Backseat Driving

I first heard the phrase “let someone drive” in relation to using a computer, and not actually driving a car, during an adventurous period in my life when I worked briefly at a tech company doing… techy things. (Needless to say I soon headed off to library school and was a happy camper). I found the phrase somewhat odd at the time, but I find it somewhat profound now, oddly enough. Letting someone drive is about control – being confident and comfortable enough to let someone else take over.

I’ve started hearing the phrase more and more in relation to teaching – let students drive! We can learn so much from them! As trendy as it is, and as unpopular as it might be to confess the opposite, I think that many educators, myself included, really struggle with handing the keys over to our students. But why is this?

First off, it can be terrifying to fly without a net – leaving a neatly planned lesson/activity/lecture behind and veering off script into discussion-land (which I’m generally fine with) or, even worse, student-led-demo-ville (a particularly harrowing experience in a library research skills session where you are working with things like wacky databases) can lead to the unexpected, the chaotic, and the disastrous. Suddenly nothing is going as you envisioned! You’ve lost control! The inmates have taken over the asylum and they’re doing everything wrong!

This leads me to my second point/concern – worrying about a loss of control is really a worry about two things – your end destination and the route you take to get there. Letting someone else drive can mean sacrificing your vision for how you’re going to reach a certain goal, and, in an education environment where you’re worried about learning goals and outcomes and the need to prove that you’ve actually reached your destination, relinquishing control can be alarming.

And finally, the reluctance to hand the keys over can also be a reflection on how we see ourselves and how we see our students. A lot of teachers (definitely including myself here) have a bit of a showboat quality. When we can’t do our lesson it can be disappointing – we were all set to go on! We were going to dazzle! And, even worse than the audience being deprived of our brilliance is this – the understudy might stink.

Thinking about letting students drive got me thinking about driver’s ed and how it’s portrayed (stay with me here). It’s a pretty common trope to see a teen in a TV or a film have a driver’s ed disaster – like Cher in Clueless. Those adults were right to not let those kids drive! The kids are a menace! Maybe we too sometimes think that our students can’t handle “driving.”

That cyclist really did, like, come out of nowhere. But she, like, offered to leave a note, so it’s cool.

Having the confidence to let go, having the faith in our ability to guide our students, and believing in our students’ ability to rise to the occasion doesn’t always come easy. It’s something I’m really working on in my own teaching – I feel fortunate to have a good foundation in this, having come from a museum education background which emphasized hands-on and discovery learning, but it’s still sometimes scary/exhilarating/hard to turn things over to my students. Check out below for some ways I’m trying to let my students drive, beyond my usual open class discussion!, and chime in the comment section with your own ideas.

Letting Students Drive: Some Ideas

  1.  Student run search session: I tell students what I need help finding (typically something like information on a current event or even a new pair of jeans or a puppy). They take the wheel and work together in groups to find what I need. We talk about what they did and why they did it. Then we regroup and go again, this time with a more academic topic. Standing back and letting them make mistakes or do things inefficiently can be really difficult, but the experience can open up great conversations and give students something concrete to refer back to once we start going through (together this time) optimal ways to conduct research. It’s basically taking some inquiry based learning principles and engineering ideas about iteration, where it’s okay to make mistakes, and running with them in a non-science environment.
  2. Student developed rubrics: This idea of student self-assessment (which I plan to blog about more later) is discussed by, among others, the great Buffy Hamilton. A type of self-assessment could be where students actually write their own rubrics to assess their research skills. Doing something like this can help students be invested in what they’re working on and letting them compare their own criteria with one of my rubrics can open up great conversations.
  3. Polling sessions: Using something like Poll Everywhere or even Google Forms, students tell me what they want to hear about. I deliver. As much as I might think, but they need to know about such and such!, I also think, in certain instructional scenarios, like orientations or an in-class research workshop, it can be useful to let students play a role in determining the content I cover. Plus, it’s really nice not having to prep a lesson plan in advance. Letting students drive = timesaver.
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