Does Social Constructivism have a place in flight training?

Ok, before I loose half the audience, we in aviation were way ahead of traditional education many years ago, as we fully embraced social constructivism. This was especially interesting, as traditional education had yet to consider social constructivism in a large way until the 90's, choosing instead to focus on behavioral pedagody.

Unfortunately, flight instruction evolved over the years, and in the more recent ones, to focus almost exclusively on behavioral pedagody.

So lets define some terms. Behavioral pedagodgy is pretty much what we do when we teach to the objective, namely the PTS. In the interest of safety, this is a good thing, as we have measurable objectives, and once the student achieves them, we sign them off. We apply the same throughout a pilots career with flight reviews, and advanced ratings.

Social contstructivism otoh, is more a function of students developing their own knowledge through social interaction and building. Or as some have said, social constructivism is a process as compared to a product of knowledge. Its one of the big issues with primary and secondary education, to focus on group activities, often times to the exclusion of the individuals competancy, with the intent that higher levels of learning will be achieved rather than by objective based education.

Now, for the experienced CFI, they are going to go ballistic, in that they see that social constructivism could have severe safety implications. Remember, our accident rates in general aviation have dropped significantly since the 50's, so behavioral pedagody must be working. For flight operations, and skills, it does work. It may lack somewhat in effiency, but it produces safe pilots. If by no other factor, the rote knowledge of IFR and VFR conditions make a go/no-go decision pretty explicit. However, we are now at a point where the accident rates are reaching a plateau, and the hours needed to earn a certificate have never been higher. This imho is where adding social constructivsm has an oppurtunity to increase safety, and increase efficiency. Please note, I said add, not replace. Aviation is an unforgiving arena, as is medicine. We must still stay with outcome based education, in other words the PTS. However, as an additional tool, social constructivism can foster faster learning, and provides an incredibly tool for building pilot judgement.

So lets go back to my original statement. Flight training was ahead of the world when it came to social constructivism. Namely, the hanger was flown with knowledgeable mentors. Initial students hung out at the airport, transient pilots, and others with years of experience would sit around and BS. Sure, no one really needs the BS portion, but for us older guys, we can remember back to watching others land, discussing weather conditions, and even "never again" scenarios. If we think about it a while, what will have a larger impact, a fellow pilot crabbing about loosing an alternator in an Aztec, or reading the emergency procedure in the pilots operating handbook. What would usually happen, is that a pilot would crab, someone would pull the manual, and maybe even a mechanic might jump in with some ideas. The net result, everyone from the 5 hour student, to the 5000 hour ATP who flew the Aztec learned something.

And then lets think about landings. As CFI's we know the 3 ways, wing low, crab, and combination. Most of us teach only one to our primary students. Few of us will expose them to the other methodologies not only from the standpoint of avoiding confusion, but also in the interest of safety and judgement. Now, if we are flying the hanger, we can discuss the pro's and con's of each methodology as we see them, and why we prefer and teach one method over the other. The same scenario lends itself to a multitude of other areas.

The net result, is the student is constructing a knowledge base through social interaction with others, and based upon their own personal experiences. There is nothing that hits home for the group, than for a student to bring up the wild ride he had with a fellow pilot that ran out of rudder, or blew a tire due to a bad crosswind landing. Sadly, what has happened with flight instruction, is the lack of hanger flying with knowledgeable partys. If hanger flying occurs at all, it may well be just with other students, and the net result, is that a fake reality can occur which could have a horrible effect on safety.Thus social constructivism does have a place in flight training, as an added tool for improved safety, and greater efficiency.

Unfortunately, within the flight instructor community, it is tough to implement. Since 9/11 airport security has made hanger flying more difficult, instructors have many more competing demands, and it seems fewer and fewer students hang out at the hanger anymore. Otoh, the internet has allowed its return in some ways through forums, and chat programs, yet these tools, in and of themselves, do not foster social constructivism as occured in the early days, but are at least a step in the right direction. With todays technology, it is entirely possible to go much further in an integrated approach to flight/ground training with behavioral, and social constructivist pedagody added as an additional tool. 

Additional Resources

M. Gail Jones, Laura Brader-Araje The Impact of Constructivism on Education:  Language, Discourse, and Meaning, American Communication Journal Vol 5 Issue 3 Spring 2002

Von Glasersfeld, E. (1998).  Questions and answers about radical constructivism.  In K. G Tobin (ed.), The Practice of Constructivism in Science Education. AAAS, Washington, DC.

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