Category Archives: FOI / Education Psychology

How Airplanes Fly, Does anyone truly know?

So, an old friend was asking me if the article entitled “The secret to airplane flight? No one really knows” was true or not… and while the author is engaging in clickbait tactics to bring in eyeballs, there is a lot more truth in the title than not. Obviously with over 15 million flight ops handled by the FAA in 2016, and 19,601 airports in the US… it seems someone, or maybe a whole ton of people should know, but truly no one does, at least not yet.

Granted, one can look at the authors statements, as well as mine and say… its just semantics, and there is an element of truth in that too. Certainly CFD(computational fluid dynamics) is a robust science, and as a tool ,its used daily, not only in aviation, but in a multitude of applications, where it gets us pretty darn close, and in most cases, more than close enough. But bottom line, due to aerodynamics crazy level of complexity, we have chosen to characterize flight physics as contrasted with truly knowing (nicely solvable equations which work under all circumstances) what causes an airplace to fly. This could change in a heartbeat though, should someone win the millenium prize by solving the Navier-Stokes equation.

From a flight instructor point of view though, it is way more than just a semantics issue. On the one hand, the fearful student doesn’t need to hear that no one truly knows how airplanes fly (when most certainly CFD can model things to bits even though technically we still don’t truly know). On the other hand, the future aerodynamics student, shouldn’t be stuck having to relearn material that they were taught incorrectly from the get go. Its all too easy to misapply Bernouli, or Newton, or some *oddball comingling tweaking of the two and get things totally hosed up….

Alas, NASA comes to the rescue in this

Lift is the force that holds an aircraft in the air. How is lift generated? There are many explanations for the generation of lift found in encyclopedias, in basic physics textbooks, and on Web sites. Unfortunately, many of the explanations are misleading and incorrect. Theories on the generation of lift have become a source of great controversy and a topic for heated arguments for many years.

Where in NASA proceeds to go into the incorrect methods one by one.

Flightwriter goes into some nice discussions of folks mangling theories of lift…
1. “Equal Transit Time” is wrong, therefore Bernoulli is wrong,
2. “Equal Transit Time” is right,
3. Bernoulli is “just a theory” and has never been proven,
4. If Bernoulli were right, it wouldn’t be possible to fly inverted, and
5. 80% of lift comes from Bernoulli, 20% comes from Newton.

And even more so, he approaches the theories of lift very pragmatically, being careful not to hamstring a future engineering student, and at the same time, being insightful enough for the interested student pilot. Alas, the math person who wants everything neatly packaged is likely to be frustrated… Many real world phenomena, are just too complicated to know with the rigor expected in the math domain.

Shortcutting Study and Guess What Happens…

I came across the following article entitled To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test, and went egads, this is new ??? To me, one could pretty much take the experiment as presented and predict the outcome based upon the FOI. They outcomes observed are not mind blowing in the least, at least not from the point of view of a flight instructor.

Part of it no doubt, as we tend to keep ed psych at arms length, and even then, the ed psych we use tends to be anything but the latest and greatest. The other part is that our focus is to build safe pilots for life, and we tend to look at the standardized written, and even the flight and oral exams as necessary, but that they are far from the endall when it comes to our goals. Ie, no flight instructor in their right mind would be cool signing off on the 8710, if the prospective pilot were not safe, irrespective of how well they could present themselves when it came to said tests. That being said, lets roll through the experiment and see how it spins out from a flight instructors point of view.

The researchers engaged 200 college students in two experiments, assigning them to read several paragraphs about a scientific subject — how the digestive system works, for example, or the different types of vertebrate muscle tissue.

Ok, for our purposes, lets say the material is a POH or flight manual, and the focus will be on one system.

In the first experiment, the students were divided into four groups. One did nothing more than read the text for five minutes. Another studied the passage in four consecutive five-minute sessions.

Depending upon the student, a single read, or reading the material over and over again a few times may be beneficial. Then again, if this is their only exposure to the materials… the students retention a week later is likely to be about nill. Such is a short cut… it works for a bit, but it comes back with a vengeance later.

A third group engaged in “concept mapping,” in which, with the passage in front of them, they arranged information from the passage into a kind of diagram, writing details and ideas in hand-drawn bubbles and linking the bubbles in an organized way.

For some students this might be helpful to them. Note, the key fault here though… “with the passage in front of them”. Such a process might well help a student learn that a vacuum system includes a regulator, and a filter… they might even remember some of it a week later. In a lot of ways, this method is a short cut… its a whole lot easier to sort of wing ones way through things, than it for the student to go hard core and struggle through things closed book so to speak. (granted, some areas will prove troublesome to some students, and short cuts such as the above may be ok, until the student has more experience) Short cuts functioning like training wheels are not all bad, but they best be short lived, of they too will come back to bite later.

The final group took a “retrieval practice” test. Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes. Then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test.

Asking a student what happens when a vacuum filter starts to get plugged, or the difference between a dry and wet pump as a quick check before heading out to the airplane often serves to reinforce what they learned in their home study (and such an approach is about as closed book as one can get). Even more so, bringing up systems type issues through out flight training, reinforces what they are learning, and brings relevance to the materials. Such a process increases retention multifold in contrast with the other methods. A self directed students concept mapping, no matter how well done deal pales in comparison with in your face confrontation with a hypothetical system problem, or even better a real test of understanding with a failure in the sim.

