The Importance of Lifelong Learning

It turns out the best educators are the best learners!

You have heard this before, but it bears repeating because it is TRUE: A great teacher is committed to lifelong learning. I was reminded again of the truth of this statement on July 12 as I watched the SAFE webinar on flight instructor professionalism. Even though I’ve kept my flight instructor certificate “current” for the last 40 years, I still ended up with several pages of notes as I listened to four well-respected and highly experienced flight instructors discuss the finer points of marketing their flight training services to potential clients.

One of the things these four “seasoned” aviation educators — Greg Brown, Rod Machado, David St. George, and Russ Still – have in common is that they are continually learning and refining their teaching skills. They like to talk with other educators about teaching techniques – what works and what doesn’t work. By reading and attending aviation webinars and seminars, these professional educators stay abreast of current technology, engage in creative solutions to real world flight training problems, and learn more every day about how students learn.

Think what would have happened if Albert Einstein or Helen Keller had said, “I know everything there is to know and I don’t have to study any longer.” Yikes! Einstein would likely have never developed his formula for the theory of relativity and Helen Keller would not have gone on to author as many articles and books as she did. While Einstein and Keller are not really known for their teaching skills, they are well known for their learning skills. The point I’m making is that the best learners do not give up when the going gets tough. They keep trying to gain greater understanding of a problem or challenge they are facing.

You might have also heard more than once that “good teachers are good learners.” I believe that is also a true statement. A really good teacher wants to understand the subject matter in order to properly convey that understanding to their students. A good teacher isn’t afraid of doing research to ferret out the information he or she needs to foster understanding and mastery of a subject.

As modern day aviation educators, we have an incredible amount of information available to us almost instantly over the Internet. Just type a topic or even a question into your browser and a page of resources will pop up. If you are looking for some new lesson plans or an interesting article on stall /spin, check out SAFE’s online Resource Center [here]. There is a public side as well as a private side just for SAFE members.

An excellent article providing a good history of learning theory and a description of how people learn can be found at https://web.stanford.edu/class/ed269/inplintrochapter.pdf This article was written in 2001 by faculty from Stanford University’s School of Education.   Another article on the importance of lifelong learning for educators of all stripes can be found at www.edudemic.com/lifelong-learning-educational-mindset/ A great online book (FREE) every educator can benefit from is How People Learn. This is available either as a downloadable PDF or in html on the website.

If you are finding yourself in a funk lately or just less excited about instructing than you used to be, you might be suffering from burnout rather than lack of interest. There is nothing like learning something new about a topic you are interested in to renew your energy, motivation, and passion for teaching. If you will be at AirVenture 2017 the end of July, there are literally hundreds of workshops and presentations you can choose from on a wide range of aviation topics. Many of those workshops will be presented by SAFE members (See this page for a growing list).

Finally, set a new goal for yourself to read a few pages a day of something either aviation-related or teaching-related for the next 30 days. At the end of that time, ask yourself if you feel more energized and excited about being an aviation educator. If the answer is yes, then you know what you need to do to become a lifelong learner *AND* a great instructor.


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!

Master CFI; Every Student Is Different!

Once you discover, respect and honor these differences, your teaching becomes much more effective (and fun!)

There is a very dangerous assumption built into all our CFI instructional materials and techniques. This starts with developing the “standardized lesson plans” we are required to create for our initial CFI evaluation. If not checked, this standardization can quickly lead to the “Army Chow Line Approach to Instruction.” e.g. “This is Lesson 3, step up…here is your slow flight (blop), turns right and left and intro to stalls (ready or not!)” Everyone rolls their eyes at this analogy but our modern aviation delivery system is built on the military and is still not too different! But teaching a millennial post-doc college student aviation is completely different from coaching a young mother discovering aviation for recreational purposes. Every student requires creative instructional techniques on the part of the CFI to be effective. If you are a brand new CFI, take those lesson plans you carefully prepared for your FAA checkride and shred them (or use them for reference only).

I call the FAA approach “the myth of the blank slate” when working with new CFIs. You are never going to get to teach that “idealized lesson plan!’ One of the initial challenges of being a flight instructor “for real” is accepting this fact and being able instead to adapt rapidly, effectively and safely to each new learning situation as it evolves. Though developing a curriculum and lesson plans, for an “ideal student” has value, imposing that structure on a  unique learning environment (and person) is one of the biggest errors in flight instruction.  Creativity and adaptability are the key skills of a masterful CFI.

When you meet a new student, whether it is their first lesson or midway through a curriculum (with “history” and “issues”), it is essential to immediately discover their unique strengths, weaknesses, background and learning style in a very intentional manner. With apologies for this glib generalization, every successful student in aviation needs some combination of the “hands, head and heart” capabilities to succeed. Some people are extremely dexterous and blessed with tremendous “hand to eye coordination.” Others will require more practice to succeed. The sooner you discover these (and other) unique characteristics, the more efficient and fun the training will be.

