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Lessons from the Learner's Permit

Drive_2 My younger daughter, Ali, turned 16 on March 1. In Pennsylvania, where we live, the 16th birthday is traditionally spent at the Department of Motor Vehicles agonizing over the 15 questions on the driving exam that stand between you and the joy of the open road. Thankfully for us, Ali passed on the first time through and within an hour of the DMV opening up, she was the proud possessor of a learner's permit. This allows her to drive with someone over 21 and a driver's license in the car. It allows me to routinely experience heart failure and a painful right leg caused by the imaginary braking I'm doing from the passenger's seat.

It's been 4 years since I've been in the car with a brand new driver and this time around I'm a blogger. Not surprisingly, I've found some lessons on learning in this experience.

  • To teach, you have to go back to "beginner's mind." Like most long-time drivers, most of what I do in the car is done without conscious thought. I know when to accelerate and when to brake. I know how to go in and out of curves, how to change lanes and how to maneuver through the traffic around the Art Museum circle. I can do these things while listening to NPR, drinking a cup of coffee and chatting with someone in the car. With Ali, though, none of these things come naturally. She has to think about everything--she's at that conscious competence (and sometimes incompetence) stage of learning. For me to help her, I have to return to that time when I had to think about everything I was doing and articulate what it means to  slow into the curve and accelerate out.  She can't just "feel" it yet, so I have to be better at describing it.
  • You have to do it, not just read about it. Ali studied the driving manual (admittedly not for long), but this in no way prepared her for the realities of the road. Knowing that she needs to keep X number of car lengths between her and the car in front isn't the same as actually doing it--or even realizing what that means when you're actually IN the car. She knows what a stop sign is, but this doesn't mean that in the heat of the moment she's obeying them. We've spent a lot of time at stop signs trying to decide who's turn it is to go.
  • It's all about the learning environment. Despite the fact that there are moments when I see my life flashing before my eyes, I've had to keep quiet about that, maintaining a calm, collected demeanor. I discovered with Ali's sister that any nervousness on my part immediately transmitted itself to her and exponentially improved the chances of mistakes. So I've had to learn to calmly say "Don't turn yet--there's a truck right there," when I really want to scream "Watch out for the TRUCK!"  We've also learned that the radio must be off to avoid distractions and that it's better to drive in areas where the scenery is boring and there's no possibility that friends will be seen. When I structure the learning environment properly, things work well. If I don't, then we tend to have more problems.
  • Coaching works best. Ali is always asking me the right thing to do--"Which way should I turn the wheel, Mom, to back out?" Something else I discovered with my older daughter was that it was better to coach than to give answers to everything. So instead of telling her the answer, I'll ask her what she thinks she should do and then tell her if that's right or not. She's been learning to make better decisions as a result. We also spend a lot of time on mental rehearsal--"What are you going to do when we get to that big curve you flew through last time?"--and I try to constantly point out what she's doing well, in addition to having her re-think what went wrong in problem situations.

It's  been interesting to see how my interactions with Ali seem to have such a huge impact on her experience. If I'm calm and able to coach effectively, it's smooth sailing. If I'm distracted or anxious, not so much. We have six months to go before she gets that license. I imagine I'll be learning a lot more in the months ahead.

Photo via [myki]


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Good luck with all of this!

And here's a tip on what NOT to do when teaching a child to drive:

My father attempted to teach me to drive. One of his techniques was to yell STOP at a random point in time. To which, I was supposed to respond by quickly jamming on the brakes. He thought this would teach me to have quick responses.

Instead, it just annoyed me to no end. I would slowly brake, and then stop. And then get really mad. (Can you tell that I had major authority issues with my father?)

Needless to say, my parents ending up hiring someone to teach me how to drive.

I would have KILLED my dad if he did something like that. It's not like I wasn't a nervous wreck to begin with! We're planning on having her take driving lessons, too, in part because I don't think my heart could handle teaching her highway driving. Better leave that to the professionals!

Your post is bringing back some bad memories of learning to drive with my mother. She did exactly what you're trying not to do: yell at me for any silly mistake, she was really nervous, she didn't seem to understand that I had NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING!
The end result: I stopped driving with her after about 2 months and never ended up getting my license. Yes, I am the only 28 year old in America without a license. Thanks Mom. :)

You poor thing--just think of not driving as being an environmentally-conscious act. You're being a responsible citizen. :-)

This post is a prime example of why your blog is so valuable. All four of your lessons apply to so many situations when we're tasked to teach someone. The order you place the lessons is significant too, at least it's good to begin by returning to the beginner's mind. Beautiful post!

Thanks John! This is also an example of how blogging has fundamentally changed my view of the world. I now see lessons in daily life that I never really considered before. Before I blogged, teaching Ali to drive would have stopped at that. But now that I blog, I find that I look for deeper meaning in many of the things I do, which in turn increases my learning and my appreciation of a lot of things, too.

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