concept or idea.

As Katie Martin suggests, this “doesn’t mean that the standards and the curriculum are irrelevant; it means they are used to meet the needs of the learner and in service of meaningful learning outcomes rather than expecting the learner to adapt to the curriculum. Personal and authentic learning experiences require knowing the learners in the classroom¹.” Getting to know what motivates learners, what their previous experiences have been, how they respond to challenge, what they are curious about, what they already know, what they identify with… the endless complexities that make children and adults human, that is what we need to design learning experiences. Let’s imagine a world where we respected learners as individuals and no longer imposed a cookie-cutter curriculum based on aleatory standards. Let’s meet the learner where they are at the right time so that they find motivation and meaning in their learning and have it stick. Much like with riding a bike, learning happens when the learner is ready, not the teacher. 

  1. Katie Martin, Learner-Centered Innovation. Kindle Ebook. (Unknown: Impress Books, 2018).

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