By Emma Cate

The way that driving instructors teach learners to drive can tell us a lot about how we can focus and improve upon our own classroom teaching. Here, Emma Cate takes us through the reasons why.

I am 33 years old and I am learning to drive. Most people learn to drive as soon as they turn 17. I never did. The mere thought of sitting behind the wheel filled me with anxiety. Fast forward to my twenties, living in central London with the tube at my disposal and I just didn’t see the need. However, moving down to the coast has changed all of that. No tube, limited bus service and hills everywhere you turn. Now, I need to drive.

‘How hard could it be?’ I thought to myself. I’m good at remembering things. I’m a successful teacher. I understand how humans learn. Piece of cake.

How wrong I was.

Learning is hard. Really, really hard.

John Sweller’s research into how we process and store information sheds more light on this. Cognitive Load Theory is the educational buzz-phrase of the moment but for good reason. Our working memory has limited capacity. There is only so much it can take on at once. This was particularly evident to me when I started driving lessons.

Driving requires so many component parts to come together. Checking of mirrors, potential hazards, gear changes, and speed changes are just a few. When you first start driving, trying to keep on top of all of that and concentrate on the road itself not only feels impossible to manage, it is impossible to manage. So what does a good driving instructor do? Well, just like any good teacher, instructors reduce the cognitive load of learners so they can retain key information. 

What has been increasingly apparent to me as a teacher is driving is a skill but with a knowledge set that underpins it. You have to have knowledge of the fundamentals of driving to be able to master the skills. In order to make the car go forward you’ve got to understand what a biting point is. The same can be said in the classroom. A student can’t use relative clauses proficiently in their own writing until they have a good understanding of what a relative clause actually is and how it works.

But, much like in the classroom, with all the knowledge in the world it is essential that driving skills are practised and developed. Reading theory books and understanding why is one thing but the act of doing is quite another. All too often I have watched my driving instructor navigate a complex situation and thought, ‘That’s easy! I can do that. Let me have a go!’, only to realise that the reality is much trickier.

It is the same in the classroom. When writing, we can give our students all of the WAGOLLs and explanations in the world but we must also ensure we are giving them opportunities for deliberate practice so that key knowledge can be harnessed in order for skills to develop. Driving forces you to take the wheel. You are making key decisions based on the knowledge you have accumulated. This is true of skill development for our pupils. (WAGOLL stands for ‘what a good one looks like’.)

Driving instructors start with the basics and only the basics. They take the knowledge you have and use it to teach a new skill slowly. They don’t start your first lesson on the M25. When teaching we should ensure we are doing the same, and think about how we can reduce cognitive load for our students. We should ensure we are reducing all of the unnecessary bits (intrinsic load) and distractions (extraneous load) from our teaching. This allows for the essential information to be more easily retained by our students (germane load).

Of course the issue is that the checking of mirrors, potential hazards, gear changes etc are all essential. They all need to be embedded if you’re going to become a  competent driver. How does that happen? It is something I have been observing during my own learning.

In my first lesson I was on a deserted 20mph road on a housing estate. My instructor had control of the brakes. I was focused on moving the car forward. I drove 50 meters or so before pulling over. I paused. We discussed what had just happened. I repeated until the step was embedded.

Over the course of the next few lessons as my knowledge base increased I was slowly introduced to more modelling and explanation before putting it into practise myself. Left hand turns, increases in speed, clutch control were slowly dripped in one by one.

Technically, I was driving from the very first lesson. The aim was to ensure that my working memory could cope.  Both the knowledge and skills were broken down and introduced gradually in order for me to learn effectively. This is key in the classroom. We build upon prior knowledge and skills. I use the I/We/You model (I do it first, We do it together, You do it on your own) with my students to facilitate this and a similar method is used in driving instruction.

My instructor is the expert and I am the novice. I learn from them through modelling, me having a go whilst they are instructing me and independent practice. That’s not to say it has been perfect. Quite the opposite! Learning isn’t easy.

What has really stood out to me is that my learning and embedding isn’t linear. I can have an excellent lesson where it appears I have made lots of progress and the very next lesson it seems like I have gone back to square one. I have seen the same thing taking place in the classroom. Learning has ebbs and flows.

But as all good teachers are, my instructor has been key to ensuring my long term progression. When I make mistakes my instructor keeps me focussed and talks through what went wrong and what needs to happen for it to be right, just like the immediate one-to-one interventions we make on a daily basis in the classroom. When I nearly pulled out in front of another car my instructor immediately hit their brakes. Even when I thought I was driving independently I wasn’t alone. This is the message I want to make sure I always convey to the students in my class.

As teachers it is our responsibility to ensure we make reactive adjustments through regular formative assessment. When our students are excelling, make sure we let them know and when they are struggling we need to step in. When are they forgetting to check their mirrors or pulling out in front of another car? When do we let them drive and when do we apply our brakes? When do we progress them on to parallel parking and when do we focus on embedding left hand turns?

Learning is hard. We need to make it as easy as possible for our students.


Emma Cate Stokes is a KS1 teacher and Phase Lead at a coastal school East Sussex.

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