01/07/2013 10:10 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

Like Riding a Bicycle: If Learned, It Cannot Be Forgotten. And It Might as Well Not Be Tested.

A psycholinguist with an all-American name -- though he was born in England and lives in Canada -- Frank Smith wrote in The Book of Learning and Forgetting that when we learn things, really learn them, they can never be forgotten.

The "riding a bicycle" example is exemplary for a reason.

There may be steps along the way. There may be some teaching for a while. There may be some period in which the pieces -- steering, pedaling, braking -- have to be mastered separately.

But once a kid knows how to fly effortlessly down the block, the task is learned. And it is remembered all her life. (There could be strokes or rustiness, and muscles could atrophy. But barring all that, this skill is not forgettable.)

Students will use their bike-riding for whatever purposes they need. They will go off in dozens of directions, some to churches and some to prisons, some to malls and some to forests. Some, few, will create new forms of bikecraft, and some will crash. Some will invent generators and some will tow neighbor dogs. Some will be able to ride to a job and support their families.

As a teacher, I want all my subjects to be like bicycle riding.

I want students to want to learn. I want them to find elation in mastery. I want them to go off on their own, forgetting that they ever had to learn.

I want the process to be just challenging enough to engage their attention.

I want the teaching to be incidental.

I want the learning to become part of their nature.

Compare this to too many examples of regular classroom learning, at any level: Students arrive with no reason to learn. No elation. Instant forgetting. Focus on the teacher. A plan mapped out in advance. Automatic expectation that many will fail. Anxiety about evaluation.

Lots of subjects are like bicycle riding: Reading. Foreign languages. Music performance. Philosophical analysis. Historical, sociological, anthropological reasoning. If students really learn, they can never forget. And they are changed in the process.

And if we think about testing and grading: In bike riding the test is the ride. The grade... is the ride. What should the grade distribution be? How many A's should we expect? Who has a natural aptitude for riding?

The more we can help our students become free to go off, holding them upright just long enough for them to get their balance, the better we can attain our goals, which should be their goals too.

As a new semester begins, I hope to remind myself that a child who learns to ride a bicycle is free to roam. What kinds of freedoms am I helping my students develop? I have to accept that I can't predict their paths, and celebrate their many roads.

I hope at least a few will send postcards.