“Metacognitive” Teaching; Mastery and Expertise

Achieving expertise in piloting requires so many diverse skills and aptitudes it almost defies explanation. In aviation, we point to experts like Sully or Al Haynes (pick your favorite) to model expertise, but we are often frustrated trying to recreate these remarkable attributes in our students. Dr. Gary Kline, an amazing learning psychologist, has patiently deconstructed expert performance with “Cognitive Task Analysis.” Unfortunately, even having a “box of parts” only gives us hints and does not tell you how to reliably recreate pilot mastery and expertise.

The core question (and responsibility) for educators is not the expert end product as much as providing the pathway and inspiration – “How do we embed an urge for excellence in our pilots during training?” Viewed negatively, how do we prevent the “happy D- student” that inevitably also becomes a pilot for life and infects our aviation system (perhaps flying a personal jet over your house as you read this?) This endless enigma is the primary source of frustration for educators and safety researchers. This often leads to disillusionment and burn-out as history repeats itself. There is however a very clear solution to this problem and a toolkit for pilot success.

As I have written before, the FAA standards never describe (or require) “mastery” or “expertise.” They only tell us when “mediocre” becomes “unacceptable” and more training is required (to achieve the minimum piloting level). Unless there is an internal “urge for excellence” within every pilot,  there is no necessary upward skill trajectory after a “pathetic certification.” Nothing prevents (or improves) “the happy D-” performer in our current aviation system. I know many good pilots who are surprised (and frustrated) to discover the same low-performers they met during initial flight school sitting next to them when they finally get into jets; the “happy D-” often never improves.

The real secret to inspiring excellence in pilots starts by creating a “self-aware learner” beginning with the very first flight lesson. Until a person is aware of what they do NOT know, there is no pathway or motivation for improvement and the personal pursuit of excellence. It is incumbent upon every educator to share the bigger picture regularly and create this pathway toward success.  Critical habits like self-questioning and self-efficacy build the “urge for excellence” that always strives for better and builds a margin of skill and safety. A desire for mastery also creates personal responsibility for being better (no more excuses) and ultimately leads to “command authority” (a rare attribute in modern culture).

The global term for all this self-awareness/efficacy is “metacognition.” Literally “thinking about thinking,” metacognition represents a whole arsenal of higher-order thinking tools for self-control and regulation. Some researchers have described it as the “view from the balcony” or the “angel on your shoulder” because it allows escape from the immediate demands of a task and provides a bigger picture. Metacognition creates both more effective learning and the drive for excellence that yields lifetime learners. It is also a critical part of situational awareness and the beating heart of mastery and expertise.

The specific pathway to “expert pilot” starts with incremental mastery. This technique requires recognizing every small learning achievement immediately; “you got that, you did a great job, and now you are in charge of that!” The instructor hands over of responsibility to the student a step at a time, creating a sense of mastery from day one. This sustains student motivation and builds that essential urge for excellence.

As CFIs we are all guilty of “helping too much.” We all know a good CFI should mostly be asking questions, not answering them. The CFI that takes total control from the right seat quickly spoils any sense of student accomplishment and mastery. And this rigid learning environment also prevents any student errors and self-correction (both critical to learning and self-mastery). Ultimately, too much control by a CFI ruins motivation and learning. This student could easily become part of the 80% drop-out rate in aviation (for good reason). It’s critical to remember the ultimate CFI goal is to safely get out! Once a student sees the bigger picture and feels empowered, they are on the road to becoming an inspired lifetime learner and PIC. This all starts on day one (but requires time and great patience from the CFI).

Some students are obviously quicker to embrace personal responsibility than others. Transferring PIC authority can take more time for some; so it helps to be patient and keep the learning fun. Eventually, every successful pilot must achieve “self-efficacy” and “command authority” or they will never be a successful PIC. This essential core skill (at every pilot level) also involves the metacognitive skill of knowing personal limitations and accepting the need to continually improve. Expert pilots have a core of humility and a burning inner need to learn more and improve. The problem with the “happy D-” pilots is the mistaken illusion they are “good to go.” They are writing checks on an empty bank account. This ignorance coupled with larger ego and narcissistic tendencies is the definition of the well-known Dunning-Kreuger Effect.

As a pilot progresses with expertise, procedural knowledge becomes deeply embedded and constantly available in the “tacit dimension” of the brain for immediate and fluid recall. Beyond this “subconscious hard-drive” of reflexive skill response, a true expert is operating on the reflective level with metacognitive accuity. The spare RAM freed by total proficiency allows an expert to see meaning and detail in every activity often inaccessible to a novice. Dr. Gary Klein has been studying and teaching expert flight performance since first working with Air Force fighter pilots in the 1970s.

