How to Learn by Creating Micro-skills: Shaping by Bike
Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 13:35
Dr Karen in Learning Strategies

Possibilities has an internal learning program that includes a section on a learning / teaching technique called "shaping". I happened to come across this great youtube video about teaching a child to ride a bike.

So what's riding a bike got to do with shaping? Or with learning in general?

So glad you asked ;-)

There are a couple of ways our brains learn new stuff:

(1) All at once ( or apparently all at once) in an aha! moment of blinding insight. It's hard to arrage for this to happen (although there are some techniques to encourage it, but that's a post for another day. :-)

(2) Gradually, building on existing knowledge and skills, to get closer and closer to the final goal.

And that's where shaping comes in.

Shaping is known in the jargon-filled world of behavioural psychology as "successive approximation". It means learning to do something in the smallest of steps -- getting closer and closer (approximating, eh?) to some final version. I like to imagine someone sculpting a face from a pile of clay. They start by making a general head shape, then kind of sort of eyes and nose and ears and mouth areas, then little by little make it look more and more like a face, then gradually more and more like a specific face until... voila!... it's the final product they were aiming for from the beginning.

In teaching someone else how to do something new (or re-learn something old), it's a real skill to know how to break down a task or activity so the steps are small enough to ensure success at each stage -- so the person doesn't get discouraged and yet still feels they are making progress.

And that's why I like this video about teaching a child how to ride a bike so much. It's a fabulous example of how to break down what bike-riding is all about -- into the teeny-tiny micro-skills -- and find ways to let the child learn each micro-skill by building on what came before.

What do you want to learn? What do you need to teach?

How could you use this example to create a set of micro-skills that gradually lead to the whole activity? Do share your thoughts -- we can create a whole set of examples to jog people's creativity or brainstorm ideas with you if you get stuck!

Article originally appeared on abi Possibilities (
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