What Learning to Drive Stick-Shift Taught Me about Learning

I could make a wall of shame with all the times I’ve tried–and failed–to learn to drive a manual transmission car. My dad’s instruction in his Ford pickup through the high school parking lot. My sister-in-law’s guidance in a church parking lot. My husband’s many attempts in varied locations through the years. Each instance ended with a loving concession that success seemed out of reach for the time being.

Until now. My husband’s recent surgery on his left foot and need to commandeer my automatic car for his commute presented me with an interesting dilemma: resign myself and my children to a homebound summer, or master stick-shift once and for all so I can use his car?

I woke up one morning last week determined to make it happen. I watched Youtube videos. I read tutorials. And I fiercely grilled my husband to understand not just the required motions, but the why behind how the clutch interacts with the gas and brakes. And then we got in his car for yet another shot at instruction.

I have now made two successful independent drives. Even while basking shamelessly in my victory of shifting from 3rd to 4th for the first time, I started reflecting on how it all connects to the learning process in general…

Growth mindset matters. While recognizing my weakness in spatial learning has provided clarity over the years regarding why I struggle with certain skills, it has also been a fixed mindset pitfall. Between this self-awareness and prior failures, I had predisposed myself to future failure. We are all prone to this kind of thinking, both for ourselves, and sometimes for our students. I believe this time was different in part because I finally acknowledged this pattern of thought. 

Students need a real reason to make it happen. Especially when something has proven particularly difficult in the past, we need to help our students discover their authentic reason to try again (and not our reason or the district’s reason in disguise).

The why matters. Another crucial difference between this and previous attempts was my pursuit of greater background knowledge. I knew that if I didn’t learn why the clutch needed to be disengaged when it did, it would continue to stump me when it came to action.

Edtech can empower individualization. I also knew that I needed to give myself the time to just quietly explore and digest instruction. The ability to play, replay, and pause video tutorials on my terms was powerful for my learning process–it allowed me to voice questions and ponder on what was trickiest for me.

Intense controlled instruction can give an inflated sense of difficulty. Empty parking lot instruction had always been necessary for safety’s sake, but the moment I was actually out driving on the streets, I realized why such conditions made manual-driving seem so impossible: the hardest tasks and concepts are extra-concentrated in a small space. Rather than having a minute or so between each stop or turn afforded by street driving, parking lot driving required me to think extra quickly/frequently about the next step.

Sometimes, learners need the space and time to put it in practice alone. After that final parking lot instruction, I decided to venture out alone. I started slowly on quieter back roads, gradually moving to busier areas to give myself more experience as I felt comfortable. It was certainly rocky, but I appreciated the real-world exposure so I could finally put all the pieces together (and put certain lingo into context, such as “sluggish engine”).

Expect variable progress, even after initial success. During my first independent drive, I did not stall the car once. During my second, I stalled almost half a dozen times. I’m sure things will continue to be up and down for a while, but I’m ok with that. I’m just glad to finally be making progress in a skill I had always wanted to master.

featured image: Patrick Machado

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Mary Wade

I taught 5th grade at a PYP International Baccalaureate school in Utah for 4 years, and am currently on extended parental leave until my kids start school. In between the roller-coaster adventures of motherhood, I enjoy educational blogging so I can stay in the loop and keep learning! Snapshot favorites: Student voice & choice. Twix bars. Global classrooms. Calvin & Hobbes. Outlandish sewing projects. Teachers learning from teachers. Modeling daring to students.

2 thoughts on “What Learning to Drive Stick-Shift Taught Me about Learning”

  1. Congratulations on persevering. That is definitely growth mindset in practice. When you were ready, the will and the teacher appeared to steer you through. It’s great to be able to analyse your own learning and see the essential ingredients for success.

    1. Thanks, Norah! It really makes me wonder how often our students are held back by their own cemented self-perceptions–and how we can help them soften their mindsets toward themselves. Glad to have the opportunity to reflect here so I can archive the memory and share it when I’m teaching again!

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