Reading One: This discussion is about teaching a teen to drive. It begins with a wonderful video a student brought to class: It is titled The Backwards Brain Bicycle. The link:
If you have trouble opening this video, you may use your browser to find it by typing in these exact words: the backwards brain bicycle.
This video is about riding a crazy bicycle, and the man who made the video does not connect it to neural development, but neural development is the key to understanding this video and to understanding what has to happen before your teen is a safe driver. There are no other readings, just viewing the video and reading my “lecture notes” attached here:
Reading Two: Dr. Barr’s lecture notes:
Procedural memory is a part of long-term memory that is responsible for knowing how to do things, also known as motor memory. As the name implies, procedural memory stores information on how to perform certain procedures, such as walking, talking, ice skating, skiing, swimming, riding a bike, and driving a car.
The interesting point is that once something is stored in procedural memory, you do not have to pay conscious thought to do those things; they have become automatic.
Procedural memory is a subset of implicit memory, sometimes referred to as unconscious memory or automatic memory. Implicit memory uses past experiences to remember things without thinking about them. It differs from declarative memory or explicit memory, which consists of facts and events that can be explicitly stored and consciously recalled or “declared”.
Examples of procedural memory: Musicians and professional athletes are said to excel, in part, because of their superior ability to form procedural memories. Procedural memory is also important in language development, as it allows a person to talk without having to give much thought to proper grammar and syntax.
The point? Once something is learned really well, it no longer is completely under conscious control. Many of the “little programs” to ride a bike (or, to drive a car) are automated and placed in a different part of the brain (probably in the “motor strip” of the brain) where they are accessed without our knowledge. That frees conscious attention from having to pay attention to so many things at once.
Adult and very experienced drivers all have automated the driving function. When someone is driving and seems to be failing to stop at the right time, have you found your “brake foot” slams down on the floor of the car? That is your auto-pilot working unconsciously for you.
In the bicycle video, the task demanded of the rider is something that is stored in procedural memory, so the bike rider begins effortlessly to ride as he always has, and falls off, over and over, for the “program” for riding the bike no longer “works.” When he finally is able to ride the crazy bike, it takes him some time to switch back when he tries to ride a normal bike again. This illustrates that riding a bike, and driving a car, are very complex “programs” that need to be automated in the brain to free up some attention for things like other cars, or squirrels in front of the car, or red lights.
Your teen is not a safe or competent driver until he or she has fully automated those skills and that takes a very long time with tons of what we call distributed practice. Distributed practice is many, many practice sessions with time between each, to consolidate learning in the brain. A student in this course last term trains helicopter pilots and rescue swimmers for the U.S. Navy. He reported that only after 1,000 flights is a “newbie” helicopter pilot considered to be a standard pilot. For those 1,000 flights the “newbie” has a crew of several pilots observing and commenting on the “newbie’s” actions all during those training flights. One of the four or five observer pilots is another “newbie.” A thousand flights!!!
Back to us and training our teens to drive: So, no radio, no phone, no other teens in the car with you and your teen, no texting, and so on, and LOTS and LOTS of practice before getting that driver’s license. You can now see that a few lessons at a driving school and a few more at high school cannot possibly “automate” the driving functions for your teen so that your teen can free enough attention to be a really safe driver.
Teaching your teen to drive: Learning to drive is an example of developing procedural memory. You have to give your teen enough experience that driving ability becomes automated in the brain. Until that happens, your teen is not a safe driver. This is one of the most serious responsibilities you have to your adolescent. A few driving lessons at school or at a driving school will not suffice to make a safe driver in urban traffic. To go to work in California I exited a freeway at a point where there were eleven lanes of traffic in a single direction! How can one help their teen become capable of handling this challenge skillfully?
Teaching my own teens to drive: Here was what I did to teach my kids to drive in California. From the day the our kids got their learner’s permit, they drove 30 to 45 minutes every single morning under my supervision, before school, every single day, for a whole year. (365 training “flights!) Toward the end of the year my son drove us from San Francisco to the Sierras in snow on a ski trip. Toward the end of her year of training, our daughter drove us from San Francisco to Los Angeles. They both had driven in San Francisco with rain, steep hills, and cable cars in the way. They have driven across the Golden Gate Bridge, and inside multilevel parking garages (those were the very worst!).
By the way, we did no night driving until after they had their licenses. It just seemed to be too many things just to get the basics in broad daylight.
We began in empty shopping center parking lots, where there is lots of room and space to learn to steer and run the controls of the car. Then we began to go around the shopping mall, learning to stop and look both ways and use turn signals. Then, to very quiet, flat streets. Then to streets with hills. Then to a highway that had two lanes. And, then to neighborhood streets. And, then, to freeways. Finally, defensive driving on freeways. All this took one year, 365 trips before school in the morning.
My parents: what they did to teach me to drive in the late 1950s? They let me drive in forward and in reverse down our long driveway. a few times. That was all! It was many years before I became comfortable with driving and, I am sure, before I became a safe and confident driver. I never felt comfortable driving, but never had an accident. However, I did back up and take out the neighbor’s mailbox!
This is an example of a parental responsibility to your own teen. Do not wait to punish or ground your teen when he or she has an accident. Instead, recognize your own responsibility and help ensure your teen becomes a safe and confident driver.
Teaching a teen to drive is a real challenge to all adults! If you are nervous or become annoyed, find another relative or friend who can be calm and very positive and supportive. There never should be an argument during the lesson. Learning to drive and becoming a skilled driver is a very happy and positive goal already for a teen and good and kindly teaching has many opportunities for praise and laughter between the teacher and the student when they have a warm and respectful relationship.
(2) Last term a student emailed that he just had Driver’s Ed at school and then a few lessons and got his license and didn’t need to have that whole year of practice and he and his friends are fine! How could I explain that I was driving to work with 11 lanes of traffic in ONE direction in urban California, and he was a resident of a rural area on the East Coast. It is not necessary to take this much time and effort to protect your teen, but I felt it was worth it, just as the Navy Rescue Swimmer/Helicopter Pilot trainer felt 1,000 hours of practice with supervision is needed to make a properly trained pilot.
Guiding questions for this discussion:
- What is procedural memory and how is it related to learning to drive?
- How does automating a function like driving a car enable a person to be a better driver? Please explain how the brain helps you drive. Hint: Discuss attention and the limits to attention!!!
- Why does Dr. Barr call learning to drive a parental responsibility and not a teen responsibility?