A week later all four groups were given a short-answer test that assessed their ability to recall facts and draw logical conclusions based on the facts.

Yep… the practice retrieval approach proved better than the other approaches, just as the FOI would suggest it would. Reading, rereading, concept mapping ect are useful tools for learning… but experiencing a system issue which tests your understanding and ability to apply what you learned is another deal entirely. Implementing the struggle of an in your face event is really where its at education wise, all other aspects pale in comparison…. and failure early on is ok. Its fine to struggle, in a lot of ways, its even better to struggle than to think you understand when you really dont.

(In a lot of ways, such parallels my experience with pre-med organic chem students…. they flashcarded things to death, but had about zero understanding of the real principles involved. They did not want to struggle, and they needed the A’s, they needed the standardized tests… they really saw no need to understand what really was going on unlike a chem major intent on grad school.)

In fairness though, we cant very well approach every possible a/c system or other parts of aeronautical knowledge in such a fashion, especially at the PPL level, and thats ok, the certificate is a license to learn. What we do need to look out for though, is the student who does the weekend cram ground school and aces the test. We need to look out for the student who can parrot the systems manual left and right. Such students need some in your face experience time to really see if they understand and can apply their knowledge, not just parrot back “good” answers.

As flight instructors we need to continuously be evaluating, and encouraging our students learning, as well as giving them tools to help them learn. We may even advocate some short cuts to help a student through an area they are having trouble with… but we also need to be upfront that such is like a training wheel. It is not an end all.

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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Improving ground school effectiveness through improved notetaking

11% OF A LECTURE is all that first year college students typically capture in their notes, according to research.1

Hmmm, it that us the case for college students, what must it be like for the 50 year old aviation student taking a private pilot ground school. Part of the issue stems from the ability to organiza ones thoughts on paper. When the subject material is new, capturing the highpoints can be quite problematic, and before too long, ones notepad ends up looking like a big fubared mess. Even more so, is the inherrant distraction of notetaking in and of itself. In the past, it was common to provide handouts to the students before the lecture. Such notes would be completely filled in with all the relevant detail. Unfortunately, what this does, is it allows the student to be passive, rather than forcing their active involvement in the lecture.

An idea proposed by Gales2 is a compromise which provides for better student organization, and active participation The idea is a simple one, a set of key point notes at the beginning of class, for the student to fill in, followed up by a complete set of notes for the student to review at the end of class. However, such a practice is not common place, due to the resource constrants of professional educators, as noted in aeroinstructor.3

To me, this seems a golden idea, and I am definitely going to put it to use at my next ground school class. In addition, I'm going to see what sort of feedback this concept generates after trying it a session or two.


(1) Kiewra, K. A. (1985). Providing the instructor's notes: An effective addition to student notetaking. Educational Psychologist. 20. 33-39.

(2) Gales, P. (2005). Instructor-provided notes. In  B. Hoffman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Educational Technology

(3) Amundson, R. H. (2006) Why we should look at educational psychology

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Why should we look at educational psychology

Education psychology is in a continual state of flux, and unfortunately, much of it remains in the ivory tower only to be shared amongst a tiny few in the educational community. These leaves the lone CFI to rely on his own personal experinece, and the availability of preplanned curricula. Unfortunately, we often times get left behind when it comes to instructional techniques and processes to foster better efficiency in learning. Granted, our 2 year FIRCs are as a rule pretty decent, but they put a lot of focus on subject material, rather than the higher level issues of educational psychology, and often times end up a being a review of the Flight Instructions Handbook on ed psych.

The other issue is one of highly constrained resources in education. The average professional educator is often time more cost and time constrained than a freelance flight instructor or one working for a small FBO. Ok, now that the rocks have been thrown, I too will admit teaching for a total wage of $0.50/hour when all was said and done. The advantage we have, is that if we provide a better training experience, our feedback loop is small enough, that it will equate to more money in our pocket, unlike other professional educators. This hit home when a student gave me a $100 tip for his oral test prep session. Improving your educational effectiveness will affect your bottom line. Using educational psychology is one of many tools to improve your effectiveness.
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Laws of Learning

Lets take a look at the laws of learning. While this was written for flight instructors, beginning students may find it of interest as well. If both the instructor, and student are on the same page, greater communication can occur, and the instructor can tailor a lessen more appropriately. For example, if the instructor knows what is intense to a student, or if the student is not ready to learn, he will tailor his lesson plan appropriately. Otherwise, the instructor is left to his own, to try and analyze the student, and in most cases, we do a pretty good job, but can be fooled occasionally.

The other thing is that for some newbie instructors, educational psychology is something learned to pass the written exam, and then it is soon forgotten. If used effectively, it is a wonderful tool to foster increased learning on the part of your students. Since every FIRC I have taken since 1993 emphasizes it, as well as a number of grey beard instructors I have worked with, or worked for, it is best not forgotten, although for some instructors, it comes automatically.

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