Thursday, August 28, 2008

Brain vs. Muscle

In flight instruction you just don't know what's going to work. The same thing is true in classroom instruction, but in flight instruction there is so much more intimacy. It's possible and even, I hope, likely, that in my classroom career I have said or done things that really helped students understand, but in a room with 32 faces it's easy to look at the wrong one, and miss the "Aha!" across the room.

One-on-one teaching is more satisfying. Take this evening: I was helping my 10-year-old son with his math homework, and for some reason there was something that just didn't make sense to him. I tried several explanations, really groping around trying to see what worked, and when I found something that worked his face lost that frustrated look and he actually said, "Oh! I get it!"

The difference between Math and Flying is that flying involves more muscle memory. Here are there examples from flight instruction in which I got a little lucky and said or did the right thing at the right time, and had the joy of watching someone jump the gap.




A new glider student was having a lot of trouble flying formation with the tow plane. He was overcontrolling. We made wider and wider swings behind the poor bewildered tow pilot until I would have to take over. This is not unusual. My words and demonstrations just weren't getting through, even though I thought that they were brilliant. (It doesn't matter what the teacher says, it matters what the student hears.)

Almost in desperation, I suggested that he hold the stick closer to its base. I was trying to reduce his lever arm, which might or might not stop him from overcontrolling. It did! He got into position behind the tow plane and stayed there.




A power student was struggling in the traffic pattern. He did OK when I made the radio calls, but he was getting ready to solo and I soon would not be there to help. Each time he thumbed the push-to-talk switch he would climb or descend or slow down or speed up or do something that he shouldn't have done.

This is not unusual, either. I had to find a solution. Sometimes I have done this on the ground, having the student mimic the actions in the pattern while telling a story. But that wasn't working.

He asked me to fly a pattern so he could watch. OK, I thought, but I try not to do a lot of flying while teaching. (More on this later.) So I flew a pattern.

"You key the mike with your forefinger," he said.

"I do?" I was unaware of this.

"I'm going to try that, too."

So on the next pattern he used his forefinger rather than his thumb to key the mike. Do not ask me to explain the neural pathways, or wrist physiology, or vagal response, but ... it worked! From then on his patterns were fine.




A glider transition pilot was having a devil of a time with slips. As you probably know, a slip is when you use opposite bank and rudder to make the plane fly a little sideways. This increases the drag substantially, so you can lose a lot of altitude. This is so common in gliders, where we tend to approach the landing with extra energy, that it is required on the flight test.

This student already had a power license with a tailwheel endorsement, so I knew that he had done slips before. Maybe I didn't bear down enough, thinking that this was just a matter of checking off the box before sending him for a flight test, but he just couldn't do it. I explained, I waved my hands sideways through the air, I coaxed, cajoled, and encouraged, but it just wasn't taking.

Remember: I am a blogger. I like words.

On our second session of slips, I gave up on words and said, "Do you want to see me do one?" I don't like to fly while instructing; we are there for the student to fly. In this case the student was already a pilot, so I was even more reluctant to take his flying away from him.

So we told the tow pilot to take us to pattern altitude and I took the controls and did a slip. Not even a great one, really a barely adequate slip.

"I think I've got it!" he exclaimed. We did another pattern tow and now he did a slip and did a pretty good job if it, too.




The unifying thread in these three stories is that words are not enough to teach an activity. We don't learn baseball, piano, driving with a clutch, how to draw blood, or a gazillion other physical skills by words alone. In medicine, the rule is "see one do one teach one:" the words come last, not first.

In other words, Do what I do, not what I say.

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