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Making skills growth as easy as riding a bike

Blog posts | 21.06.2022

Jessica Harms

Senior Learning Designer at Kineo US

I am scared of riding a bike. I know, I know. If you are like most people, you are shocked by that statement because riding a bike is so easy. 

You have total confidence in riding a bike because you know how to do it. Over the years, you’ve practiced riding your bike and you’ve also been practicing the thought “I can ride a bike” until it became an automatic thought. When you ride a bike, you don’t even have to think about what you are doing because you have an unshakable belief that you can do it.

Learning a new skill - fear of the unknown

Now, let’s say I asked you to ride a unicycle. This is a totally new skill you’ve never tried before. Chances are, you do not have the automatic thought “I can ride a unicycle” and you are beginning to feel some feelings of fear at the prospect. 

So, would you rather learn to ride a unicycle on the grass or on the pavement? 

I am totally team grass! I’ve had enough skinned knees in my lifetime. 

We know that practicing with a soft place to land is essential in teaching our children new skills. And it is the exact same process for teaching adults new skills in the workplace. Learning to ride the unicycle on the grass is “low-risk” whereas learning to ride the unicycle on pavement is “high-risk.” 

By providing low-risk practice opportunities, we make it safer to fall and more likely that our learners will be willing to try. 

Because until we try, we will not think “I can do it.” 

Digital learning conjures confidence and has low-risk appeal 

Elearning is the perfect place to provide low-risk practice, because it does not have a high impact on a person’s public performance or review and it can focus on feedback instead of scores. Plus, in the real world, I cannot rewind and change the error that made me fall off the bike, but in elearning, I can! I can take back my skinned knees! 

We want our colleagues to be “all in” on learning and changing, but how can they do that if they feel unsafe and unsure? 

When you first started riding a bike, you most likely used a tricycle, then a bike with training wheels. Next you then celebrated the day you became a real “big kid” when your training wheels were removed. The first thing you probably think is “well, yes, these increase in difficulty.” And while that is true, they are also graduated steps from low-risk to high-risk. Common instructional design models that follow these graduated risk steps include “I do, we do, you do” and “show me, try it, test me.” 

Carefully scale up 

If we skip the “we do” or the “try it” phase, we jump right into the deep end of high-risk. A big reason learners often hate role-playing is because it’s high risk. If you don’t succeed, you fail in front of a room full of your peers, or even, dare I say it, your managers! 

When we fail, we risk reinforcing the idea that “I can’t do it.” What’s more, when we fail in an unsafe, high-risk environment, this triggers our primitive brain and the fight, flight, or freeze response. Eventually, this performance anxiety may grow into a major barrier to learning and development. 

The benefits of low-risk learning 

But what if you could practice independently through elearning in a simulation? Then, once you feel confident that you can do it, you’d be much more willing to try it in a role-play. And from there, apply the skill and use it in real life. 

Low-risk opportunities alleviate anxiety, allow us to assess current knowledge and skill levels and strengthen the feedback loop.

People learn best when they feel safe, meaning the best learning experiences decrease fear and increase positive emotional engagement. 

Which is why most trainings need to start with training wheels. You don’t learn to ride a bike from reading about it, you learn to ride a bike by trying. Even if it means starting with a trike.

How are you providing low-risk training wheels to your learners? Get in touch with us to explore more options.


Jessica Harms

Senior Learning Designer at Kineo US


Jess makes people's jobs easier by designing training using the latest behavioural and cognitive science to build confidence and competence. Combining her experience as an award-winning educator and theatrical director, Jess reimagines learning by focusing on how the learner will feel to create more 'aha' moments.

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