Understand *Unlearning;* Critical to Teaching!

The first goal in learning any new and unique skill is unlearning. What?? Don’t educators teach people stuff (add knowledge)? A central understanding for success with adult learners, however, is that there is no “blank slate.” Adult learners come with “content” (andragogy vs pedagogy) Teaching adults is different. Every person has a preconceived notion of “how it works” – even for something as exotic as flying. To be successful, an educator has to access, understand and overwrite this original version. Unlearning (forgetting some things) is a critical step in creating new and lasting skills and knowledge.

Additionally, though some issues (driving) may be predictable, most content are is unique and must be discovered by the educator and corrected. (sounds like therapy?) Otherwise, these ideas lurk and interfere with your new (hopefully accurate) learning  – remember primacy and negative transfer? This “original/unique learner” part keeps the CFI job continually challenged.  As I passed 10K hours of dual given as a CFI, I thought I had “seen it all” but the learning for educators is a continuous process!

Unlearning as a necessary and positive learning tool is not addressed in the perfunctory FAA FOI materials or in the traditional Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is more common in modern, comprehensive learning theory. Preconceived habits/notions are very deep, and often not explicit and lurk in semi-conscious awareness. A critical example in aviation is the urge to “pull to get away from danger” – the “natural” but erroneous stall recovery urge. This seems to be almost built into our DNA. This “monkey pull” must be aggressively “unlearned” or it leads directly to the LOC-I/stall and spin accident. How do we “unlearn” this harmful script?

“Yes, learning requires focus. But, unlearning and relearning requires much more—it requires choosing courage over comfort. Brené Brown, Ph.D.

First, as educators, we must surface and understand the lurking error. It must be stated and agreed to; the elephant in the room. Then you need to overwrite the “naive rendition” with correct knowledge. This involves asking and listening first – rather than actively talking/educating. A good strategy is to have your “learner” teach you first; “how do you think this works?” Or ask specifically; “what creates lift?” OR later, “if we were stalling how can we effectively remedy this situation?”

The second step is to actively create friction with the new; a technique called cognitive dissonance in psychology. This is where the brain wakes up, shakes itself, and says “what?” And this is where the educator has a “learning opportunity” to meaningfully engage the learner and inject the correct information. The critical ingredient here is trust. People passionately embrace half-truths and love to be right. The educator must be a trusted, reliable source so the information provided is more valuable (respected) than what is already “known.” Adult learners have powerful “BS detectors”, especially when encountering scary survival situations. (see student failure to turn over controls).

Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn. In our daily lives, too many of us favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. —“Think Again”

Once there is a trusted acceptance of information, your learner must actively engage and decide: “what I originally thought I knew is wrong (I trust the instructor) let’s fix that!” This is a very active and conscious process. Obviously a bond of trust is necessary between educator and learner for this to happen. Active “unlearning” requires creating a new understanding to build correct muscle memories. This starts with something as simple as “we do not drive the plane on the ground with the yoke (steering wheel?) we use the rudder pedals!” We similarly cannot “pull away from the ground” when we are stalled” (though every student seems to come equipped with this naive rendition). A solid trusting relationship is especially important for the parts that can be potentially scary; slow flight and stalls. Again trust and a safe learning environment are critical to learner progress.

“The ability to retrieve and generate information that is wanted, relevant, and appropriate is made possible by the ability to inhibit, and thus forget, information that is unwanted, irrelevant, and inappropriate,” Benjamin C. Storm

Another critical fact is that this process of relearning requires actual physical time. This is why a three-week private pilot course absolutely cannot work well. It is neurologically impossible to myelinate new knowledge pathways and create lasting habits in that short a time. Learning to fly is a huge psychological change of how we relate to the world. Only extensive meaningful repetition can form habits (“muscle memory”) and correct behaviors.  These have to be coded in and reinforced to be repeatable for more than just a short time. There are physical changes that have to happen in the brain for enduring learning to occur. Procedure trainers and chair flying do help a lot, but there is no magic…just hard work.

In practice…every memory we retain depends upon a chain of chemical interactions that connect millions of neurons to one another…The typical human brain has trillions of these connections. When we learn something, chemicals in the brain strengthen the synapses that connect neurons. Long-term memories, built from new proteins, change those synaptic networks constantly; inevitably, some grow weaker and others, as they absorb new information, grow more powerful.  How to Unmake a Memory

It is very important that the pattern you are creating with every new learner is perfect and consistently repeated over time, with as few variations as possible. This is why “drill and repetition” beats scenario training for all early skill learning. The “discovery method” of learning has been repeatedly proven to NOT work in this area – though necessary later when the higher-level processing takes over in the flying curriculum. This is like using the correct tools for each different job.

Make sure your “learner” is an active participant in this process of rewriting latent misconceptions. Tangible progress in learning is very motivating for both students (and CFI). Fly safely out there (and often)!

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Author: David St. George

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

One thought on “Understand *Unlearning;* Critical to Teaching!”

  1. The initial process of “unlearning” is a critical step for an instructor when dealing with the learning curve involved with the flying of an aircraft. Literally every student arrives for dual instruction with at least SOME form of preconception of how to fly an airplane. The stimulus for this can be something as innocuous as old movies, listened to conversations with pilots, almost anything. Among the worst of these sources can be a new student’s pre- flying use of a desktop flight simulator.
    I will note here that I HIGHLY RECOMMEND instructors strongly discourage the use of a desktop flight simulator during the period beginning with the first hour of dual through solo. Because “flying” in a simulator using a controller requires control movement and not PRESSURE this activity can actually be counterproductive and prolong the learning process for both student and the instructor. Other than this restriction a sim has positive uses when used with CFI interface for some procedures and for instrument work.
    The reason I stress this so strongly is that using current technology a desktop simulator such as P3D or MSFS can NOT replicate the dynamic pressure on the control surfaces of the aircraft being used for dual instruction as changing airspeed, altitude (air density) and control PRESSURE required, as well as the RATE OF CHANGE due to the applied pressure due to these important factors relate to the RATE of change on the aircraft’s flight path and/or change to the aircraft in relation to stall. NOTHING available to today’s flight simulation enthusiast can accurately duplicate the “feel” on controls that is absolutely critical for a new student to experience so that a real aircraft can be flown safely. In other words it is absolutely critical that a new student learn to “feel” the aircraft being flown and this absolutely requires that all “artificial feel” believed to be pertinent to flying an aircraft be “UNLEARNED” before actual learning can commence.
    The above is simply one example of the things that have to be “unlearned” before the actual learning process can begin for a new student.
    There are of course others !
    Dudley Henriques

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