Teaching Opinion

Learning to Teach in Driver’s Ed.

By Robert Barsanti — January 17, 2006 5 min read
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I have spent a lifetime in education. For the first 21 years, education was done to me. For the last 20 years, I have been doing it to others. The seasons of education reform have circled over my head. I have seen the summer of student-centered learning and the winter of standardized testing, along with the hurricane of portfolios, and the blizzard of team-teaching. The constant parade of speakers and seminars became like weathermen. And yet, the American classroom today is about as functional as it was when A Nation at Risk was released in 1983. The American teenager remains a strange, sleeping bear. We circle it warily and poke it with sticks, hoping to rouse it, train it, and keep it controlled for a few years until it escapes with a diploma.

— Laura Costas


The country may continue to lag in its efforts to teach teenagers to read, write, think, speak, and compute, but it does a heck of a job teaching them to drive. We are far better at instructing kids on how to parallel park than we are at teaching them to integrate a fraction or use a semicolon. And while those of us in the faculty room may enjoy pooh-poohing this former brand of instruction, it wouldn’t hurt for us to take a lesson or two from the few truly successful teachers in the building: the driving instructors.

I came to this conclusion after learning to drive a school bus. My teacher, Ed, had worked on buses and transports for the military and for the department of motor vehicles. Yet his expertise sat lightly on his shoulders. He taught in shorts, a Wal-Mart T-shirt, and a camouflage baseball hat. The class had one goal: to pass the DMV driving exam. We were also conscious, however, that what we learned would be put to use carrying the young men in our school to and from dances, football games, and mall runs. So, for us, accidents and error wouldn’t just result in a low grade or academic probation.

In spite of the high stakes, Ed was polite and humorous. He pointed out the reasons for checking the tire stems (“How else are you going to fill a flat?”) and testing the air brakes (“Don’t want to go down a hill without them”). He patiently stood aside as I learned to parallel park a school bus, over and over again. After each error, he asked the same question: “What did you do wrong?”

He taught hands-on, but I always did the driving. He never demonstrated or lectured. He focused on the key elements of the skill I needed to know. I didn’t have to memorize the parts of the bus or explain the name “clip lights.” Instead, he quizzed the class every day by asking us simply to first inspect the bus, then drive it. By the end of our instruction, all of us passed the exam and were ready to go on to use our skills successfully.

Ed knew how to teach. He didn’t write a lesson plan or form a goals statement, but he knew what he was doing. What made him so effective? First, he did not put on the trappings and airs of an expert. He was always Ed, and always polite. He had no need to shout, browbeat, or threaten. His knowledge and his wisdom were easily apparent. A tie, a title, or a seating chart would have gotten in his way.

Second, he never demonstrated. He never took the wheel to show us how it was done or lectured us on the importance of checking the mirrors. Instead, he put us behind the wheel and talked us through each move. Every step of the way, we had control of this ton of creeping metal. As a result, we failed a lot. We failed in every class, sometimes several times. After each flattened cone or toppled stick, Ed asked us to get out of the bus, showed us the error, then repeated, “What did you do wrong?”

It wouldn’t hurt for us to take a lesson or two from the few truly successful teachers in the building: the driving instructors.

And lastly, Ed stripped his subject down to its essential skills. I never memorized the names of the engine parts or learned the correct way to tighten a cotter pin. Ed didn’t even teach me to change the oil. He focused on the skills of driving and parking and cut away everything else. He assumed we would pick up the other useful, if non-essential, knowledge later.

The typical faculty room would struggle to adopt such successful teaching strategies. We teachers would hate to give up our textbooks and content coverage, let alone such perks as titles and teachers’ desks. Also, politeness and patience are hard; a good, loud voice and “the Look” are easy. Moreover, we would hate to give up the steering wheel. Students might miss all of the great similes and allegorical references in Lord of the Flies without us to spotlight them. And were we to fail the students several times a day or pass them all at the end of the term, as Ed had done, the administration and our colleagues would quickly show us the error of our ways.

Worst of all, we would have to strip our subjects down to the bare bones. We would have to toss off our complements and our clauses, our vocabulary lists and our textbooks, and get down to the essential skills: reading, writing, thinking, and speaking. We would have to line these skills up on the desk and ask ourselves, “How do I teach these to kids so that they all learn them?”

Like driving, these are skills that our students will be using when they are fat and 40. They’ll be reading e-mail and contracts, writing memos and love letters, speaking in boardrooms and town halls. And they will be thinking about the best ways to be a good spouse, parent, and citizen. Long after they forget the symbolism of Piggy’s broken spectacles and the definition of “couloir,” they’ll still be driving minivans. If we taught all the essential skills better, our students could succeed not only on the SAT, but in the rest of life’s tests and contests.

Many in the faculty room, however, might point, with a sigh, to the inherent advantages of teaching driver’s education. Parents want their kids to get driver’s licenses. The state tests for it. And while the culture of suburbia demands driving, it doesn’t have an obvious need for critical thinking or long division. These colleagues would be shortchanging themselves.

Teachers are idealists. We believe that we can make a difference—that we can make the future better than the present. But if we wish to mend the world, we must first mend our practice. Perhaps it is time that we drop our gradebooks and seating charts and go out for a spin with the most successful teachers in the building.

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