by Dr. Danny Recio, PhD
The other day I was talking with a student who claims to have not participated much in the completion of his own college applications last year. This is more common than one would think. A high school student feels overwhelmed with the pressures of completing senior year as well as completing the college applications, which both feel like defining factors of young people’s future success. Parents just want to help, and slowly involve themselves and other people more and more to get through the process, so their son or daughter don’t miss out on the opportunity. Parents tend to believe that the lack of proactivity and anxiety might just be momentary, and it’s better to just push through.
When this particular student was explaining the college application process, he basically said that he just took a backseat. I thought the term he used was brilliant, and made me think how often we intend for people to learn new skills but only give them a passive role in the process. If we take this backseat comment, and actually use learning to drive a car as the actual (yet metaphorical) intended skill to acquire, this becomes even clearer. It’s practically impossible for anyone to learn how to drive a car by riding in the back seat.
One reason why I think we are ok with people taking a backseat in a learning process, is because we confuse process with outcome. If the destination we are seeking is the neighboring town (in the metaphor of driving the car) or applying to college (in the actual example), it doesn’t really matter who’s driving, if what matters is the outcome. If the process is what matters, this completely changes.
It is true that the person in the back seat actually got to the neighboring town, but he probably doesn’t know how he got there, how to get back home, or how to get there again on his own. This is very obvious in the case of driving, but in education, psychology and parenting, we tend to be satisfied with getting people to the destination, whether they learned something along the way or not. We eagerly offer insight, solutions and information when the learner could have benefitted from finding such insight, solutions and information himself.
An effective learning process requires the learner to get in the driver’s seat, and the teacher to sit beside her in the passenger's seat. Very little will be learned in the back seat, and not much in the passenger's seat. In the driver’s seat, the learner can feel the responsibility of the process, and every single action and adjustment that works and doesn’t work. Yes, reaching the outcome might be slightly delayed, as the new driver doesn’t have as much experience, and will probably need to drive slower and change course along the way. But once the outcome is reached, it is likely to be more satisfying, internalized and sustainable.
For this to occur,the teacher in the passenger's seat guides the new driver through gradual and successive challenges, from simple to more difficult ones. The teacher initially directs a lot, explaining what actions to take and where to go, then gradually directs less, and eventually lets the driver drive alone.
Thus, next time we encounter a situation like this, we can ask ourselves: Is the outcome my goal or is the learning process my goal? And if the learning process is your goal… who is in the driver’s seat?