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How does a good instructor work? By making the trainee think!
Once a rider coach is at a decent personal riding standard, what really matters is not how WE ride but how the TRAINEE rides after we've trained them. And that means what we really need to improve is how we DELIVER the skills and information we want to put over to the trainee.
Continually improving how I deliver my Survival Skills advanced motorcycle riding courses is what I have always sought to achieve and in quite diverse ways. Not too long after I qualified as a CBT and DAS instructor, I registered for a course called 'Driver Education' at Middlesex University.
The course had its faults. For starters, they'd never had a bike trainer sign up before. It didn't seem to have occurred to them that motorcyclists need training too. With no-one on the teaching staff with motorcycling experience, some of the bike-specific topics I talked about might have been Greek to them. Nevertheless, the very first assignment provided me with a genuine lightbulb moment. It gave credits for a module which simply asked for an "assessment of the role of a driver trainer", or in my case, a rider coach. Perhaps foolishly, I thought this would be a relatively straightforward task.
However, sitting down and attempting to identify exactly what I was doing when I coached riders turned out to be a much more difficult task than I expected. Up to that moment I'd pretty much bought into the standard belief that to be a good rider coach my riding had to be beyond reproach, whilst an encyclopedic knowledge of 'Motorcycle Roadcraft' was needed - after all, that's what the course requirements for the RoSPA advanced instructor diploma had told me. But now I had a real problem. In fact, the experience turned out a bit of an eye-opener.
I began by trying to identify the differing roles of knowledge and skills in riding. That may sound obvious - knowledge is all about learning concepts and principles (for example, defensive riding is a concept), whilst skill refers to our ability to perform a particular action (for example, being able to pull off a decent emergency stop). But thinking about WHAT we teach got me thinking about just HOW we're delivering that teaching.
This story should help you see what I mean. I was at my very first instructor posting a few days after finishing the (very good) basic instructor training course. I was told to take an afternoon riding all the bikes we used for training, including doing some slow control to see how they handled. It was also suggested I try some practice emergency stops. The various instructor bikes (which included machines as diverse as a Hinkley Trident, a GPz500 and a BMW Funduro) were all pretty much as expected, as were the CG and SR125 training bikes.
Then I dug out the Honda Express stepthrough used for 50cc CBTs. As I lined up for my first emergency stop, I wondered why all the other instructors had stopped to watch. A moment later, I locked the front wheel. I was a sideshow because I was a replacement for the previous rookie instructor, who'd broken a shoulder falling off the Express in exactly the same circumstances.
So what had gone wrong? Have a think about this. We'd both taken exactly the same instructor training course, which used a standard 125cc motorcycle. We'd learned, then practiced, then practiced teaching, emergency stop technique on this bike. Although we'd covered the technical differences in the braking system of a scooter-style bike, we'd not specifically trained on them nor had any warnings about how to brake hard on a lightweight stepthrough with more in common with a bicycle than a motorcycle.
As soon as I locked the front brake, it became very obvious that the standard 'front brake first, more pressure to the front' rule didn't apply to a lightweight step-through moped.
What I'd been taught was 'rote learning'. I'd been taught a way of braking without any deeper understanding of how braking might differ on a different type of machine. The danger of rote learning is that we can end up being able perform a set sequence of actions in a standard situation (or recite a chunk of Roadcraft) but without that understanding we're "playing all the right notes in the right order" (to paraphrase Morecombe and Wise), but with no clue 'why' or how we might need to adapt to another situation. The only good news was that I must have been marginally better at recovering a locked front wheel than my less-fortunate colleague, because I didn't actually crash.
So why would we train by rote? Several reasons.
Simply put, it's the historical military approach to training dating from the period when it was more important that soldiers followed orders and did everything in the same way at the same time rather than thinking for themselves. From there it seems to have been by the police and their driving schools, and so on to civvie driver and rider training. If all we want is to ensure everyone does 'the right thing at the right time in the right place', it's relatively quick to get results. At basic car and bike level, where instructors are under a lot of pressure to deliver a test-ready candidate in a short time, trainers can employ this 'monkey see, monkey do' approach to get candidates up to scratch, particuarly when one trainee is struggling behind the others. I've had to do it myself on a few occasions.
But someone has to train the trainer. If the trainee instructor simply copies his or her instructor (as I did) who may well have copied the previous generation of instructor, there's a cascade effect. If you hear anyone justifying what they are teaching by saying "but we've always done it that way", there's a goodly chance you're listening to someone who learned to instruct by rote and who lacks insight.
