Didactic vs. socratic teaching

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On Facebook, I belong to the HPDE Instructors group. I like this group because nearly all of the content is nice people genuinely trying to make a positive difference in the world, in as far as improving high performance driving instruction makes the world a better place. One of the topics that has come up several times is the difference between coaching and instructing. The dictionary doesn’t make much of a distinction, but the group members do. Instructing, they say, is like lecturing or demonstrating while coaching is more active and probing. I believe most of the group thinks they are coaches. The distinction between the two types of teaching is actually very old, at least 2,500 years. Given that this is the case, I will use their proper names, and not those of the HPDE Instructors group.

  • Didactic method – Presenting information to the student with materials prepared ahead of time. Examples include books, track maps, videos, seminars, etc. In the didactic method, the student is a vessel into which knowledge is poured. Most classroom education is didactic because there is an efficient student to teacher ratio.
  • Socratic method – Challenging the student with questions about their own beliefs and experiences. Examples include asking students where and when they brake, where they are looking, how they think they can go faster, and which corners they think are most dangerous. In the socratic method, the instructor and student engage in a dialog in which the instructor provides prompts. This is relatively labor intensive as it is difficult to parallelize for multiple students.

Last week, one of the coaches wrote in with the following problem.

I’m in the middle of the toughest instructing day I’ve ever had in 15 years of doing this. My student, with trailered-car autocross experience, and go-karting experience, is driving a 2014 GTI and cannot grasp the concept of tracking the car out on exit. He says he understands what I’m telling him, but he simply won’t do it. He’s also divebombing corners with his shitty-ass HP+ pads despite agreeing wholeheartedly that we would spend the session focusing on line instead of speed. Lap 2, he’d warped his rotors. I have never not been able to get through to a student and I’m about at my wits’ end. So…tips/tricks/advice?

So what kind of advice did the group give him? Here are some ideas, some of which were mentioned several times.

  • Take him as a passenger in your car to show him the line
  • Make the student put a tire on the exit curb (even if it means going out of the way to get there)
  • Let him make mistakes if he’s not endangering others, mistakes are learning opportunities
  • Narrate every aspect of the track while he drives it
  • Tell him, “you’ve paid for the track, use all of it”
  • Warn him that if he doesn’t do as you say, he’s done for the day
  • Don’t be afraid to get out of the right seat, it’s your life
  • Give him maximum RPM and MPH limits
  • Have him draw the track on paper from memory with his eyes closed, he probably doesn’t know it
  • Slow him down and make him stare at the exit
  • Explain track-out with the string method (an imaginary string is attached to the steering wheel and throttle pedal – no throttle without unwinding)
  • Establish an end-of-braking point
  • Send him home?
  • Agree on what you’re working on before the session and if the student deviates, take them back to the pit and discuss
  • Autocrossers have a different driving style… he may be too set in his ways to change
  • OSB – other sports beckon, as in, some students aren’t worth the time
  • Trade students with another instructor
  • Smack him in the back of the head

How much of this advice is didactic vs. socratic? Or in the groups’ words, how much of the advice suggests instruction vs coaching? Drawing the track on paper from memory is definitely socratic but the rest? Not so much. For a group that is keen to provide coaching, their advice is mostly to bully the student into submission. I don’t subscribe to that way of teaching. Here’s what I wrote.

I suspect the problem is that he thinks performance driving is about mashing pedals. Two drills that might work are (1) drive some laps without using the brakes except for emergencies (2) drive some laps in 4th gear only. In both these cases, mashing pedals doesn’t make you go faster. You have to think about line and momentum. Instead of telling him what to do, you can make him figure it out by posing a different kind of problem.

I would never throw up my hands and say “other sports beckon”. One part of my job is to be a teacher, but another part is to make sure my student is having the best day of his life. I’ve had a few students who couldn’t drive for shit and didn’t improve at all from one session to the next. I can only think of one time where we didn’t have a great time, and for that I blame myself. I think the day could have turned around but he left early and I never got a chance to make up for my early impatience. It’s a learning process for the coaches too.

2 thoughts on “Didactic vs. socratic teaching

  1. This brings to mind the evolution of psychology over the last ~50 years from behaviourism to cognitive-behavioral to the current cognitive model. Behaviourism is strict stimulus-response extrapolated from rats in cages pushing levers to obtain food or avoid a shock, and it does work well as long as the system of positive and negative reinforcements remains in place. Once it is removed however, behaviour will regress to the pre-training state once the subject learns that there are no longer rewards and punishments. The cognitive model is based on the idea of ‘core beliefs’, which frequently are not supported by reality and lead the subject (patient/client/driver etc.) to make choices that are logically contrary to their stated short term and long term goals. So for example even if a driver thinks that they want to minimize their lap times, they may have a core belief that they need to maximize G-force at turn-in because it ‘feels’ faster or because of a movie they watched or video game they played ten years ago. Clinically the way to address this is to deduce core beliefs by assessing a pattern of sub-optimal decisions and then consciously replacing it with (inducting?) a new core belief that addresses the same topic in a more reason-based fashion, in this case perhaps that braking as little as possible results in the lowest lap times. (Clearly I am painting with broad strokes here, hopefully it is a useful if clumsy analogy)

    Here is a piece from another momentum-based sport: http://iceskatingresources.org/CognitiveVsBehavioristPsychology.html

    I suspect that extinction of bad habits is probably the critical element.

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    1. Super insightful. I think breaking bad habits is really critical in driving, and I’ve got a series of “Live and Unlearn” blog posts coming up that will address those. But I think there’s a difference between physical bad habits (e.g. driving one-handed) and mental bad habits, which I’ll equate with incorrect core beliefs (e.g. that one should separate braking and cornering). I’m not sure if physical or mental bad habits are easier to break. When I think of my own driving development, the physical ones have been harder.

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