Expertise is the amazing, fluid performance of a complex task. An expert makes even the most complicated task look simple – and this is super frustrating when you are a student! We all admire expertise in aviation and strive desperately to achieve that kind of performance when we are learning. Ironically, however, fluid expertise can be a huge impediment to effective teaching.
As a student in any field, you have probably encountered this phenomenon before and it points out the true art of the educational process. “What’s so hard about that, you just do x,y,z!” Someone who has mastered a complex task, but is not an experienced educator, will usually not realize the many methodical steps required to reconstruct (and teach) a complex task. There is an interesting brain trick you have to understand to become an effective educator. And it is also why an expert at something is usually a frustrating teacher; “the curse of expertise.”
When any expert achieves mastery in a complex task, such as landing, this set of nuanced cues, skills and reactions gets encoded in the brain out of sight from your conscious recall. This is called “procedural memory” or “crystallized intelligence” and it is stored in the subconscious areas of the brain; the parietal lobes and basal ganglia. The actions and the associated data in many complex tasks become so automatic after continuous rehearsal, that a master performer is not aware of the steps involved; it is essentially hidden from view. After mastering a complex task, we do not have to even think about it; performance is largely effortless! This is a gift for fluid performance but makes teaching a skill you know almost impossible without careful introspection and a whole different set of “educator skills.”
Procedural memory is a subset of implicit memory, sometimes referred to as unconscious memory or automatic memory. Implicit memory uses past experiences to remember things without thinking about them. It differs from declarative memory, or explicit memory, which consists of facts and events that can be explicitly stored and consciously recalled or “declared.”
This brain trick makes the educational process impossible for many experts. And this is also why the initial CFI can be so difficult to obtain. Teaching is a whole different process from performing. To be an effective aviation educator, it is first necessary to achieve some level of expertise in a whole set of skills. But then you also have to methodically deconstruct all these maneuvers into parts and pieces and recode this complex activity into discrete and orderly “chunks” you can transfer to a learner. Only then can you be an effective educator. Learning is certainly not “monkey see, monkey do” at the level of expertise.
The amazing psychologist who refined this process in detail for aviation was Dr. Gary Klein and it is called Cognitive Task Analysis. As fuel costs climbed in the 1970s gas crisis, he analyzed all the discrete procedural activities of fighter jet pilots. They could no longer afford to spend countless hours flying jets to acquire nuanced skills. The Air Force needed a way to efficiently capture and transfer these essential flying skills. Flight simulation technology consequently became increasingly important and effective. And the Air Force now largely uses virtual reality simulation. Dr. Gary Klein’s current passion is “ShadowBox LLC” deconstructing subject matter experts and transferring knowlege in a wide range of different fields.
One last point in this interesting comparison of educators vs performers. It is not essential in learning to find the most expert performer to be your CFI. It is much better to seek out the best educator. These are often very different skill sets and people. In addition to good pedagogical skills, empathy and compassion are essential for a good match. Fly SAFE out there (and often!)