A Lesson About Brakes and Education from Mountain Biking

I had not been on a bike since I was a kid.  And I recently found myself on a mountain bike atop a rocky mountain, told not to worry, “it’s just downhill.”  Downhill, I discovered, has its own fear factors.  The ride frequently varies in steepness and speed and these changes are often unanticipated.  It is also very bumpy.  But in the varied moments of this thrilling and terrifying ride, I tapped into some survival skills that got me down the mountain.  They also got me thinking about our unique educational environment, as we alternate between the terrains of different learning modes and spaces.  I wonder what navigational strategies can be applied to current learning.


From the mountain top, the realization that there was nowhere to go but down was compounded with “I can’t believe my kids are doing this,” and they were way ahead of me on the trail.  I considered walking my bike down, but that would not get me moving nearly as quickly and there was the added fear of falling behind the group in an unfamiliar and remote mountainous area.  I had three goals.  I wanted to get to my kids, not fall behind, and somehow manage to enjoy the ride while avoiding getting seriously injured.  Sometimes problem solving is best achieved when approached from a seemingly unrelated experience, requiring parallel skills.  So, I took on mountain biking as an educator.  I wondered what steps for tackling a difficult assignment could get me down this mountain.

Two of the best friends I made on this biking adventure were my brakes.  Like in any relationship where we learn our boundaries; when to keep our guards up and when to let ourselves go, I learned how to incorporate my brakes.  I was advised by a biker enthusiast friend to keep my hands on both hand brakes and to use them in tandem throughout the ride.  This would help me maintain control, or at least a semblance of it.  I was also cautioned that excessive use or use not timed well could make the ride increasingly difficult, while reduced usage could make for a safer and smoother ride.  I realized that no matter how tightly I held to these words, even as my life depended on them, no one could script for me exactly how to apply them.  That would be part of my journey.

At a scenic stop along the way, I paused to take in the sight of a magnificent waterfall.  I reflected on a verse from Psalms 2:11 that captured how I was feeling: “v’gilu b’re’ada”, translated as “so that you may rejoice when there is trembling.”  I have often been struck by the paradox of these words; rejoicing and trembling; joy and fear.  But I felt especially connected to them at that moment in time.  There was this alternating gust of exhilaration as the wind passed over me, and fear when I paused to really think about where I was and what I was doing.  I took a deep breath, said a little prayer, mustered my inner will power and determination and continued to the base of the mountain.

Imagine taking this perseverance from the bike trail back into the classroom and applying it to a challenging task.  There may be a desire to succeed, fear of failure, and concerns about measuring up to peers or our own personal standards in the process of trying.  Imagine that as you are trudging away at your work, there are bumps in the road, as is often the case.  There may be technical glitches, time constraints, challenges relating to language or comprehension, or even social obstacles if it is a group assignment.  There may also be irregular schedule or venue changes that require reorientation. What recourse do you have in contending with these challenges?

Imagine metaphorical brakes.  Imagine them as tools you can rely on to help you maintain balance when the incline gets steep or the speed becomes more rapid that you would like or than expected.  Think of them as regulatory devices when you are required to switch gears, just as you are beginning to feel consistency in piloting the ride. Think of these brakes as either the people or skills that you can count on to help you stay motivated to keep working toward your goal.  Consider how they can support you, how you can access them, and how to gauge the extent and frequency of involvement that would be most helpful.

Brakes can include a school instructor, colleague, learning partner, or family member.  They can include organizational techniques like schedule keeping or note taking.  Brakes can also include security items, ranging from certain work supplies to personal items for comfort, or reference material.  They can include moments for reflection, like my stop at the waterfall, to draw on inspirational messages or experiences.  Though there may be guidelines for when to apply your brakes, only you can create the pattern that best suits you and your experience.  Certainly, there is a learning curve when finding the rhythm that works best.

It takes time to identify our brakes, apply them appropriately, and keep them in check to make sure they are in working order.  Sometimes they need to be repaired or replaced and when that happens it is important to devote our attention to making those adjustments.  There are inevitably bumps in the road, whether on a rocky mountainous biking trail, or in the exciting yet sometimes daunting moments of our teaching and learning.  It can be helpful to get acquainted with our brakes so that we can use them to pace ourselves, create our own rhythms, and feel safe while enjoying the ride.

About the Author
Aviva Edelstein is an educational consultant living in Teaneck, NJ. She has experience in both formal and informal education as well as homeschool curriculum design and instruction.
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