Last week my 15-year old daughter, Kate, got her learner's permit. One of those wonderful moments, when little kid giggles of excitement merge with tangible signs of maturity and responsibility. Saturday was the big moment, the first time she would be behind the wheel of something powered by an engine since the tiny little racers at Legoland.
Kate is a superbly responsible young person, with an impeccable sense of control and enviable self-discipline. When she says she will do something, check it off the list. She is a quick study on most topics. As for driving, she has a healthy amount of fear.
I imagine you think you know where this is heading...that she had some sort of wreck. Thank goodness, no. In fact, she is doing quite well. We've stuck to parking lots at an office building on a Saturday and at a dying mall and streets in our neighborhood. Gradually we go on slightly busier streets.
Watching her learn and trying to help her, I have been struck by something that we as adults often take for granted. Driving a car, even in quiet areas, is a quite complicated task, with dozens of things to keep in mind while anticipating what could happen. (And don't forget the rather unnatural degree of trust we grant everyone else on the road.)
I have found myself wondering how much of school must often feel like driving to students, especially at those moments which really stretch them beyond a comfort zone. Students have to process an unbelievable amount of information and stimulus throughout the course of a day. When I have shadowed students, I feel exhausted by the end of the day. Actually, about three-quarters of the way through the day. And that's when I have the advantage of experience. Then they have after-school commitments, homework, chores...maybe a bit of free time. Frankly, I find it quite remarkable most do as well coping with it all as they do. They have learned to do much of it automatically, just as adults drive.
On some level, that is good. They are developing some key habits and skills. However, when learning is involved, I wonder about the long-term value when there is such a potential lack of mindfulness. Yes, we want students to be able to utilize certain skills or pull certain information automatically. But I wonder that the sheer amount of stuff means that we sacrifice real depth as students' brains motor along on auto-pilot. That's when "doing school" does become a Race to Nowhere.
And let's think about when and why many car wrecks: a driver becomes careless, perhaps over confident or less vigilant. There's the real lesson about both driving and quality learning, not just for Kate and her fellow rookie motorists but also for all of us teaching them.