What We *Do Not* Teach…”Null Curriculum”

Educational Excellence; Board member Dr. Sherry Rossiter on Curriculum.

With the recent FAA change in how “slow flight” is to be taught and demonstrated, flight instructors have had to make some changes in their training curricula. A few weeks ago I began ground training with a new flight instructor applicant and that caused me to think about changes I needed to make in my own course syllabi due to the FAA replacing the Practical Test Standards (PTS) with the Airmen Certification Standards (ACS).

For many flight and ground instructors, the first and last time they thought seriously about curriculum development and delivery was when they were studying to pass the FAA’s Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI) knowledge exam. This is unfortunate because a well-designed curriculum is the basis for an effective transfer of knowledge. And unfortunately, the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9A) really doesn’t say much about curriculum development.

Former Stanford University professor Elliot Eisner (1985) believed that there are actually three curricula being taught simultaneously during every lesson. These curricula are called the explicit, the implicit, and the null.

All educators are familiar with the explicit curriculum. This is the authorized or official course syllabus that, if properly constructed, clearly states the course objectives, elements of study, and learning evaluation criteria. The implicit curriculum is what is actually taught by the educator and consists of the particular information presented, examples provided, stories told, and answers given to student’s questions. But, as Eisner theorized, there is a third curriculum that isn’t talked about and often not even considered. Eisner called this the null curriculum, wherein “null” refers to what has been left out of the explicit and implicit curricula.

By now you may be wondering where this discussion is going because you pride yourself on being an excellent instructor who doesn’t leave anything important out of a lesson plan or presentation. However, we are imperfect human beings with different biases, opinions, and life experiences. Generally, we do not consciously leave important information out of the curriculum or lesson, but Eisner postulates that all educators, consciously or unconsciously, may leave out certain bits of information or values discussion when teaching.

An example of null curriculum at work would be a flight lesson focused on learning to fly the traffic pattern without the flight instructor mentioning the importance of being vigilant in watching for other traffic. I’m sure you can think of many other examples, but the big question is, “Why would any professional educator leave important information out of a lesson?”

I would like to believe that when important safety information is left out of a lesson, it is done so unconsciously and likely due to the inexperience of the instructor. However, some instructors and teachers intentionally leave out certain bits of information or avoid certain discussions because they don’t want to appear negative or controversial.” Unfortunately, this leaves students with potentially false impressions that could jeopardize their safety or inhibit their decision making process in the future.

When I think back to various aviation instructors I’ve learned from over the years, the ones who stand out as truly remarkable were not the ones who only taught the explicit (i.e., written) curriculum. The ones I learned the most from were instructors who supplemented the explicit curriculum with “cautionary tales” from their own aviation experience. They had a talent for breaking down complex information into easily digested bites. They weren’t afraid to give their opinion about which airplane they liked better – high wing or low wing. They were willing to explain, and then explain again and again, if I didn’t understand the first explanation. Whether in the classroom or in the cockpit, they gave their full attention to the teaching process. These aviation educators not only provided useful information to their students, but they also explained why that information or bit of knowledge was important. In short, these instructors were very conscious of the implicit curriculum – what was actually taught through words and actions.

But what about the null curriculum? How can we as aviation educators be sure we aren’t leaving out important bits of knowledge or safety-related information in our teaching efforts? The answer is that we can’t be absolutely sure, but we definitely should spend some time thinking about each lesson we deliver and ask ourselves if there is any other information our student can benefit from knowing.

We flight instructors sometimes take for granted what would be useful information for a student or inexperienced pilot to know. For example, knowing that the engine of an airplane with a gravity fed fuel system (like a Cessna 152 or 172) may sputter and even quit in an extreme side slip in a low fuel condition could be important information for a student to know, but I don’t recall ever being told this when I was learning to fly. If I had not experienced this for myself and then talked to another pilot about that experience, I would not have learned this useful bit of information.

Sometimes instructors are not as careful with giving directions to student pilots as they should be because they assume a certain level of knowledge and/or “common sense.” I’ll never forget a scene I watched unfold at the first flight school I worked at. Another flight instructor told his new student to “crawl on up that wing and check the fuel.” Then he went back into the office for some reason, but when he returned, the student was literally up on the wing peering into the fuel tank. While it is an amusing story to tell now, it could have been a story with a very unhappy ending if she had fallen off the wing. What this flight instructor learned was that words do matter and to never assume a student understands what you said.

While it is virtually impossible to insure that each flight lesson or classroom presentation includes every possible bit of information a student is going to need to stay safe in the air, aviation educators should be aware that what they say – or don’t say – has an impact on their student’s flight safety. For this reason, careful attention should be paid to all three curricula– explicit, implicit, and null.

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