BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


Don’t Just Learn About the Bike, Ride the Bike!

By Dr. Michael Johnston
Don’t Just Learn About the Bike, Ride the Bike!

Traditionally in schools, if we are learning about bicycles, we learn about the mechanics of the gears, the history of the bicycle as a transport mechanism, famous riders, and even the physics behind the movement down a hill. These are all fascinating things to learn but when do we get to ride the bike? If we allow students to get on the bike, what if they fall? What if one student is ready to hurl themselves down a mountain with confidence but another in the same class is just finding the balance to glide? The easier and more traditional path is to learn about and assess the knowledge of bicycles. As a teacher, I can easily check in on whether a student knows the history of bike riding or can diagram how a brake system operates. School curriculums have been notorious for learning about topics without the opportunity to apply what we have learned in an authentic context. Schools cram authentic experiences like service learning, environmental clubs, student leadership opportunities, and personal passions into lunchtimes, breaks, and after school. It’s time we, as leaders, challenge the systems and structures that hold us back from offering the opportunity for students to actually ride the bike.

We attend conferences and talk about authentic, connected, meaningful opportunities for students to tackle complexity and take impactful action, but can we implement in a strategic, purposeful, and systemic way? Most of our mission statements state something about raising global citizens but what does that really look like? School leaders are the first to highlight examples that emerge as students do amazing projects that impact locally and globally. These passion projects make great stories for the school blog, that international article, or in that keynote address. These stories inspire, motivate, and encourage us to try new things in our schools, and that’s good. But all too often these kinds of experiences are led by a few dedicated teachers who have a deep passion for service, project-based learning (PBL), creativity, activity, service (CAS), or some other kind of framework they bring with them to your school or pick up at a professional learning experience. These are all great things but are they systemic? What happens when those dedicated teachers leave? Do the authentic experiences for students go out the door with them? Let’s challenge leadership teams around the world to ensure that this is not just an exciting example or two in the school but an opportunity for all students to not just learn about the bike but to ride the bike! It’s a question of equity for all. Let's share, collaborate, and push each other for the sake of learning, and for our collective future on this planet.

What are the ways that your school allows students to apply their learning to create an impact on their local and global communities? Do students have the desire, motivation, skills, character traits, and tools to do so effectively? Do teachers believe this is the purpose behind what students are learning? By sharing what we do well, we can move from a handful of examples to strategic impact. The key here is to not get confused by the plethora of frameworks, tools, educational jargon, and opportunities that currently exist. Again, these are all good things but when we perceive them as different initiatives it overwhelms your key drivers. Choose a framework, a set of tools, and a common language within your school and adapt it to make it age appropriate. You should be able to ask a grade two student, a parent, a middle school teacher’s assistant, and a graduate in your school and they should all be able to refer to these commonalities toward applying their learning and creating impact. Sit down with your team and audit each grade level for where students get the opportunity to “ride the bike.” Where are the gaps in your learning program? Perhaps the most challenging aspect is looking at what we need to stop doing to allow space to do this kind of authentic application and ensure it’s not all on the students' extra time. This should lead to creative conversations around innovative and personalized schedule changes. This is all easier said than done but together we can help each other with collective systemic shifts. If you wish to be a part of a global collaboration to help each other make it happen, reach out, not just for our students but for our collective future. To get started, try these five steps:

  1. Define and refine your collective purpose. Why are we learning these things? How can we apply it to impact our world?

  2. Choose a framework, tools, and common language for your whole school community (there are many different ways to do this as a community).

  3. Audit each grade level for what experiences already exist. Where are the gaps?

  4. Make the “to don’t list.” What can you give up? Ideate creative schedules and personalized pathways to allow students to “ride the bike.”

  5. Join our global collaboration to share and make it happen.

Our children need it, they deserve it, and our future depends upon it. “Ride the bike!”

To learn more about Dr. Johnston's insights on international education, watch an interview with him here or read his contributions to the newly released book International Education Leadership: Stories From Around the Globe (SchoolRubric Publications, 2022) by Dr. Wallace Ting, Catarina Song Chen, and Lindsay Prendergast. 


Chen, C.S., Prendergast, L., Ting, W. (2022). International Education Leadership: Stories From Across the Globe. SchoolRubric Inc.


Dr. Michael Johnston currently serves as the assistant head of school at Frankfurt International School in Germany. He has led workshops and keynotes for teachers and administrators around the world on learning innovation, sustainability, building global competence, deep personalized curriculum K-12, and how service learning should not just be what you do but who you are as a school. Mike is a proud member of the Common Ground Collaborative advisory council seeking to transform learning in schools globally. He is also a member of the Compass Education team which is a growing community of passionate educators aiming to equip schools as learning communities to educate and act for a sustainable future through systems thinking and practice. He has dedicated much of his time to not only ensuring students are properly prepared for the world’s most pressing issues but that they have the skills and desire to take action. With his doctorate in Organizational Systems, Mike helps to inspire and lead schools through times of change and educational transformation.

Twitter: @johnstonmike34 and @schoolrubric




Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.



The International School of Panama’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Diploma Playbook
By Allwyn Bryner
Jun 2024

Roadmap to Action
By Jaya Ramchandani and Cary Reid
Sep 2023