Students should be drivers taking control of their educational experience, not passengers who accept it passively
For Administrators

Why Our Students Need to Be Drivers, Not Passengers

By Brian Gatens February 29, 2016

Nothing quite prepares you to see your children climb behind the wheel of a car for the first time. Yet here I am, watching my twin 16-year-olds receive their learners’ permits and head out onto the road. Now you might think that after 16-plus years of watching others drive and completing hours of formal driving lessons, they would have some driving skill.

They had pretty much none.

Students should be drivers taking control of their educational experience, not passengers who accept it passivelyAt first, their driving was tentative and overly cautious — turns were too wide, curbs snuck up on them, and let’s not even talk about four-way intersections (I’m still trying to recover from those). After their first few trips around the neighborhood, they moved back to the passenger seat with a new perspective: seeing driving as both passenger and driver.

About a week or so later, after watching and taking (unconscious) notes, they began to drive again. And this time the improvement was striking. Turns were smooth, acceleration and braking came more easily, and they were clearly more comfortable and in control. Doing it poorly at first, watching it being done well and then doing it again created a marked improvement in their driving.

And, of course, there is an application to our work.

Too many of us are guilty of letting our students be passengers: It’s basically somebody else’s job to avoid potholes, follow the speed limit and get from Point A to Point B in one piece. The trouble is that passengers don’t have a whole lot at stake. All they have to do is sit there, look out the window from time to time and maybe pick a radio station.

The passenger doesn’t really care what gets them to their destination. No maps to read. No gas to buy. Nothing much to do.

Being the driver changes all of that. Being in control of the machine keeps them interested because they know others rely on them to be careful and conscientious, and they understand why they need to increase their performance and skill. This kind of motivation, born from the need to do well for a variety of important reasons, is just what we need in the classroom.

So, how do we give up the wheel?

Let drivers drive

Rather than talk about what the class should be able to do, get them to do it. Yes, their initial efforts will be messy and not worth too much, but from that start, your students will grow in skill.

Have them do it. Talk about how it could be better. Model what they need to do, and then let them do it again. Try, watch, learn and try again. Do that over and over and you’ll see even the most challenged students improve.

Put them on the road

Driving circles around a parking lot is nice, but it’s not real. It becomes real when there’s something at stake, such as being on the road and knowing that other drivers (and pedestrians and curbs) are relying on them for good performance.

Don’t let your work with your students remain theoretical in nature. Where possible, get them “onto the road” with the results of their work. Let them know that you’re striving for real-life applications of the class work, and that members of the public will see their finished product.

Talk them through it

Good driving comes as much from advice and guidance as it does from actually driving. Set time aside to meet with and coach your students through the rough patches in their work. Bring small groups together when they are struggling with the same thing, and have them work together to solve the problem and continue to support one another.

Driving, like learning, isn’t easy, but it gets much easier when the student (driver) has a teacher who knows the road, has done it before, lets them do it, and can show them how to stay on the right side of the road and avoid the potholes.

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