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How Does the Car Know Which Way You Want to Turn?

I had an experience last night that reminded me of something I first learned from Jerry Glynn several decades ago.

I was giving a ride home to a six-year-old. As we were driving along, making several turns in a row, she asked, with some hesitation, as if she was afraid this was a stupid question:

    “How does the car know which way you want to turn?”

I proceeded to explain that the steering wheel was connected to a gear and some rods that make the wheels tilt left or right, depending on which direction you turned the steering wheel. I asked her to watch how the front wheels on other cars tilted, which she agreed was clearly visible and explained the turning behavior of cars. Mission accomplished!

But then she said:

    “No, I mean how does it know which way you’re going to turn?”

Hm, now I’m confused.

    "How does it know to make that clicking sound and blink the lights before you start turning?”

She had, apparently for much longer than just this car ride, been observing the behavior of the turn signal lights, but never noticed that the driver was flipping a lever at the same time they started flashing (probably because the signal stalk is on the left of the steering column, blocked from view).

So this poor confused child had constructed an elaborate theory of car ESP around the idea that cars have a  psychic ability to predict the driver’s intentions several seconds before they start turning the wheel. She was asking for an explanation of how this ESP system works.

Apparently no one had yet figured out what her confusion actually was. She had obviously asked the question before, and not gotten a satisfactory answer. Who knows how many times someone had explained the steering mechanism, without realizing that this was *not* the part of the system she was confused about.

The moral of the story is, students are far better than you are at figuring out new ways of misunderstanding the world. This is one reason having an experienced teacher on the team is so important when writing for students. Only they will have had contact with the enemy long enough to have built up a list of the specific confusions that come up, and how to deal with them.

Then the problem is that there’s no way you can possibly address all of them without turning the text into something ten times too long which insults the intelligence of the other 90% of the students who don’t have that particular confusion. Imagine a child—one who *has* noticed the driver flipping the lever—having an adult explain that the car is not psychic, when they were actually asking about how the rack-and-pinion gear works.

It’s a hard problem. Much better to assign an experienced, insightful teacher to each class, someone who knows the subject matter very well, but can also listen carefully and figure out what each student's unique confusion is. 

Sadly, that would require a sensible educational policy and teacher training system. This is at present impossible because the people in charge, much like my companion that day, are very confused about some aspects of how the world works and are focusing their energies on addressing many things that are not the real problem. 

Theodore Gray, June, 2016

P.S. I also explained that, by the time she could drive, cars would actually know ahead of time which way to turn, because they would be self-driving and you'd just tell them where you wanted to end up.