To Err is Essential (For Learning)!

The art of the “teachable moment” requires opportunities for self-correction and growth.

There is a critical balance of control and freedom in teaching (or learning) flying. Obviously we do not want to proceed entirely by trial and error. But on the other extreme, too structured an environment, with no breathing room for error (entirely modeling perfection), does not create efficient learning either. To achieve optimal progress, a careful balance of structure and freedom is essential. Room for errors but with protected boundaries is the goal. The art of providing this optimal environment for experimentation while maintaining safety is the critical job of the professional CFI. It requires both the confidence and skill to provide a “loose but safe” learning environment for your student. “Why did that happen, and what can we do to fix this unhappy situation” is the hallmark of an experienced educator rather than taking the controls away and lecturing.

The strongest learning situation is created when small goofs happen that result in self-correction with guided feedback from the educator. Often called “teachable moments” these experiences have been shown to be the strongest learning tool. Mistakes should be viewed as “opportunities to learn” not shameful missteps. Controlling an instructional period so tightly that nothing can drift is most often an error of the newest, way-too-nervous CFI. The looser, scenario and correction method leads to faster, more durable (and higher level) learning. I love the Jeppesen Curriculum title of “Guided Discovery” for this reason. Obviously, in critical areas of flight, or with a inexperienced or unpredictable student, to much freedom would be unwise. Discretion and educator skill/comfort in each flight regime are essential for safety.

Some other advantages of self-analysis and correction are building a more resilient pilot, capable of pushing through problems and persevering when difficulties occur (and we know they will!) Perfectionists unfortunately tend to crumble when their plans turn to mush and unanticipated circumstances wreak havoc with a flight. We need fully-functioning error-correcting pilots for safety when the fertilizer hits the fan. Also, the courageous spirit of error correction fosters a “growth mindset” of a lifetime learner, so essential in our continually evolving aviation world.

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

2 thoughts on “To Err is Essential (For Learning)!”

  1. David, you are “right on” in explaining that students can learn a great deal from making mistakes during flight training. I will never forget my dual cross country flight for my private pilot certificate wherein I forgot to convert true course to magnetic course during my flight planning. My flight instructor kept asking me after we were airborne if I knew where I was. I kept telling him I did, but I was clueless. Finally, after 45 minutes, I had to admit I was lost. When we got back on the ground, he explained what had happened, and I knew instantly that I would never make that same mistake again because I was so humiliated.

    1. Ouch!, the idea is illumination (not humiliation!) but we certainly learn best by fixing errors (and internalizing the mindset that “something can always go wrong”). A client recently left the fuel cap off the twin while soloing (fuel siphoned out and tower declared an emergency) He will never forget that final walk around again! With fall coming maybe you (or Steve) can write a blog article on “lessons from the logbook”?

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