The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

I'm buried deep in the unaccustomed workload of being back at college, an investment I am making at some considerable cost to improve my own performance as an instructor.

You may recall if you are a regular visitor that I registered for a course in Driver Education at Middlesex University at the very beginning of the year, and back in September some coursework finally arrived. As usual, other jobs expanded to fit the available time and before I knew what had happened December was here, and I hadn't done much other than read through the notes. So I have hung up the riding gear until after Christmas to complete the work.

The first piece of coursework gives you credits by getting you to look at what you have learned from your work. I thought this would be a relatively straightforward task. However, when I sat down and tried to determine the knowledge and skills I a) need and b) have to teach people to ride motorcycles at all levels from basic to advanced, it turned out to be a rather more difficult task than I expected, even though for the moment I've been restricting myself to thinking about CBT and DAS - in fact it has been an eye opener in more ways than one.

The first thing that was obvious was how hard it was to settle down to a course of study after 15 years out of an academic environment. There are all sorts of distractions and only the threat of an impending deadline gave me any sense of urgency - something to bear in mind when trainees start having to take the motorcycle theory test next February.

The second was how difficult it was to actually identify and separate skill from knowledge. I know what I do, and I understand what I do - but HOW I do it is sometimes another matter. Take for instance the use of brakes. I know that in normal braking you use the front brake first, rear brake second, and I understand the reason for this is weight transfer. That is knowledge.

How I put this information across to the student involves using teaching skills. I can get them to learn by rote. I can demonstrate correct technique and what goes wrong when you do it the wrong way round. I can use the technique of offering knowledge through leading questions to draw the trainee into reaching the correct conclusion themselves. I can set a practical exercise to get them to learn and practice the technique through "hands-on" experience. Each teaching skill (or combination of skills) is appropriate in certain instances - one of the things that makes a good instructor is selecting the right one(s) in the right place.

And when you think about it there are an enormous number of skills a decent teacher has to have and to balance. Patience with control. Authority with consideration. Verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Fault recognition, fault analysis, fault correction. Organisation. Adaptability. Not to mention the ability to be able to ride the bike whilst controlling the trainee with the radio, and at the same time to anticipate not only what the traffic ahead will do but how the trainee will respond before he/she does it.

At the end of all this it should be obvious that there is much more to teaching riding skills than simply learning the Motorcycle Manual or Motorcycle Roadcraft off by heart and then reciting that back to the trainee, or riding endlessly round test routes with the trainee trailing along behind - you might as well have robots riding the bikes.

Based on my time over the last five years at a variety of training schools, the next point that struck me was the knowledge that many instructors I had dealt with never looked at themselves or at others to see what makes a good teacher, not through a lack of enthusiasm for the job - there are few more enthusiastic workers than motorcycle instructors - but simply because it had never occurred to them. There are exceptions to that rule and I saw in action several excellent instructors who had clearly gone beyond the basics, and others trying hard to improve. But it was the exception rather than the rule - "good enough" is a prevailing attitude. But it isn't - as suggested above, instructors' training techniques are usually no better than hit and miss.

The fourth point of interest was the realisation that most training schools don't teach these skills to trainee instructors and don't encourage their qualified instructors to learn them either, despite the fact that the DSA assessors at Cardington are looking for them. Suggestions that we better utilised time spent doing useless tasks like polishing already clean bikes by having a "think-tank" afternoon or that we all had access to visual and other teaching aids were poo-poo'd at one training school I worked for, one of the biggest and best organised independent schools in the country too. The only time we got together was in a panic stricken rush when our senior instructor came back from Cardington having only just scraped through the DAS assessment course.

I'm surprised that training schools don't invest more time and effort in encouraging instructors to work at their own skills. Even in a commercial environment that encourages a production line mentality as trainees are fed through from CBT to test, there is clearly a benefit to be had from having better instructors, not least in the amount of retesting necessary. But any attempt at betterment is often viewed with suspicion.

Why instructors don't seek to improve their own performance is partly a consequence of the solitary nature of our job. Once past the training stage, even at a big school, you rarely see another instructor in action. There is little cross-fertilisation of ideas, little incentive to work with others. This accounts for the large number of instructors still insisting that trainees look over the shoulder before signalling, something that the DSA dropped their insistence on several years back. It's also easy to spot instructors originally trained by CSM from the way they conduct courses - most of them still use exactly the same words, order of activities and off-road exercises.

Partly it's down to a lack of information being made available to instructors. There is no motorcycle instructor's handbook, nor are there any newsletters or feedback from the DSA apart from checktests which most instructors approach in trepidation, because they are often critical rather than constructive in approach.

Unfortunately the very culture of motorcycling discourages professionalism in training. Riders groups themselves often oppose changes in legislation that mean more training as "restrictive". Many instructors, and it has to be said, trainees too, like the "rough and ready" approach that informality brings. Although its arguable that the movement away from the Saturday morning "BMF-style turn up when you like" training to more formal intensive training courses has encouraged a lot of women in particular to take up motorcycling, motorcycle training still has a long way to go before all instructors accept new ideas. New off-road training and structured on-road exercises I devised to help trainees come to terms with steering one way whilst looking another were laughed at as a waste of time by experienced instructors who preferred unstructured training techniques - but I had very few trainees fail on observations at roundabouts. I later discovered that recent research done by the DSA into car driving has shown that structured training brings learning benefits.

Looked at in this way it's hardly a surprise there are some poor instructors about but much more of a surprise that so many good ones have managed to come up with the right skills intuitively.

The next point is that the trainees don't get nearly as much out of a course as they could. It's not that the knowledge is not there - it's simply not developed as much as it could be. Consider the complexity of what we are teaching. Driving or riding is arguably the most dangerous activity most of us will undertake, yet it's often treated in a blasé fashion by instructor and trainee alike.

It's not just mechanical skills - anyone can drive a bike round a playground after an hour's instruction - but the skills of observation, anticipation and judgement that are necessary to ride safely on the road. Many trainees arrive believing passing the test is just a formality and are not disabused of that notion by the instruction they undertake. They take
the training with a blind faith in the instructor, and many leave with a test pass believing they've learnt all they need to know. Few are encouraged to question what they learn during training.

It's partly an attitude thing - most of us believe our driving is better than average and we can't all be right - but the instructor's inability or simple failure to communicate the idea that there are skills to be learned beyond passing a relatively simple test is also at fault. This even happens at advanced level. I've had several trainees respond "but I was told not to use the brakes" as I picked them up for barrelling into corners too fast on a closed throttle. I very much doubt that's what they were told, they just never questioned what the concept of throttle sense actually meant in terms of how to deal with a corner they WERE
approaching too quickly.

In conclusion, whilst I have always tried to use feedback and experience to alter the way I teach by changing content, exercises and teaching methods I use, I've never had to think in such depth about what I am doing and the overwhelming sense I get is that motorcycle instructors teach a very complex skill and are firstly very poorly prepared and secondly very poorly supported to do it to the best of their ability.

Final point - the last few days' work has reinforced what I already knew about the teacher training course I did back in the early 80's - it was rubbish!