Exploring continuity and change through the history of the bicycle

Editor’s Note: We encourage teachers to integrate the museum’s online resources into their classroom teaching. Today’s post is written by Peter Pappas, a blogger and 34-year educator, who took this to heart and created a student activity using the Smithsonian’s bicycle collection. The post walks us through his process for developing a student-centered lesson from one of the museum’s thousands of online resources. Have you created a lesson using our collections? Let us know in the comments.

Bicycle Collection
Explore the Smithsonian Bicycle collection online.

I was attracted to the Smithsonian’s bicycle collection for two reasons. From an academic perspective, the images of historic bicycles could be analyzed by students without a great deal of background knowledge. My lesson provides minimal explanation and gives students more opportunities to develop their own model of how bicycles and bicycle culture evolved over time. On the personal side, much of the year, I live in Portland, Oregon—heartland of the urban bike culture. I don’t own a car, but rely on bikes, walking, and public transport. Some of my photographs of contemporary bikes are from Portland, where creative types continue to evolve new designs.

Starting with this great collection and my personal inspiration, I walked through these steps to create a classroom lesson:

Step 1: Choosing the Analytic Approach
Students need experience using a variety of analytic approaches. An analysis of continuity and change is central in historical thinking as well as in other disciplines across the curriculum. In this lesson, students are given images of historic bicycles with a minimal amount of supporting text. Starting with concrete observations, students look for patterns of change and continuity. For example, elements that changed include size, number of wheels, speed, stability; seated posture and the need for brakes are examples of elements that remained relatively constant. Students then develop a way to express what they’ve learned. This gives them an audience other than their teacher.

Step 2: Making It Relevant 
To make learning personally relevant and set the stage for self-reflection, students need the opportunity to explore their own approaches. For this reason, I don’t provide a graphic organizer; that would mean that I, not the students, did the analysis. This opened-ended assignment invites students to develop their own graphic or narrative model to express what they’ve learned. I also recommend that students be asked to think of how they would share their continuity/change model with younger students, making the audience and purpose of their assignment more concrete and relevant.

Step 3: Making It Rigorous
Students should begin by focusing on basic comprehension skills (What am I looking at? What materials were used? How were bicycles propelled and steered?). They can then move to higher level skills:
• Analysis – What patterns do I see in the bicycles – construction, design, features, uses? What elements do they share in common? How do they differ?
• Evaluation – In my own judgement, what elements are changing? Which are staying the same? 
• Creating – What have I learned about continuity and change in the history of the bicycle? How can I represent what I’ve learned to share with others? Should I use a graphic organizer? Flow chart? Timeline? Diagram? Narrative?

Velocipede, about 1868

Step 4: Encouraging Students to Reflect On Their Learning
Students that have the opportunity to explore their own approaches have a learning experience that can be a basis for reflection. Since they will likely develop different analytic models than their classmates, they have a chance to compare and learn from each others’ conclusions. When asked to develop a way to explain their model to younger peers, students can reflect on how their model suits their audience and purpose. For reflective prompts you can use with your students see my Taxonomy of Reflection.

Step 5: Taking It Further
These possible activity extensions can encourage students to think more about bicycles, continuity, and change.
• Consider how contemporary bicycles fit into your continuity/change model ( e.g., recumbent, mountain, fixed gear).
• Design a bicycle
• Apply the continuity/change model in another subject or discipline such as fashion, architecture, musical styles, advertising, fictional characters.
• Technology extension – View the world’s public photography archives at the Flickr Commons using a search for bicycle.
Students might help describe the photographs they discover by adding tags or leaving comments. The collection includes works from the Smithsonian and other leading international photographic archives.

Schwinn Bicycle, 1965
Schwinn Super Deluxe Sting-Ray, 1965

Developing this activity was a great opportunity to illustrate a central point that I make in my blog and professional development workshops—when do we stop modeling for students and free them to take responsibility for their learning? For example, the document-based approach (DBQ) can be a great way for students to “be the historian,” but too often we “over-curate” the historic material we share with students. When that happens, the teacher is the active historian and the student is merely a passive recipient of information. (For more on that subject see my post: Essential Question: Who is the Teacher in Your Classroom?) All across the curriculum, students are told to “analyze” material, but their thinking is constrained by mandated Venn diagrams or T-charts. Developing a comparative schema is messy work—but that’s where the learning takes place. When the student fills out the teacher’s Venn diagram, they aren’t analyzing, they are filing information into predefined locations.

Of course, students do need proper scaffolding, including opportunities to learn different analytic models—cause/effect, problem/solution, sequencing, continuity/change. It makes sense to provide them with some graphic organizers to help master the models. But at some point, you must turn them loose and give them the chance to explore, discover, and create. Put another way, if your entire class comes back with the same comparative analysis—you did the thinking, they didn’t.

Peter Pappas blogs at Copy/ Paste. There you can find his additional posts on teaching with documents and presenting with Prezi.