Left Brain, Right Seat

Previously published in MENTOR magazine by the National Association of Flight Instructors. 

When I was in the second grade, my class had to memorize multiplication tables. If you’re not familiar with these wonderful devices, they consisted of a twelve by twelve box table with each box containing every possible pair single-digit numbers to be multiplied. It was our job as seven-year-olds to memorize the products for each one of these pair of factors, in hopes that we would be able to recall these pairs when needed. While many of my fellow classmates excelled through these tables, at the time it seemed like the biggest challenge I would ever face in life. When time came to take the final test, I failed miserably. I was told to take three days to study and take the test again, which I failed a second time. Being the only kid who failed, I became increasingly discouraged about taking the test for a third time.

Up to this point, I had been studying the multiplication on my own. Approaching the third test, my parents jumped in to help me study. Somehow, I was able to memorize all of the products required to pass a few days later on my third attempt. I was ecstatic that I was able to rejoin the class. Memorizing multiplication tables helped me later on in life isn’t quite something that I can judge, but I can pull a flight lesson from my second grade year.

The repetitive action of trying and failing became very demoralizing. Many of our students today face the same challenges. When faced with a new maneuver, we teach in the best method, holding them to the most fair standards; but what do we do when our students are met with failure on the first, second, and even third attempt?

We do the same thing that my seven-year-old self did: change methods. When I wasn’t getting results by studying by myself, my parents jumped in to help me study. That change of tactic is what secured my pass on the third attempt. The same can be applied for your student who just can’t seem to grasp the way you’re teaching slow flight, steep turns, or any other maneuver. Introducing the maneuver in a scenario will help the student understand “the why.” Dissecting the maneuver into different elements could help you, the instructor, understand what the student is struggling with.

Another method is to start from scratch and follow the model that we all learned during our studies of the Fundamentals of Instruction. Instructor says, Instructor does. Student says, Instructor does. Student says, Student does. I have found much success in this model, but it must be used properly. The the most common mistake I see with using this model is that, as instructors, we find ourselves talking and explaining until our throats run dry. Using this model though, we should only be saying what we want our students to repeat while performing the maneuver. This may not be the best time to brief all of the common mistakes (you should have done that on the ground), but point them out if the student is falling into those traps.

The next method that I would consider is the Perform, Demonstrate, Guide, Enable method. This one I learned from my time in the Boy Scouts. It’s has similarities with the previous model, except we break it down into four, more detailed steps. First, Perform the maneuver to standards to show an example. Then, Demonstrate the maneuver, breaking it down into smaller actions that the student can follow along with. Guide the student by giving them directions while they attempt the maneuver. Finally, Enable the student by allowing them to perform all of the maneuver by themselves and only speaking up when necessary. This is my favorite model to teach by.

Just recently I was given the opportunity to fly with a primary student who was having difficulty learning slow flight. When I asked him to demonstrate what he knew, the student understood the general procedures to initiate slow flight, but lacked understanding of ”the why.” I could see the student struggling and slightly embarrassed. Taking a step back, I followed the previous method to re-introduce the student to slow flight. By the end of the lesson, the student’s face lit up with excitement as he held the aircraft close to a stall with less than twenty feet of altitude change. By using a different method than his primary instructor used, I was able to break through and create an understanding of the maneuver.

So, what do we do after trying all of these methods and we are out of cards to play? The unfortunate reality to face is that perhaps your student and you don’t quite work well together. People in general are as different as shades of the same color, and each student has their own learning style. Sometimes those learning styles don’t match well with the teaching styles of an instructor. After exhausting all means of instructing, it may not be a bad idea to suggest a different instructor to the student, one that may be better suited. This should always be a last resort, as switching instructors can be costly to the student and demoralizing.

The most important resource we have as flight instructors is each other. When facing an issue relaying information and techniques to my students, it’s often a good idea to reach out to fellow instructors and listen to their techniques of teaching. I have learned many great new methods from instructors both senior to myself and ones who still had the ink wet on their ticket. Each CFI brings something new to the world of flight, either through personal experimentation or experiences, and it’s important for us to communicate these new methods.

As instructors, it’s our job to exhaust every method of relaying information to our students and adapt to their learning styles. Suggesting an instructor switch should never be a first response to having difficulty with a student as it can be extremely demotivating to both you and the student. Our first reaction to reaching such a teaching block should be to go back to my second grade year, change our approach, and make a second, and third attempt until we pass.

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