On balance bikes and stabilisers: how we should support and scaffold

You’re teaching a toddler to ride a bike.

You don’t want to stick them on a bicycle straight away. That would be an injurious, bloody, tear-filled, failure. You want to give them a little extra support.

You go to the bike shop. A spotty teenager tells you that you have two options: a balance bike, or stabilisers.

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You may not think it matters. Both seem similar: both keep the child upright, moving along, in a way they couldn’t on a regular bike. Your choice has big implications.

Give stabilisers, and you get something that looks more like a real bike. But the stabilisers are doing the hard work of balancing for the kid. Yes, it gives a child a chance to practice some steering, and it’s nice for them to be able to keep up with others who can already ride, but the whole time they’re riding with stabilisers, they’re missing out on practice of the core element of bike riding: staying upright by balancing.

A balance bike, on the other hand, specifically hones in on that crucial skill. It makes them work harder, concentrate more on, hone in on that one critical element of bike riding. It’s all about the balance.

So in fact, stabilisers and balance bikes are polar opposites: one removes the balancing aspect altogether, and one takes the balancing aspect and puts it centre stage.

The nature of the support, scaffolding and differentiation we give can be like stabilisers or like a balance bike. It can either remove the most crucial, central tricky part of our subject from the task, or put it centre stage.

It can be difficult to tell the difference on a surface level. It can be impossible to tell based on the work produced. One needs to think about the long term implications. We remember what we think about. Is your scaffold encouraging or discouraging thinking about the core subject content?

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“Stabiliser help” helps pupils by allowing them not to think about the hard stuff. A literacy mat that gives them the answer to whether it’s “they’re” or “their”, so they never have to figure it out for themselves. A times table grid poster up in class, so the pupils can outsource their knowledge of basic number facts and never have to automate them. Cloze sentences so tightly controlled that it becomes an exercise in “pick the adjective” rather than construction of an argument.

“Balance bike help” makes things more accessible, but in the opposite way to stabilisers. It concentrates on that core bit of thinking that is key for ultimate success. It might be spending a whole lesson on a sentence. Going back three steps to concentrate on the underpinning knowledge they’re missing. Giving mnemonics that cue deeper domain content.

The key questions need to be:

1. What do my pupils need to be thinking about to master this content?

2. Does my scaffold mean they concentrate on that thinking, or does it do that thinking for them?

Balance bike tasks might seem less impressive than a stabiliser task. Short term, the evidence from observations and book looks might be more favourable to stabiliser tasks. This is the problem with focusing on performance versus learning. Long term, it’s balance bikes that’ll lead to success on the real thing. Let’s throw the stabilisers away.



20 thoughts on “On balance bikes and stabilisers: how we should support and scaffold

  1. cbokhove

    It’s a wonderful analogy, especially for parents. But this also tells you the analogy is flawed. Both are used, they signify different phases in growing up. A balance bike is more a walking aid. You use your feet to go forward and you can’t easily steer. You do move faster. The stabiliser wheels preceed cycling without them. For a short time (some use them to long) it helps taking the mind off having to do the looking around AND trying to balance AND steer etc. not unlike the first phases when learning how to drive. Dare I say it decreases cognitive load just like worked examples and scaffolds your way into an inevitable moment when the wheels have to go. Then you’re on your own. You will fail/fall but eventually get up and know how to cycle.

  2. Martin Robinson

    Although there is more to it than that… Should we teach the rudiments of braking first? When should we introduce pedalling? For some kids stabilisers are a good thing (some), What terrain is best to learn on? Smooth and hard great for balancing, bad for falling, should we hold the saddle or shoulders early on? Should we run along? How useful is direct instruction vs discovery learning? So many imponderables… I like this article about learning to ride a bike:


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  4. julietgreen

    But just to throw a spanner in the spokes of the analogy – many children do learn to ride on a normal bike without stabilisers! Not sure if that has any correlates in the metaphor.

    1. teachwell

      The bright sparks and gifted ones – yes they get on the bike and ride it straight away. However, I would say that it can be different for different lessons. I think that it is sad when teachers take the literacy and numeracy tables to decide the work that is given for foundation subjects in primary schools. In that case, we are getting children to ride a balance bike or a stabiliser bike when they really don’t need one!!

  5. Helen

    A left field observation: specifically on bikes, a small survey of toddlers I know seems to suggest balance bikes with for boys, but girls prefer stabilisers. Don’t know if the analogy goes any further on that one…

  6. Meg

    Brilliant analogy clarifying scaffolding to support growth rather than just completion… taking our eyes off the end product for a wee bit so we can focus on the process and learning within. It’s getting to the core of what is most important for our learners in the given moment, in our planning, for their journey and learning.

