Tight shirts, three-bolt cycling shoes and 0% body fat are not my thing.
And that, my friends, was the humorous but lame excuse I used for years when asked why I wouldn’t just ride my bike in a city notorious for sluggish traffic. The truth was that bike commuting felt like too big of a behavioral hurdle and identity change for me. I felt intimidated by cars and faster bikers. I wasn’t sure I was in good enough physical shape. Planning my day with a car was hard enough. In short, biking felt insurmountable. So instead of conquering it, I ridiculed it.
I remember this feeling while working with teachers on incorporating more inquiry into their teaching practice. Why change when current behaviors have essentially “worked” for so long? What will instructional changes mean in terms of identity and relationships with students, colleagues and parents? What is the risk involved regarding student performance on assessments and performance evaluations? Like bike commuting, inquiry teaching can seem insurmountable.
Influencing change in human behavior requires many things, but first and foremost it requires a belief that the new behavior will yield some sort of tangible improvement and that one is even able to change at all.
Biking has some obvious benefits: increasing fitness levels, helping the environment and saving time & money. The benefits of changing instructional practice are similarly obvious: higher rates of student and teacher engagement, deeper understanding and satisfaction. But even these super juicy carrots, like carrots themselves (sorry Carrot Association), they aren’t always enough of a motivator for people to change.
So…what is the motivator for change?
Being part of a community of people who are making the same changes is vital. This is where the research around peer pressure is especially interesting and relevant. Tina Rosenberg, author of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” writes that we often view peer pressure only in its negative form. However, peer pressure is used with terrific success in such activities as weight loss (Weight Watchers), alcohol cessation (AA) and social change (mass boycotts). It works in education, too.
1) Being Around Others Who Do It – and Watching Them
Anne is one of the black swans of the biking world. Low-key and soft-spoken, Anne festoons her bike basket with colorful Christmas lights. She rides in fashionable boots and a cute trench coat. She moves at her own speed. She rides her bike to pick up her kids, her groceries and her dry cleaning. It’s just no big deal. Watching Anne move around my neighborhood motivated me. Turns out, Anne was willing to bring me into her circle of biking enthusiasts.
It wasn’t until my fourth year of teaching that I learned about and experienced inquiry-based instruction. I was teaching at an international school in Quito, Ecuador and attended a session where a physics inquiry lesson was simulated for a group of teachers. This experience was a revelation to me and I spent as much time as possible with these inquiry gurus. I soon abandoned the ‘command & control’ approach I was taught in my education courses. I watched videos on inquiry wherever I could find them and continued to seek out and surround myself with colleagues who were doing the same.
2) Real Time Coaching After understanding my goals and preferences for riding (in my case, commuting to and from work), Anne came to my house, showed me city bike maps, gave me a book (the supremely readable Just Ride by Grant Petersen) and handed me a Washington Bicycle Law pocket guide. She took stock of my bike and gear to make sure it was minimally functional and then we were off and biking together, Anne leading the way.
She assessed traffic patterns, distance, hills and even mapped out great coffee shops, finding the route that would work best for me. She shouted out pieces of advice during our journey: “Stay away from parked cars in case doors open.” “Make eye contact with the driver here.” “Put just one foot down at this stop sign.” The lessons came quickly; we dealt with impatient drivers who wanted to pass, faster bike riders, car doors, parallel parkers, pedestrians, lights, crosswalks and even pouring rain – all within a 24-minute ride. I learned how to be predictable and when not to be predictable (a little wobble every once in awhile keeps drivers on their toes apparently). The chaperoned ride experience helped me conquer any doubts I may have harbored about my ability to do this. I could and I did.
This year a few high school teachers allowed me into their classrooms to do some real-time coaching. Students were engaged in the lesson coaching and analysis as well; answering questions like like: “Do you need a minute to reflect here?” or “Which of these questions do you want to tackle the most/least?” Rarely do they see their teachers being coached or reflecting on their craft. Suddenly, their own teacher was making mistakes, learning and growing right before their very eyes. The lesson became a backdrop to other, more enduring, lessons and the energy in the room shifted, opened and yes, a beam of light shone I’m sure through the windows.
3) Practice and Reflection (and some Accountability)
Following someone was one thing. Leading was another. I led the ride home, Anne following close behind like a trailing security blanket. Real time coaching continued but less urgently and often came in the form of questions like “What do you think you should do here?”
When I get off my bike, I feel a sense of real accomplishment. I’ve cleared my head and pushed fresh air in and out of my lungs. I’ve taken charge, made big decisions and been brave. It’s how I feel every time I teach, too.
We all need “Ride Guides,” and not just for biking but for any significant behavioral changes we want to make in our lives. If you don’t have any yet, how can you find them? Bike commuting and inquiry instruction both still feel ‘fringy’ to me. How can we support one another so that inquiry teaching is more the default pedagogy rather than an edgy alternative? Who are your instructional “Ride Guides”?