So now when I meet a new student (at any level), I insist on some time to work out all of these issues clearly before flight. I personally would not recommend an “interview” since this formality can impose a frame which creates tension and discourages true discovery. But a casual sit down discussion allows you both to gather information and dispel myths (in both directions). This is a time to establish a common bond and make sure you find out: first, “what are your goals in aviation and what is your motivation for learning aviation?” Teaching a recreational flier to be a future airline pilot is a common (and unsuccessful) modern mistake. Second, “what are activities you enjoy and are already good at? (What psychologists call “privileged domains”) Third, “how much do you know about aviation already?” (from a parent or friend who flies?) This “naive rendition” or what they think they already know about aviation is critical. These existing impressions might be a positive (or negative) but they are the basis for all future learning.

One last essential trait you need to discover about your new client (and questions are not necessary or recommended on this one) is determining their disposition and learning style. All learner’s personalities fall somewhere along the spectrum between “OCD engineer” to “skateboard dude” (this is not a currently accepted psychological scale!) Discovering their disposition and learning style will be essential to creating an effective learning environment. Interestingly, in my experience, neither end of this personality spectrum makes a better pilot, but that is another article…fly safely!


Please join us on July 12th for a live discussion of these and other CFI issues. Rod Machado and Greg Brown are true leaders in aviation education. We will be offering actionable CFI techniques. Please register on the FAA Safety site so we know who is watching *and* we will give out some exciting prizes!


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!

CFI Pro; Teaching PIC With “Incremental Mastery”

I recently participated in a webinar with Russ Still and Nate Tennant from Gold Seal Ground Schools focusing on preparation for check rides, specifically the easier “low hanging fruit.” In the overwhelming push to prepare for a test, applicants often miss the simplest things. This webinar was great fun plus an opportunity to share valuable resources with our membership and the general public.  We will have more livestream videos coming for you in the near future. During these livestream events send your questions and input: #askgoldseal

Scenarios are Essential

Since we can’t physically transport an applicant to all the places and conditions they will encounter in their future piloting experience, during training (and testing) we have to simulate experiences with scenarios. Scenarios are a critical tool that you must train with and expect to see continuously during every evaluation. Because when a flight test is complete, one thing we have to absolutely *know* for sure; this pilot can handle or at least figure out all these situations. Also that our future pilot will have enough judgment, knowledge and integrity to know their limits and say “no” until they acquire more experience to handle advanced situations. We probably only train and test probably a minor percentage of what you will ultimately experience as a pilot. But unfortunately every failure in the real world will be an aircraft accident. In testing, the trick is extrapolating from a very small time and distance sample to all possible future flight challenges (in a couple hours).

Teaching PIC a Step at a Time…

A critical pilot skill for every flight (and pilot evaluation) is demonstrating “pilot in command” authority. A pilot flying absolutely has to “own it” in a very literal sense. If an applicant on a test is continually unsure and timidly asking permission for every operation, they have not adequately internalized this important quality. They are still tied to the apron strings of their CFI. How to foster this transformation from “student” to “person in charge” in training is difficult and requires “incremental mastery;” You cannot will this into being and it will not happen in a day.

To build “pilot in command authority” in students during my teaching, I continuously hand over each proficiently demonstrated operation to the student. As soon as they have a solid command of take-off, climb and turn, these areas are delegated entirely to their control. They will “solo to the practice area” (with no help) by lesson 3.  I make this very clear in the briefing and in the cockpit; all decisions and aircraft control are entirely their responsibility! In this way the student essentially takes over complete authority for the aircraft in a series of incremental steps. This  gives a huge motivational boost to your student throughout training; they see and feel the progress. And when the crosswind is too much or an operation is in question, I rely on the student’s judgment to say so and ask for assistance; we all need to learn our limits. Once mastery in normal operations is assured it is obviously essential to challenge our students with many creative “abnormals and emergencies” (more on the sadistic CFI later 🙂

Unfortunately, when I ran a flight school I discovered most CFIs subconsciously teach dependence on the “sage in the right seat.” Teaching the “student” to rely and depend too much on the CFI is a big mistake that will forever cripple the future pilot. Much like parenting, it is essential in flight training to continuously foster independence and allow small mistakes for clients to figure out and overcome on their own (or with minor guidance). In this manner they will be come confident masters of their aviation world. Too much micro-managing and help by the CFI results in a timid and dependent pilot. The old saw of “teaching them to fish” and not just supplying dinner applies here. Dependency is very clear during a flight test and your student will probably not be a successful candidate that day. And any mistakes during initial training are incredibly durable and difficult to overcome. Get it right in those first 50 hours!

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!