Novices see only what is there; experts see what is not there. With experience, a person gains the ability to visualize how a situation developed and to imagine how it is going to turn out…Our emphasis is not on rules, or strategies, or the size of knowledge base per se, but the perceptual and cognitive qualities of experience – experts do not seem to perceive the same world that other people do…Only with experience can you notice when the expectancies are violated, when something that was supposed to happen did not. And only with experience can you acquire the perceptual skills to make fine discriminations.

Unlike what most people believe, everyday perception is not a camera of the “outside world.” What we perceive and mentally organize into our “reality” is guided largely by our personal past experiences, memory, and emotions. What we see/hear/feel in every experience is what psychologists call “predictive perception,” a blend of what we know, expect and filtered input from our senses. It is very true that we “see what we want to see.” And this leads to “motivated reasoning” which is behind the very true phrase “to a hammer everything looks like a nail.”

Since we construct our world based on personal past experiences, every instructor must understand and accommodate this fact during every flight lesson (this is a personal relationship with CFI as a “compassionate coach”). Until your pilot-in-training has any relevant experience, context and frame of reference, they will not even see what you are seeing– the humorous phrase “dog watching television” is true here. The primary function of a CFI, beyond assuring safety, is to pre-load and guide perceptions creating insights and meaning. Until context and meaning are available, what you see as a CFI does not even exist for your student (and if you scare them at all their processing shuts down). This is how an experienced CFI knows a mile from pattern entry that the student will overshoot the landing; the cues are there, but a pilot-in-training is missing them all. Pointed questions can illuminate these important cues to create the important metacognitive questioning; “am I high or low, fast or slow?”

Perceptual overload happens at all levels of flight instruction and in every new context. The first time taking off in a jet, the experience is so new and fast, that every new pilot is literally a mile behind the machine missing every cue. The tow first time in a glider is similarly overwhelming. The more carefully the educator guides the perceptions and builds a meaningful frame of reference, the faster learning and proficiency will develop. The”startle response” has the two-fold effect of diminishing the cognitive abilities with fear while simultaneously presenting an unfamiliar perceptual problem to decode. Only having a preloaded (automatic) UPRT response to upset will save the day.

Lifetime learning in aviation is a continuum of acquiring, building, and refining the necessary mental library of experience and procedural skills. This process leads first to competence, then mastery and finally expertise. Once you have achieved a level of expertise, there is an additional empyrean 5th level of “reflective competence” or “artful flying” where the total function is fluid and almost magical.  I highly recommend the book Artful Flying by Cpt. Michael Maya Charles. Unfortunately, an alternate path is also possible at the fifth level of “knowing it all” which leads to directly to complacency and an ironic diminishing of skills with more hours (the “been there, done that” EZ-PZ attitude). Let’s not go there! Keep it fun and artful.

Future articles will offer tips and tools for accelerating learning and achieving expertise. There are well-documented tools available, but unfortunately not common in our aviation world. Fly safe out there and have fun.


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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently flying 135 charter (again)

3 thoughts on ““Metacognitive” Teaching; Mastery and Expertise”

  1. David – What an excellent and enjoyable article. I see the truth in everything you said…… except for the part about the dog watching television. My wife Madeleine and I board dogs in our home and have a few of our own as well. One of these is a Rhodesian Ridge-back named Bailey. One of our guest dogs is another Ridge-back of almost identical size, except Leo has no ridge. Leo watches TV intently. When he sees a dog on the screen, he barks and goes into the room behind the TV screen to find the dog. Leo also will not tolerate any type of swimming pool maintenance. Oh yeah, one other thing; as you point out, the new student has no frame of reference. As we know, wrong language, incorrectly demonstrated maneuvers, and incorrect emphasis inside the airplane rather than outside, all flow into this fertile mind like water into a sponge. Thus my eternal frustration with the lack of strong emphasis requiring the CFI applicant to demonstrate correct attitude based instruction in every phase of flight and during every maneuver. If this core skill were tested critically and as a pass/fail item on the CFI practical test, many of the issues you discuss in your excellent blog posts would fade from existence. I will be forever disappointed that the folks who work for the FAA writing the ACS will not use this opportunity to make a real change in the CFI testing standard.
    Thanks again for the great post David, and for all your hard work on behalf of us all.

  2. This is an excellent article and the very thing I have been saying, teaching, and trying to get major university aviation and fight schools to comprehend. Achieving ACS standard is mediocre and a D-. I plan to join S.A.F.E.

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