Emphasis on Teaching
by Marshall Brain

Teaching Someone to Drive
I recently had the opportunity to help someone learn how to drive. One interesting thing about this experience was that it involved many of the fundamentals of teaching - fundamentals that are important to any class taught anywhere. Teaching someone about driving a car is very similar to teaching someone about chemistry, math, computer science or English. With a new semester about to begin, it might be worthwhile to review three of the teaching fundamentals: goals, attitude, and content. The success of every class relies on these important points.

The First Temptation

This driving class began when a young friend of mine named Bob came by and asked if I would mind teaching him how to drive. He would be the hard-working student, I the experienced teacher, my car the classroom. The semester had begun. Immediately I found myself succumbing to the first temptation of teaching, which in this case involved saying, "Well hop in - let's do the first lesson right now." After all, I know how to drive - I do it every day. Obviously I'm qualified and ready to teach the subject, and there's no time like the present to begin.

It is important for all teachers to recognize one of the most basic rules of teaching: knowledge of a subject is not sufficient when trying to create a good class. A good class is created through planning and design, as well as through knowledge. Instead of jumping into the first lesson immediately, I asked Bob to show up again on Saturday, and asked him to read several chapters of the driving manual in the meantime.

Perhaps you find yourself in a similar position right now: A new semester is about to begin, and you will be teaching a class or two. You know the subject well. The temptation is to throw together a quick syllabus and wing it for the semester. This approach will often produce a low quality class. If you want to create a high-quality building, you must first spend a great deal of time and effort on the building's design. A high quality class must go through the same kind of design phase. What is your first step?


Establish your goals for the class. What are you trying to accomplish as the teacher of this class? This is not a simple question, but an extremely important one. If you were going to teach someone to drive, what would your goal be? Obviously the goal is to teach the student to drive. But what is your overall theme - what are the one or two main ideas or messages you want to impress upon the student during the class? Safety? Courtesy to other drivers? Defensive driving? Obeying the rules? You are the teacher, so you can choose whatever message you like.

For any class you teach, your goals, theme, and main message are extremely important. The core message or messages you choose will affect your entire class. The core message is also the one thing your students will remember long after they have forgotten everything else. For example, I took calculus in high school and college. I don't remember one bit of any of it. But I do remember one great high school calculus teacher and his main themes of discipline and problem solving.


Check your attitude. If you are teaching someone to drive, are you there to help or to hinder the student? Would you get into the car and say to your student, "Well Bob, look at the person on your left and your right - only one of you will make it through this class!"? Probably not. When working one-on-one with a student, you are obviously there to help, not to fail the student or to hinder the student's progress.

But what is your attitude in a typical classroom - are you there to help or to hinder that group of students? The goal should be to help. Yes, some students will always fail a class because of lack of knowledge or lack of discipline or personal problems, but you shouldn't be in the classroom with the active goal of failing a set percentage of the class. The teacher should be there to help people to be successful in the class.


Now that you've established your goals, think about the actual course material. A person learning to drive needs to acquire a certain set of facts, skills, and techniques. All of this falls under the category of "content," which is normally specified by a set of course objectives, or by the text, or by you in the syllabus. This material must be subdivided among a set of class periods, and then ordered. It has to be taught first as individual facts and skills; then these need to be woven together and interrelated to unify the subject. As each idea is taught, it has to point back to your main goals and themes for the class. This is not an easy task.

When subdividing the material, it is important to remember certain fundamental facts about the human brain: First, there are limits to what the brain can absorb in one day. Usually the brain can absorb only two or three main ideas in one class. The brain can remain focused on one idea for only a certain amount of time. The brain tends not to make huge and spontaneous leaps in its thinking - an idea needs to be presented as a set of small increments, starting at the beginning. Remember it always seems to take longer to get somewhere the first time you go there. Therefore, things are going to seem more confusing to students upon their first exposure. We tend to make things seem more complicated than they really are at first, so multiple exposure is a good idea. Your class design should take these factors into consideration.

Try to have a feeling for which ideas are hardest for a student to grasp, so you can spend more time making these stumbling blocks easier for students to manage. How do you determine which ideas are the hardest to learn? Think back to the problems you had when you were learning the material, or ask others who have taught the class, or recall the kinds of questions students asked the last time you taught the class, or hand out questionnaires specifically asking students what they do not understand.

Designing a class

All of these things entered into the design of my first class with Bob. I chose three topics for the first day: getting the car started and rolling in first gear, stopping the car, and turning. And these would be the only topics - we would ignore "how to shift to 2nd gear," and "look in your mirrors every 10 seconds," and "watch the speed limit and your speed," and "use turn signals 100 feet before turning," etc. - just three skills, and no road time, during the first class. I would start the class by telling Bob that these would be the three topics discussed, so he would know what to expect during the class.

Thinking back to my own early driving experiences, I can remember two things quite distinctly. First, I can remember the utter panic I felt when I realized that my eyes, both arms, and both legs would all have to be working simultaneously at different jobs. The second thing I remember is how hard it was to get the car rolling in first gear.

By putting Bob in a large, empty parking lot, and by working only in first gear, I would limit Bob's confusion on the first day. This would eliminate the panic. But the second problem - how to help Bob understand a clutch quickly - took some thinking. About half an hour of thought yielded the concept of the "grab point" - if you let a clutch out very slowly, nothing happens for a moment. But then the clutch starts to grab, first very lightly and then more and more until the engine stalls. You can feel this point, see it on the tachometer, and hear it in the engine. During the lesson, I briefly explained how a clutch works, and then showed Bob the "grab point." I also helped him to see that giving the engine more gas causes the engine to maintain a constant speed instead of stalling as the clutch is released. This worked well. Bob had mastered the clutch in just a few minutes.

For each class period you teach, try to choose two or three main ideas. Identify problems the students will have with these ideas. Develop vocabulary, diagrams, exercises or examples that help students understand the problems and deal with them successfully on their own. Then you can show how the techniques can be generalized to deal with a broader class of problems in later classes.

The Role of the Teacher

Teachers are not necessary - this is an important point to remember. I could have given Bob the keys to the car and he would have learned how to drive. Any student in any class could simply pick up the text and read it on his or her own.

However, the teacher does have an effect. The teacher sets the general goals for the class, decides on the pace, and determines the main ideas emphasized. For example, Bob might learn how to drive on his own, but he might not be a very safe driver unless a teacher were there to continually emphasize safety. The teacher can also greatly improve the odds of success in the class by helping to make the material clearer and more readily understandable for the students. The teacher can provide a unified picture of a subject by showing the interrelations between different ideas and can pull in real world examples and personal experiences. The teacher can answer individual questions and clarify ideas. The teacher can also make the class interesting and enjoyable, and can encourage the student to continue taking other classes in the field. The teacher can make a big difference in the student's attitude toward the subject.

But the teacher accomplishes these things only through planning and design of the total class. A well designed class improves the probability of creating a high quality learning experience for the students.

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