How Doug Engelbart taught kids to ride a bike
(without training wheels)

When Doug Engelbart was a kid, he and his brother used to practice trick bike riding. They got so they could bend over and scoop something off the ground while riding (without losing speed and without squatting down), ride their bikes backwards seated on their handlebars, and other fancy feats.

When it came time for his own kids to learn how to ride a bike, at a time when most kids would go from riding a tricycle, to riding a bicycle with training wheels, and finally riding a bicycle without training wheels, Doug figured he could just skip the with training wheels part. After all, their only function was to keep the bike from falling over!

Doug knew from practiced experience and an inquisitive analytical mind that as you pedal along, all it takes to keep the bike from falling over is steering. In fact, the reason you don't fall over is you are constantly making tiny corrections, and sometimes last-minute bigger corrections, with your handlebars (or, if you're a big shot riding with no hands, by shifting your weight). What you're actually doing without thinking is sensing the bike starting to tilt, and reacting by steering the bike in that same direction just enough to un-tilt your bike and straighten out more or less, over and over again. This becomes very evident as you slow down to a stop, if you keep your feet on the pedals you will automatically try to use steering to keep the bike from falling over. Somehow everyone who ever learned to ride a bike learned this.

It turns out, you don't have to steer if you just get a gentle, even back and forth see-sawing motion going with the handlebars as you roll along, the back and forth motion usually corrects the tilting soon enough and you won't fall. In fact, someone with little or no bike riding experience at all can just see-saw their handlebars as they pedal and mostly not fall.

So this is how Doug taught kids to ride. First he would show them how he could see-saw his handlebars back and forth while he pedaled slowly on his bike. Then he would ask them to try the same thing as he walked alongside, holding onto the bike loosely just to help it maintain a reasonable speed, and to keep it/them from falling when they over- or under-corrected. As long as they kept moving forward and see-sawing the handlebars, they would naturally start to get a feel for this direct relationship between tilting, steering and untilting, and gradually start refining the motions, and pretty soon off they'd go.

He found it helped to have the kids play around with how gentle or exaggerated the see-sawing motions needed to be to stay upright. It also helped to practice in a wide open space to avoid having to make any turns or run into stuff -- a quiet street, empty parking lot, or even a mowed field will do. Practicing how to stop is important too.

So that's the trick to learning to ride without training wheels. As a matter of fact, training wheels can actually impede the learning process by interfering with the tilting-steering-untilting cause and effect experience, either by keeping the bike from tilting, or with looser training wheels, by training the kids to keep the bike from falling by leaning into one training wheel or the other rather than steering.

Doug's inquisitive nature, adventurous attitude, compassion, and patience were a key part of his success with this method. He never coined a term for it, but in later years one of his daughters referred to it as his "wibble-wobble method" -- one of his lesser known but highly endearing innovations.

How this applies to using computers

There are several lessons here for computer users and developers when it comes to the admonition that computers have to be "easy to learn", which has been a dominant force in the industry. Sure, easy to learn is great. But that didn't stop most of us from learning to ride a bicycle instead of sticking with the easier to learn tricycle. For those of us who want the added speed and agility of a bicycle, it's well worth the learning curve. As for training wheels, even when we thought they were necessary, we only used them as a step up, to be shed as soon as we could get along without them.

Back in 1963, Doug invented the mouse because he was looking for an efficient and accurate way to point into an information space, and in his 1968 Mother of All Demos he demonstrated the power and agility you get when you shed the paper-based paradigm in favor of jumping around to precisely where in the information space you need to go, with any view of that piece of information that best suits you in that moment, and send someone else a link to that specific piece of information which could be deep in some file somewhere, which will jump them to this same spot with this same view of it, and then turn and connect with co-workers via shared-screen teleconferencing to jointly edit the report you are drafting and show each other what you've been working on.

And yet here it is, 41 years later, and we are still limited to a largely paper-based paradigm (opening a file and then scrolling to find something), with our only alternatives to zero in on information being a Find/Search, or following a link supplied by someone else. And our primary alternative to a Normal view of a file is either a Print view or an outline view (which is such a big context switch, it puts you in a different mode). And we still can't count on being able to connect with colleagues via shared screen the way Doug did in his 1968 demo.

How much of our higher functioning potential is impeded by this tricycle-equivalent information system paradigm? How much of what we use today would we shed in favor of higher performance tools, even if they were harder to learn than riding a bicycle? And how much sooner would we get there if, instead of adopting training wheels as the default standard, we had a better understanding of just how people could use computers if they had a proven path that would get them there more efficiently? How much sooner could we boost our Collective IQ sufficient to address the major challenges we face?

For more information see Doug's Vision Highlights and About an Open Hyperdocument System (OHS) on the Doug Engelbart Institute website.