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Editorial: Learning

By Ed Downs

Given our May issue, which features much of what is going on in flight training today, this writer decided to take a slightly different view on the prosses or training. Let’s take a look at the student’s contribution to training, learning. Becoming a Flight Instructor today is sort of like becoming a junior phycologist. In fact, this writer did post graduate studies in educational psychology, in addition to sitting in the right seat of a flying machine, staring at a hoobs meter for more hours than can be accurately counted. Add to that, years of ground instructing and nationwide tutoring through computers and phone contacts, and you have a person who has seen how folks learn. 

This writer has also seen a marked change in the ability of my students to learn. Yes, this could be the meanderings of an old guy who just expects students to learn fast to make the job of training easier, but it seems to be more than just that. Many of the very experienced CFI’s I work with in teaching Flight Instructor Revalidation Clinics (FIRC’s) comment that they too see changes in how leaning is taking place.

But, I am ahead of myself. What is learning? Philosophers have been working on that one ever since that first guy sat on a toilet with his chin resting on his knuckles. A quick look at Wikipedia offers some thoughts on the matter, of course knowing that everything on the web is true… right?

Learning is the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing existing, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences, which may lead to a potential change in synthesizing information, depth of the knowledge, attitude, or behavior relative to the type and range of experience.[1] The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals, plants,[2] and some machines. Progress over time tends to follow a learning curve. Learning does not happen all at once, but it builds upon and is shaped by previous knowledge. To that end, learning may be viewed as a process, rather than a collection of factual and procedural knowledge. Learning produces changes in the organism, and the changes produced are relatively permanent. 

To be sure, billions of words have been written about learning, mostly by individuals that disagree with one another. But just for the sake of discussion, and the limited knowledge of this writer, let’s go with this definition. Two portions of this definition are underlined. The first deals primarily with the psychological aspect of learning, requiring experience, time, and previous knowledge. The second underlined portion deals with the physiological aspect of learning, permanent “connections” that take place within the brain. It takes both aspects to produce learning, and that takes the utilization of all five human senses, and even a dose of that “sixth sense,” which most of us perceive as intuition. So, what does all of this have to do with flight training? Stick with me, we are getting there.

Most of the “over 40” set reading this opinion (a sizable percentage of GA demographics) will remember the early days of school, where hands-on crafts, toys you could actually hold (not just see on a screen), math tables, spelling drills, homework requiring research in a dictionary or encyclopedia, cursive writing skills, and memorization of dull, seemingly meaningless facts were all a part of learning. All of these Learning activities requied use of mutiple sensory systems, causing permenant changes in our brains. Even smell enters the picture. I bet the kids you remember the best are the ones who followed the long-standing tradition of the “weekly bath.” 

For this writer, it is the smell of an electrical fire or a ride in the Paris Metro. It had not occurred to this writer that the process of learning had changed, until a CFI in one of my classes (a middle school teacher in real life) made a truly insightful statement. This young lady said, “we do not really teach today; the kids just look things up, using their tablets or smart phones.” That one comment gave me an insight into what is happening today. The basic skills needed to simply “figure things out” are not being taught as they once were. We are becoming more dependent on devices to do our thinking for us.  “Learning” from just a screen results in only a two-dimensional view of a topic, especially limiting when operating in the four-dimensional world of flight. It is essential that a pilot have… well… sort of a four-dimensional (the fourth dimension being time) holographic picture in his/her mind of what is going on around them and what is approaching in the near future. 

The FAA simply calls that situational awareness. Many young flight instructors today learned via modern technology and are very capable of looking up data and using informational systems, but they lack the “common sense” reasoning abilities that older generations take for granted. Classes this writer teaches today no longer use sectional charts, plotters, or E-6B computers. Routes, flight planning, checklist, weather information, and much more are simply provided through use of technology. Don’t get me wrong. This writer uses and teaches these technologies but does not NEED them.  They are simply tools, some very good tools at that. The problem is that for too many pilots, the “tools” have taken the place of knowledge. Accident statistics are building and point out that such a view does not work well.

So, what is the take home. If you are a new student, view your CFI as a sports coach.  Anyone who has taken tennis or golf lessons knows that a good coach will drill you on the basic foot work, proper positions, swing methodology, and many other aspects of the sport before letting you take a whack at the ball. It takes time and practice. Flying is the same. Ask yourself, did your CFI start you out with a tablet and electronic flight bag, or perhaps a detailed lesson on operating the auto pilot? Or did that instructor start you out with a chart and a plotter, a chart supplement and a call to FSS, knowing exactly what to ask for? 

This writer recently encountered a student who proudly announced that he would not have gotten into flying if tablet programs had not been available to do all his planning for him. Candidly, I suggested he consider another hobby. These words are not simply the grumblings of an old pilot. The FAA is also questioning over use of advanced technology and automation. Accident rates have increased as stick-and-rudder flying skills have been replaced by flight management systems. It seems like technology can fool just about everybody, except the plane. Don’t be a lazy learner; become proficient with the basics and practice them, using every sense you can muster. Get that holographic image before every flight, and then fly the real thing. Oh yes, and never stop learning.



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