  7. heatherfblog

    Sorry I am also going to comment on the analogy. I can’t resist having tried both stabilisers and balance bikes with my kids. My son refused to use his balance bike. He found the challenge too stressful. After a few years of it sitting in the shed I had to give the balance bike away to a more intrepid 3 year old in virtually pristine condition. I find my classes behave in a similar fashion when given tasks that genuinely get to the heart of the challenge. They don’t thank you for it. They don’t like the challenge and hate struggle and prefer something easier which doesn’t really directly address the actual area progress is needed. A recent example was getting my GCSE history class to explain how a range of events led to other events. I was so proud of my teacher self. Yes! I had diagnosed the problem. My class were far from grateful and moaned and dragged their feet through the task. If I had cared enough about my son learning to ride his bike I’d have pushed through his resistance. I might refine the explanation task and break it down if possible but know that if I want the class to get a better understanding of the historical period I’ll have to push through the resistance!

  8. Di Baker

    Thanks Bodil, nice post. Like others here, my own experience of balance bikes and stabilisers doesn’t completely tally with the analogy (though I agree with much of it), but it really set me to thinking about the experience of teaching two small people to ride, and any lessons I could draw from it. Things that came to me:

    1. Daughter 1 wanted to learn to ride because her dad is a cyclist. Daughter 2 wanted to learn to ride because her sister could. Both were motivated initially by wanting to be like someone rather than to do something. Only once they were learning did wanting to do the thing become more important.

    2. The balance bike was great. It taught both girls balance, which is key, early on. But stabilisers were useful. Peddling is trickier that it seems to an adult who can cycle already, and stabilisers helped them get to grips with it (and other fiddly skills such as breaking) without having to worry about the balancing. But they didn’t lose the skill of balancing and once they nailed the fiddly stuff, they were able to combine it with the balancing very quickly. It was useful to briefly outsource responsibility for one task to create the complete freedom to master another.

    3. The stabilisers also reduced the desire to give up all together. We popped them on and off over the course of a week as each one transferred from balance to pedal, and this gave them periods of cognitive and physical respite, without taking a complete break. It enabled them to build up to combining all the skills they needed (including not hitting parked cars) completely and confidently, without having to ‘regress’ to the balance bike, which wouldn’t have helped anyway, as by this point it was co-ordination and stamina that were key, not balance.

    Anyway, having already overextended the analogy, I guess my thoughts are, 1. role models (though not quite sure what about them, but something), 2. that sometimes the things that we think are the easy bits (like pushing peddles round and round) are deceptively tricky, and 3. that maybe there is occasionally a place for stabiliser-type scaffolds, especially if we are teaching pupils to combine a load of skills together and we want to give them the mental space to focus on the skill of combining and not just the skills they are combining.

  9. thequirkyteacher

    I, too, use the stabiliser analogy. I find that, at some point, you observe your own children cycling with stabilisers and realise that they look a bit daft, especially when ‘cycling’ round corners. At the same time, you realise that they have become lazy and reluctant to cycle without the damn things. So, you do what any normal parent would do: take the stabilisers off, ignore the whining and give the kid a shove down the (traffic-free) street. This strategy has worked wonders; one of my children actually took just 10 minutes to learn to ride a bike properly via this method.

    I also have this in mind when confronted with older children who are still using ‘stabilisers’ in the classroom. I have found that there will be many who really just need a teacher with the mental strength to weather the whining and pleading, a teacher who doesn’t mind being The Enemy for a week or 3, so that they can experience the slight trauma of suddenly being expected to do what all the other children are doing. Again, this strategy has worked wonders, and the children have risen to the challenge whilst also boosting their own confidence. I have been there to catch them if they fall because, the way I see it, there won’t be anyone there to catch them in Year 7. This strategy of dependency-reduction also means that I can actually work with a higher achieving group every now and then, or can re-double my focus on the disabled children who truly need me more. Obviously, this strategy cannot be deployed whilst Ofsted are in the vicinity, because it ‘looks’ like you’re not differentiating enough, as we all know Ofsted like to see the teacher produce lots of dependency-inducing, highly scaffolded worksheets for LAPs.

    However, there is one spanner in the works: the LSA. I find that the psychology of the typical LSA is such that their raison d’etre is all about helping the ‘needy’, and I often observe a concerning amount of codependency. This kind of (s)mothering really gets on my nerves, and I can’t stand it that the ‘scaffolding’ provided by the LSA can be so extensive that the children sat with her are not even expected to be able to cope with being silent and listening whilst the teacher is talking. Frequently I have to put up with children simply turning to the LSA and asking her an inane question about the weather whilst I am talking to the class about common denominators or something. You’d think that 9 year olds should be expected to have a little inhibition and the ability to listen, surely? And then the LSA and the children on the LAPs table have a lovely, smiley chat about the weather before settling back into the main class activities. Grrrrr.

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  11. Kristian

    Simple idea. Neatly articulated. If anyone wonder why we both to write out loud, then the comments here certainly put forward a compelling case. What I thought was a simple idea has many more layers than I first thought.

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