And if 'rote teaching' is a problem, we can also experience 'rote assessment'. About the time I qualified as a CBT instructor and began using some of the teaching techniques I've mentioned in the previous post, I was putting myself through the IAM observed rides. One evening on a fun twisty road, I was pulled up for using the brakes on the approach to corners. I was told "a good rider shouldn't need to touch the brakes" and that if I was judging corners correctly, I wouldn't need to brake.
Pretty sure I HAD judged all the corners well, I turned the tables and went into question-and-answer mode. I quizzed him: "did I run into any of the corners at an inappropriate speed with the brakes still being applied, or if I had entered off-line or run wide later in the turn? My observer had to admit "no, you didn't". So then I asked: "if I didn't making these cornering errors, isn't that showing that I did read the road correctly?
"No, because you had to brake on the approach to a bend."
What I was seeing was 'rote assessment' by my observer. He was looking for 'deviations' from the way he'd been trained. As braking on the approach to a corner was something he'd been told was 'poor riding', this became a deviation from the 'Perfect Ride'. Having seen braking, it triggered his rote response about braking being a sign the corner hadn't been read correctly. What my observer wasn't seeing was that just HOW I slowed down was far less important than ensuring my speed, position, line etc were all correct as I entered the bend.
The worrying thing was that even having been led via a process of structured questions to admit I'd not made any errors on the way up to the corner, he couldn't accept that braking ahead of corner was anything other than wrong. Clearly, there was a breakdown of logical thought and a lack of deeper understanding. What he lacked was what's become known in modern training as 'insight'.
But rote assessment doesn't just throw up tail-twisting logic puzzles. If we look for 'outputs' to the riding system - that is, looking to see if the trainee is 'in the right position, at the right speed, in the right gear' - and the trainee gets it all right, does it actually tell us anything about the decisions the trainee made to get there? Was the rider applying rote learning? Was it simply luck? We don't know. We have to ask questions and find out what the trainee was thinking. This deeper understanding, this 'insight', goes far beyond watching for outputs but gets the trainee to explain why they made specific choices in particular circumstances. If my observer had had the insight into cornering technique, he might have asked me about my timing of the brakes - where I was applying them and when I was getting off them to see if I understood the issues of weight transfer, loading the tyres and so on. He might have asked me why I was braking rather than using engine braking to slow down. He would have explored MY knowledge and understanding rather than simply tell me that what I was doing was wrong because it didn't match his preconceptions. We might not have agreed, but we would have each come to a better understanding of the other's viewpoint.
So if we don't want to trainees to learn by rote, how do we achieve insight instead?
One very powerful technique is to get trainees (and trainee instructors) to discover answers for themselves. When I set off on that moped to perform my e-stop, I may have had enough knowledge to know which lever worked which brake, but what I hadn't got was any insight into how the machine itself would respond. I realised that rear-engined lightweight mopeds have braking characteristics more akin to a bicycle than a conventional motorcycle about one millisecond after the front wheel locked. Without that learning, I wouldn't have been able to pass on this necessary knowledge to my own students on their own lightweight step-through.
But as you've just seen, learning by experience is that it's risky. In the worst case, we may not survive it. So a second and much safer way to develop insight is via leading questions; that way, we're not just drawing out what is already known (which may have been learned by rote) but can guide the trainee (or trainee instructor) towards a better understanding, and even to introduce awarenes of problems that may not have considered. But to achieve this, the trainer needs that insight to understand the pros and cons of the choices available. That's the only way trainers can ask the right questions, and then go onto explain the answers and correct the trainee whenever necessary.
This kind of questioning is vital to learning, and by extension training. All too often, rote teaching can result in faulty rote learning. Having listened to rather too many trainees (newly-qualified and advanced) explain "I was told not to use the brakes in a bend" after they barrelled into a corner too fast for comfort, a short question-and-answer session often reveals that they weren't told NOT to brake, but that "a good rider shouldn't need to touch the brakes if the corner is judged correctly". Does that sound familiar?
In an idea world, we should be taught the pros and cons of braking in corners. Thinking around that issue, I realised that if training does not look beyond doing things "the right way", then that training probably won't examine riding errors - why they happen, how they happen and where they happen...
...or how to deal with them.
And it's error that kills us, not the 'Perfect Ride'. We're never so perfect that we can guarantee we'll avoid making errors. And even if we are good, we cannot prevent anyone else making errors around us.
Final point. It may seem I'm being hyper-critical of other trainers (and I have certainly been told that from time to time), but what the Middlesex course and the BTEC course I took shortly afterwards both showed me is that motorcycle instructors teach an incredibly complex topic, so it's hardly a surprise that I have come across a not-so-good trainer. What's rather more of a shock is that there are many more good and even excellent instructors in all organisations. Nevertheless, giving you a chance to understand what makes a good rider coach gives you, the potential trainee, a better chance of knowing when you've found one.
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