Old Chinese proverb: “Nothing can be taught; everything can be learned”

How I taught my son to ride a bicycle.

Now, riding a bike is quite a complex process. I don’t remember learning myself, because it was such a long time ago. But I had a pretty good idea that it was something to do with the physics of displacement. So, I looked this up on the Internet, and then set him an assignment where he was to come up with a written explanation of displacement.

This is what he wrote:
“Displacement is unconscious defence meckanism, where people may, for example, take out their anger on an object when they are really angry at a person.”

I pointed out that this had nothing to do with riding a bike.

So, I told him to learn all he could about NEWTONIAN physics and displacement, not displacement in psychological terms, and pointed out that mechanism was spelt wrong.

When, I tested him on Newtonian physics all he could tell me was something about the apple story, not being strictly true and that it may have been “apokfril”.
He wanted to know what that word meant. I told him that it had nothing to do with riding a bicycle and if he wanted to learn before he was ten, then he’d better get serious.

I told him until he understood about displacement, he’d never be able to do it.

Next week when I tested him, he still hadn’t made any progress. So I told him that there was no point in continuing this – he clearly didn’t have the mental capacity to ride a bike.

A week later, he rode past and told me that the man next door had taught him to ride. I was a little perplexed, as to the best of my knowledge the man next door wasn’t as intelligent as me, so I failed to see how he could teach my son displacement.

I walked next door.

“G’day,” the man said.
“How on earth did you teach my son to ride,” I asked him.
“I put him on a bike,” he replied. “ He fell off a few times, but after that he got the hang of it pretty quick.”

I immediately went home and gave my son another test on displacement, but he failed, so he won’t be riding any time soon.


The function of education when I was a student was as a sifting process. Some left school at fifteen, others stayed and attempted “Leaving” - equivalent to Year 11 – and a smaller number attempted Higher School Certificate. You were educated until you reached a point, where it seemed that any further education would be wasted on you. Of course, HSC was primarily to see who was worth sending to University.

To what extent, we still approach education in this way varies from school to school, from country to country, but one thing is for sure: We are vastly underestimating what is possible, when it comes to changing the capacity of students for learning. We tend to view the brain as a fixed entity, and that certain students have certain capacities. We say,“No Freddy can’t do Maths Methods, he’s not capable,” rather than Freddy is having difficulties with Maths, what can we do to fix it.

And I’m sure that some of you will be thinking that some people aren’t capable of some things. True enough, but we have a tendency to surrender too early without examining other strategies or look for the source of the problem.

Do we ask why can’t Freddy do Maths? Have we looked at recent research into the brain, and how to improve its capacity? Or do we still see ourselves as a sifting process, educating students to a certain point and then say, "Well, you've gone about as far you can go, no lifelong learning for you!"









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