Steer With the Skid

When you learn to drive in Canada, one of the most important lessons is what to do when your car enters into a skid. It’s not a question of “if” really. In Canada, it’s definitely “when”. Usually it will happen in your first winter of driving, so you’d better be prepared. The technique is to steer with the skid. It means that you have to fight your natural urge to steer in the direction you’d like for your car to go, and instead actually aim your wheels right at that concrete median your car has suddenly decided to crash into. Then, once you and your car agree on the direction you want to go, you gently steer the car away from disaster. It works, and in fact it’s the only way to handle the situation, except perhaps throwing open your car door and launching yourself out onto the pavement.

The physics behind why it works are fairly straightforward. When you enter into a skid your car has momentum which is carrying it in a direction that is usually not conducive to healthy living, and there’s nothing you can do about it because the friction between your wheels and the road has suddenly been reduced significantly by ice, water, gravel or some other non frictiony substance. This means that gross corrections where your wheels are pointed at an extreme angle to the skid won’t work, because the momentum of the car is overcoming the minimal friction at the wheels. So by pointing the wheels in the direction of the skid you force the momentum to cooperate with your goal of non-disaster, and then make relative small corrections which work because the little bit of friction you do still have is only slightly off from the massive momentum. Baby steps of correction eventually get you out of trouble. And it happens pretty quickly, as anyone who has ever done it can attest to. When you don’t understand the physics, it almost seems like magic.

The reason it has to be taught though, is because it’s so counter-intuitive. Aiming in the wrong direction so that you can go the right way feels like slowing down so that you can speed up. As it turns out, this driving lesson is actually an incredibly important life lesson as well. It shows up in so many ways. I’ll illustrate with a few examples of skids.

Skid 1: The Determined Daughter

Imagine this scenario. It’s 5 minutes before you have to leave the house to walk your daughter to school, and she is insisting that she does not want to wear a jacket. The problem though, is that you happen to know it’s 3° Celsius outside. If your daughter is anything like mine and she has her heart set on not wearing a jacket then you have 5 minutes to fight and win World War III. Good luck. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a bona fide skid. Your car is careening into two kinds of barriers. Frostbitten Child and Late Slip. Solution? Steer with the skid. Instead of fighting the momentum, agree that she does not need a jacket, but bring it with you and leave. If you really want to be fancy, don’t wear yours either. You carry hers and she can carry yours. Or you carry them both — it’s not really important. Once again if your daughter is anything like mine she will have a true aversion to discomfort, which is something she’ll start to feel within about 20 steps. She’ll ask for the jacket. If you didn’t wear yours, you can ask her for yours before she asks for hers. That will make it okay for her to ask for her own and still save face. Skid averted. No frostbite and no late slip.

Skid 2: The Quadratic Quandary

Here’s another scenario that I often encounter at school. Let’s say I’m helping a student solve a quadratic equation (apologies for this if you don’t know what that is — feel free to skip this part). Take this one for example:

x² − 5x − 14 = 0

If you’re a math teacher you know that a goodly portion of students unused to solving quadratics are going to try and isolate the variable the nice old fashioned way. You also know that it won’t work – totally destined to fail. You might be tempted to intervene before they try, and suggest a different method, but if you do then in the back of their mind they’ll always be wondering why not just isolate.

The best strategy pedagogically is to let the student try it. Agree that isolating the variable is a good plan. Help them with the operations – steer with the skid. As you work with them to isolate the variable generally this will happen:

x² − 5x = 14

At which point you can have a very valuable discussion about why we are stuck. The student may try some fancy footwork here, but thanks to you being on their side, you can navigate it with them and they’ll see that there’s nowhere to go. Then you can gently steer them toward other options. What do we know we can do with quadratic expressions? Factor them. So what? Let’s find out. I won’t get into the actual solution here, because it’s not important right now and in any case if you were following until now I’m fairly confident you can finish up. But for those who need to know, the solution is x = 7 or x = −2.

Skid 3: The Perturbed Parent

Once more this scenario is one I encounter as a teacher, but in fact it generalizes to any customer service industry. I actually really learned this well in my previous life as a software engineer when I would spend quite a bit of time on the phone with our users who would call when they were struggling with our software. Readers who are teachers will understand this situation pretty well. It goes like this:

Hanz is a student in your class who has written a math test for you and earned a fairly low grade – say, 54%. Hanz has plans to go to university (or college if you’re American – here in Canada college doesn’t mean quite what it does in the States) to become a doctor. Hanz needs a high school average of 91% to get into medical school. Thus the 54% on your test is a somewhat sub-optimal result. The next day you get a call from Hanz’s father, Franz. Franz opens the conversation by informing you that he is a lawyer, and that he has a real issue with the mark you gave Hanz on the test. Franz tells you that Hanz is extremely gifted in math and has always earned grades in the 90’s until your class. Hanz worked extremely hard preparing for the test and his tutor guaranteed that he was ready to ace it. Franz concludes that the whole mess is therefore your fault, because you are an unfair marker, a bad teacher, a horrible human being and quite possibly a chronic hater of children. Franz insists that you raise Hanz’s mark so that it is consistent with Hanz’s abilities and also consistent with his goal to become a neurosurgeon.

At this point it is incredibly tempting to get defensive, or be offensive. After all, Attorney Franz has attacked your professionalism (unfair marker, bad teacher) and your motivation for being a teacher (child-hater). Furthermore, if you know Hanz you know that “gifted” and “math” are not two words that you would put together in a sentence describing him, unless you could liberally sprinkle said sentence with the words “extremely” and “not”. However there is nothing to be gained by this response. All it will do is exacerbate the situation.

Instead, steer with the skid.

First, tell Franz that you understand why he’s upset. In fact you are upset by the grade as well – who wouldn’t be? Ask him about the hard work Hanz put in to prepare. Commiserate with Franz about the difficulties of watching young people work so hard and then not have it pay off. I am not being facetious here, and neither should you be in a situation like this. Put yourself in Franz’s shoes. Hanz worked hard, and hard work is supposed to equate with success. So why didn’t it? You and Franz can discuss this question. You can provide Franz with some questions to ask the tutor about the work he does with Hanz. You can recommend that Hanz come and see you to go over the test to see where the disconnect was. After all, since Hanz is so talented in math, there must have been a disconnect. When Franz sees that you have no intention of fighting him, his momentum joins yours and you can then steer him in the direction he needs to go, which is ultimately to realize that you did not “give” Hanz his mark – Hanz earned it. And getting to the bottom of why he earned a mark as low as he did is what you both want so that you can both help Hanz. This will ultimately help Franz see that it is Hanz who was at fault, and will also eliminate the need to address some of the more insulting parts of Franz’s opening tirade. It is entirely possible that during the conversation Franz will admit that the “marks in the 90’s” comment was not completely true, and referred to 2 quizzes Hanz wrote when he was in the 3rd grade. By the end of the conversation, Franz will know that you are on his and Hanz’s side, and that the energy of all three people is channeled in the same direction – not the direction of the skid anymore!

There are countless other scenarios I can come up with, all of which I have experienced personally (no, I never taught anyone named Hanz …), but the theme is always the same. A situation arises and the temptation is to fight against it, but fighting only escalates the problem. The solution is counter-instinctive and often requires strong self-control but pays huge dividends. Leverage the momentum of the skid for a quick and successful course correction.

Works in cars, works in life. Steer with the skid.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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