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.

There are many curriculum resources in our public area for everyone (and much more for SAFE members. Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

Experience “Slow Flight” for Safety!

By Sherry Knight Rossitor. Flying since 1973, Sherry holds Airline Transport Pilot and Flight Instructor Certificates for both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. She owned and operated an aviation training business for 18 years prior to making a midlife career change to become a licensed mental health counselor. Sherry holds a master’s degree in counseling and a doctorate in psychology.

We live in an age where we are told on a daily basis that more laws, stricter regulations, and the latest technology will keep us safe from harm.  In regard to general aviation, we have more regulations and enhanced technology than ever before, but we still have a certain number of accidents every year attributed to human error.  The FAA and NTSB are asking why.  Pilots and flight instructors are asking why.  The list of possible reasons why grows longer each year, and yet, accidents still occur.
It seems that nobody wants to actually consider the possibility that “a zero accident rate” is impossible to achieve.  But that might be the case simply because of how the human mind works.  Each of us perceives safety (and conversely, danger) in our own particular way.  Some pilots have no perception of danger because they lack the knowledge and experience necessary to understand the inherent risks associated with flying.  Other pilots are aware of certain flight hazards, but believe those hazards are no threat because their airplane has the latest and greatest instruments and avionics.  Many pilots do understand the hazards of flight, but have somehow convinced themselves nothing calamitous will ever happen to them.
In 2016, pilots have a wide range of useful instrumentation and technology available to them in the cockpit, but we still have accidents.  Again, we must ask why.  I still believe it goes back to human factors, which include inadequate risk assessment skills and false feelings of competency and/or proficiency.

Basic stall avoidance and stall recovery procedures must be demonstrated, not just talked about, to improve flight safety.  Too many pilots are overly reliant on instruments and technology to keep them safe rather than a basic understanding of aerodynamics.  An angle of attack indicator may be nice to have, but it should not be the only way a pilot can detect an impending stall.  All the technology in the world can’t save a pilot from stalling the airplane if he/she doesn’t (a) recognize the wing(s) is no longer producing lift (hence, stalled) and (b) know the most basic fix, which is to reduce the wing’s angle of attack.

SherryAOAPic     As a seasoned aviation educator and licensed mental health professional, I believe our efforts to enhance flight safety need to focus on teaching risk assessment skills and “best practices” in maintaining aircraft control.  The laws of physics do not change with the installation of an angle of attack indicator or the latest Garmin.  It still takes x-number of air molecules moving over the wings (or blades) to produce lift.  Airplanes can still stall at any airspeed and any attitude.  These are proven facts, not conjecture.
I’m a strong advocate for teaching pilots about aircraft control pressures and what they mean.  How does the airplane control yoke “feel” in your hand?  Is it heavy, stable, mushy?   What is causing the controls to feel that way?  While using a trim tab to adjust control pressure is necessary for larger aircraft, a pilot still should know the conditions under which the airplane controls feel heavy or mushy and what that may mean for safety of flight.
I also believe basic stall avoidance and stall recovery procedures must be demonstrated, not just talked about, to improve flight safety.  Too many pilots are overly reliant on instruments and technology to keep them safe rather than a basic understanding of aerodynamics.  An angle of attack indicator may be nice to have, but it should not be the only way a pilot can detect an impending stall.  All the technology in the world can’t save a pilot from stalling the airplane if he/she doesn’t (a) recognize the wing(s) is no longer producing lift (hence, stalled) and (b) know the most basic fix, which is to reduce the wing’s angle of attack.  Even with all the technology available in the Airbus 330, Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing 228 people because the pilot did not recognize the airplane was in a stall.

SherrySlowFlight     While we can certainly teach safety concepts and risk assessment procedures in a classroom setting, the only way a pilot will learn how to truly recognize potential loss of control situations (requiring the implementation of those concepts and procedures) is by flying the aircraft.  This is one reason why the current debate about the FAA changing the definition of “slow flight” is so important.  The FAA’s new definition of slow flight does not allow a pilot to actually experience how the airplane reacts when flying in a potentially dangerous region of the airspeed envelope.
I believe a prudent flight instructor should not allow a student to solo who hasn’t experienced what the stall warning horn sounds like, how the airplane controls “feel” when the wings are stalled, and what the proper stall recovery procedures are. In my opinion, there is no substitution for the student actually practicing stall recovery and experiencing other simulated flight emergencies.  Reading about it or watching a video are not the same thing as actual experience.  I urge each of you to think about how you as an instructor can help ensure the safe flight of your students once you exit the cockpit.

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles and please write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We always need more input on aviation excellence or flight safety. There are many highly qualified SAFE members out there! If you are not yet a member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile fun