• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


In Which an Experienced Educator Attempts to Teach Parallel Parking

It’s all about practice.

June 21, 2021

The Girl turns 17 in July, at which point she becomes eligible to take a road test and convert her learner’s permit to a provisional license. (In New Jersey, that allows 17-year-olds to drive alone, or with one other person, except late at night.) Part of the road test involves parallel parking.

I got pretty good at parallel parking in grad school, when I lived on streets that required it. But that was a long time ago. And as any educator knows, there’s a world of difference between knowing how to do something and knowing how to teach it.

With The Boy, it wasn’t too hard. He was desperate to get his license, so he drove every time he got a chance. The challenge with him was getting him to slow down. With TG, there’s a strange reticence about driving; the challenge with her is getting her to drive at all. But we live in car-based suburbia, so driving is pretty much a survival skill. And there’s only so much chauffeuring that parents can do before they just don’t want to anymore.

With only a few weeks until the road test, and with vivid memories of just how tricky parallel parking actually is, I finally managed to cajole her into trying.

We live on a relatively flat residential street where most people park in driveways, so it makes for a pretty good practice course. I put a couple of sawhorses down in front of the curb in front of the house to mark the boundaries of a parking space. She took the car on the street while I acted as the lookout, ensuring that no cars were coming. Then, the teaching began.

Verbalizing how to parallel park is like verbalizing how to tie shoelaces. It can be done, but to really get it, you have to do it. How far in front of the space do you stop? Did you remember to signal? Which way do I turn the wheel first? How hard? When do I switch directions? How do I know? Where do I look?

I could see that TG was already dangerously close to cognitive overload, at which point nothing good would happen. So I flashed back to my boot camp on how to teach writing that the Rutgers English department put me through in the ’90s before loosing me on my own sections of English 101. The workshop focused on “patterns of error,” as opposed to proofreading. That meant isolating one or two things to work on at a time, even if other things were clearly wrong. The idea was that if you throw 100 corrections at a student, the student will simply shut down. But if you focus on one or two at a time, a couple of things will happen: the items on which you focused will improve, and the student will gain confidence and fluency in the process that will show up in a reduction of other errors.

I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but it’s similar to the idea in behavioral economics about choice overload. Having to think of 30 things at once is paralyzing. Instead, pick one or two at a time and build from there. So that’s what I did. Focus first on turning. (When you’re going backward, figuring out which way to turn the wheel takes some effort.) When that gets slightly better, focus on straightening out. When that gets better, talk about signaling. As with the writing pedagogy, I could see her confidence build.

It was a cool evening after a crazy-hot day, so folks were out biking, walking their dogs or just enjoying the breeze. I was pleasantly surprised at how encouraging they all were. A pair of bikers gave her thumbs-up as they passed. A couple of people walking dogs stopped to chat, commiserating about the difficulty of parallel parking while I scritched their dogs’ ears. The general sentiment seemed to be sympathetic support, along with a general sense that the requirement seemed anachronistic. I don’t mind it, though; as long as we have street parking in downtowns, parallel parking will be necessary. And it’s clearly not intuitive.

We’ll need some more practice, but the first session accomplished the really important task of convincing her that she needs practice. That’s half the battle. When the student sees the point of what’s being taught, you’re already halfway home.

As for the fenders, and the sawhorses, well, nobody said education would be pretty.


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