Teaching driving is depressing

My son is learning to drive. I’m past the “oh crap” stage and the “but just . . .!” stage and squarely into the “it’s going . . . ok” stage. He takes his test next month and I’m pretty confident he’ll do fine. Here’s the thing, though: I suck at teaching someone to be a good driver. No, this isn’t a post about how you can’t teach your own kids anything, though that’s often true with mine 🙂 It’s about realizing just how I got good at driving and how hard it is to teach that in just a few months.

My partner and I talk a lot about how our son is learning. We think he does a great job with some things and just an ok job at others. We’ve been with him in stressful situations and we’ve all made it through (even the car!). But as we reflect on what we would have done in those situations we start to realize just how much better we are as drivers than he is, or that he will be even after another few months of intensive training. We’ve had (cough cough) 30 years of practice, and now we’d say we’re pretty good at it.

What I’m depressed about is the realization that years of experience (or 10,000 hours, if you prefer) can’t be taught. I’m pretty sure that my son will become a great driver, but I don’t think there’s anything I could do to help that along very fast. I’m depressed because my profession is teaching physics, and all I ever get is four years with a student. For most of my students all I ever get is one semester. Trying to teach “physics maturity” (to borrow and slightly change a phrase from my mathematics buddies) in a semester is really hard. Maybe impossible. If I knew my students were going to go off and continue to think about physics and practice physics and model things like crazy throughout their life, I suppose I could take solace that they’d eventually become the experts I want them to be. But the students that do that are in a minority so small that it’s probably not worth it to count them.

I’m realizing that all I can do is set the table for them. I can try to make a course experience that gives them some tools and gives them glimpses of others. Just as I can’t make my son a great driver in just a few months, I can’t make an expert in physics in one course.

So I’m depressed, but super excited to be heading off to the AAPT conference today so I can get the usual pick-me-up that I get from all my friends there. Who knows, maybe when I get back I’ll have a post with a title like “Teaching physics is the greatest thing you can do” or something like that.

Your thoughts? Here are some starters for you:

  • Thanks for this. I’ve been thinking along similar lines . . .
  • This is dumb. Physics and driving teaching are nothing alike. What you should compare is . . .
  • You say “depressed” but you don’t really mean that. It’s a disservice to those who really do suffer from depression (sorry about that).
  • I taught my child to drive and in the process learned a ton from them. Things have really changed!
  • All that matters is that they know where the brake pedal is. Everything else is fluff.
  • Wait, you’re going to AAPT? Want to catch a meal?
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About Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in teaching, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Teaching driving is depressing

  1. nathanchow says:

    Hi Andy,

    I enjoy this post but had some thoughts. How do you approach teaching driving and physics differently? If you had the same schedule, perparation, and years of experience teaching driving as you do teaching physics do you think the outcome with your son would be different? What would your approach to teaching driving the way you teach physics look like (assuming they are different)?

  2. bretbenesh says:

    This is interesting. I am not saying that the comparison is invalid, but I did think about one important difference between teaching driving and teaching physics: motivation. Almost every 15-year old is motivated to learn how to drive, and will be motivated to keep driving for a long time. This is not true of physics.

    So maybe your job is not just to set the table, but also give them a reason to take a second semester?

    Your article also makes me wonder about the minimal amount of time we would need for college to have a meaningful impact on a students’ life (aside from the credentials, which they could benefit from if we gave them the degree after receiving their first payment). Do we really move the needle on their intellectual growth after four years? I am inclined to say “yes” (although not on my most pessimistic days). If we do move the needle in four years, could we do it in three years? Two years? One year? One week?

    I understand that this will vary by student, too, so it is complicated. But your question about how much you can accomplish in one semester made me think of this, and this is a question that came up at a conference on the liberal arts I attended last week.

    Enjoy AAPT!

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      For me the thought is whether we should teach ideas or teach approaches to thinking. I want my son to be observant and learn from his mistakes and to have to tools to deal with emergencies. I’m still thinking about the analogies for teaching.

      • bretbenesh says:

        I would love to hear if you can come up with ways to teach him to be observant and deal with emergencies. Maybe you could do something like this with him:

  3. Really important thoughts. Teaching anyone anything other than physics absolutely does enhance how we teach physics itself. And maybe makes it more sobering, as you noted. A recent lesson my husband and I learned is that too much at once is overwhelming. Our son (3) was interested in how a fan works. J went into much detail — and the little guy was too excited to sleep. And we all needed to sleep. Who cares how a fan works that late at night?

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